I’d like to share some information about, as well as a practical technique for dealing with, stress. I learned these recently from Marydee Sklar who has developed a terrific program for executive functioning success called “Seeing My Time.” I’m presently taking that course from her, and you can read more about it on our home page, freetobecoaching.com. (Around the first of the year 2016 I will begin offering “Seeing My Time” classes in Warrenton, Virginia.)
Let’s start with looking at one way our brains function. Please just keep in mind that I am a layperson, not a neuroscientist!
You probably know about the fight, flight, or freeze response we humans have when our brains perceive a threat. The response starts in the amygdala in our brains. We feel a sudden inability to think clearly. We react to the perceived threat without thinking. We lash out (fight), run away (flee), or are unable to move (freeze).
That response is largely automatic and unconscious. It worked well when human beings needed to escape wild animals, and it works well now in truly life-threatening situation.
However, nowadays most of us have that type of response to threats of a different sort, perhaps a job performance review or a test grade or a disagreement with our children. Many people have higher than healthy levels of stress all the time due to constant perceived level of threat. It begins to feel normal to be on edge, but it’s not really healthy and there is something you can do about it.
Here’s what is happening physiologically: when our brains perceive threats, the stress hormone cortisol is released. Our brains are flooded with it. This prevents the neurotransmitters from functioning in the thinking portions of our brains. The inability to think has its purpose. It’s good not to stop and think when you find your house is burning, but if you feel a strong reaction to your child’s behavior you might want to be able to pause long enough to think rationally rather than react impulsively.
Unfortunately it seems that for 90 seconds after cortisol is released, you can’t access the thinking portion of your brain. It is offline until the cortisol dissipates. You don’t just feel like you can’t think in such a moment. You really can’t think. Your rational processes are down for the 90 second count.
So, one thing we might be helped by knowing is that if we don’t have another stressful thought or incident during those 90 seconds, once that time has passed we’ll be able to think again. So it would be good to create a situation that allows us to wait out the 90 seconds without experiencing a second or third threat.
Here’s one idea Marydee shared. When you are about to lose control because of some thought or other stimulus, first you must notice that is happening. Then, lace your fingers together and put them behind your neck. Pull your elbows back as far as you can, arch your back to open your lungs, and take several very deep breaths. It’s also good to notice your body. Feel your contact with the earth, your feet on solid ground.
Once the 90 seconds have passed, the effect of the initial cortisol is gone. You are back in control of your thoughts, so long as you don’t let yourself think another stressful thought that would re-stimulate your brain to another “amygdala hijacking.”
You might need to do some experimenting to see what will best keep you from recreating stressful thoughts. You may know some pleasant thoughts that have a powerful effect on you. You may want to continue mindful breathing. Some of us have potentially stressful moments every day, so there are lots of opportunities to practice first dealing with the initial cortisol rush for 90 seconds, and then avoiding re-stressing, re-stimulating a further release of cortisol.
Try this and let me know how it works — or share techniques that work for you in relieving stress.