If you are like most people you are under stress—stress at work, stress at home, stressed by finances, relationships, lack of time—stress is everywhere. It’s something that has become a normal part of life we probably don’t consider it a serious health problem. But it is.
When we are stressed there is a cascade of stress hormones that surge through your body and your brain, and if this continues for any length of time (and many of us are in a state of chronic stress) these stress hormones will damage your brain. When you are stressed your “smart brain” (the prefrontal cortex) is dumbed down, even taken “off line” sometimes, and we are unable to make smart decisions and have the cognitive capacity we need. You know the feeling—you’ve been so stressed that your memory isn’t working well, you’re not thinking straight “I’m so stressed I didn’t remember the meeting today,” you lament. Additionally these stress hormones limit your smart brain from new learning and creativity.
Not only does your smart brain suffer a partial shut down, but your emotional brain is on overdrive—it’s sending out stress hormones to try to help us with whatever the stressful situation is, but those very chemicals are destroying vital cells in the “thermostat” that regulates the release of those chemicals. As chronic stress bombards your thermostat it becomes disabled and it becomes more difficult to stop the stress response cycle.
In the rest of your body stress is harming your physical health as well. Your immune system is taking a hit, as well as your heart and even right down to the chromosomes within your cells! Stress is closely related to heart diseases, strokes, cancer, diabetes, and a multitude of other ailments. Chronic stress is killing us!
One of the problems with stress today is that people feel helpless to do anything about it—it’s a kind of learned helplessness—we can’t escape it and hope is lost that there can be anything different for us. But we can do something about it.
The very first step (and there are lots of strategies and techniques that can empower you to combat stress) is to change your mind. Attitude, or your perception of things, is key to reducing stress in your life. Our brain is remarkably changeable—we can change the automatic ways we think about things, including the stuff that stresses us out.
The first thing to do is make a habit of not taking your negative, stressed out, thoughts too seriously. Yes, something stressful is happening, maybe your kids are driving you crazy, maybe your boss is too demanding, but the way your brain processes those things can be different from a stress response.
Let’s imagine for a moment that your flight has just been delayed and now you’ll be late for that very important meeting—stressful right? Well you could start to imagine all sorts of worst case scenarios because you are late, start cursing the airline, send frantic text messages to anyone who would care, and so on. You could get into a state of stress. You might think that’s legitimate—I mean, why wouldn’t you be stressed?
The stress response, however, is designed to keep us safe when we are under threat, so we can run away or fight, or even play dead. But being stuck at the airport is a bit different than stepping on a snake, or having to jump out of the way of an oncoming car—in which cases you want a fast and strong stress response to keep you safe! At the airport, stress hormones surging through your body will only make the situation worse because you won’t think straight. If you try to run, fight, or play dead at the airport, not only will it not help you situation, but security will ensure you leave the airport!
So how do you re-frame the situation? You could tell your self that the people waiting for you at the other end will understand—it’s totally out of your control, it’s not your fault the aircraft is delayed. You also have extra time, maybe to further prepare for the now delayed meeting—who knows you may come up with some new ideas now you have more time. You can practice being in the moment (the moment of space now at the airport, with a fresh cup of coffee and some rare space that you never get otherwise) and appreciating “right now” rather than living in your imagination of the future, full of fears of what might, or might not, happen.
Yes it’s easier said than done. But that’s only because focusing on the now, the present moment, is so alien to most of us. The more we practice it the easier it becomes. We can rewire the part of our brain that’s good at focused attention of the moment and become more detached from the self-created fears of what might happen. What if you spent half an hour totally stressed out about being late for the meeting, but when you eventually called the boss he says “Oh that’s OK, James is also delayed so we’re pushing the whole thing back until you both arrive—don’t stress!” Wow! You’ve been putting your health at risk based on an imagination of the worst case scenario. But even if the boss is angry and tells you to not even bother flying in now, what would the stress hormones be doing for you? Not much, apart from hurting you.
For the most part stress is unnecessary. Most of our worries don’t materialize and are exaggerations or pure fabrications of a vivid imagination. The stress response is about saving you from danger. Are you in danger or are the circumstances just not what you would like at the moment? Re-frame what’s going on in your mind and put things in a different perspective—the delayed flight becomes an opportunity, not a life threatening disaster.