We’ve known for a long time that prolonged periods of stress and uncertainty produce certain results in us as humans, but seldom in recent history have we seen so many people succumbing to those effects. The underlying process is worth identifying, and it’s also worth reminding ourselves of some of the basics of self-management.
While we have evolved into complex beings, we didn’t start off that way. There are parts of our brains that belong to our original programming (the MS-DOS version) that are still very relevant and active today. The very oldest part of our brain, known as our reptilian brain, is responsible for our vital functions (keeping our heart beating, and us breathing in and out), and our instincts. This is the part of our brain that is responsible for our fight or flight response, and for activating the physiological cascade required to enact that response.
Here’s why this is important to understand right now:
We all have an ego. Our ego is not the sum of us, only a part of us, and it has one job – to protect us when it thinks we’re under threat. Our ego is connected to that reptilian part of our brain, also referred to as the caveman brain, and it hasn’t updated itself much in millennia. Our original fight or flight reflex is designed to get us out of danger when someone arrives unexpectedly at the door to our cave, or when we round the corner to find ourselves facing a sabre-toothed tiger. When that happens, our caveman (reptilian) brain activates a physiological response to help us cope with the physical choice of staying to fight or running away. It releases certain hormones into our system, two of which are adrenaline and cortisol (otherwise known as the stress hormone). These hormones prep us instantly to activate our physical choice. Specifically, they dilate our blood vessels so that more blood can flow; they increase our heart rate to pump more blood and increase our breathing to oxygenate that blood. They divert blood away from less necessary functions (digestion, immune system) and pump it to our muscles so that we can take flight, or fight for our life.
There are a few snags with this system that require some management in our modern world:
1. Our ego doesn’t know the difference between a sabre-toothed tiger and a shouty email.
If you haven’t already made your own discovery of this, our ego isn’t the most advanced-thinking part of us. Like I mentioned, it has one job – to protect us. If you’ve ever allowed your ego to speak for you, you’ll know the consequences generally require some patching by your more advanced adult self after the fact. Our ego isn’t designed to be collaborative!
Our job as adults is to identify when our ego is jumping up and down about something and talk nicely to it to discern whether it has a point or not. If it has a point, we can then decide to handle that using the more advanced parts of our brain. The problem is that, whilst we can learn to manage our egos, the physiological response I mentioned above isn’t something we can control. It’s GOING to happen – every time our ego thinks we may be under threat. Sabre-toothed tiger. Shouty email. Worldwide pandemic.
2. You don’t require much brain to fight or run away.
The physiological response that instantly prepares our body to fight or run away, diverts blood flow from less important functions to our muscles to best facilitate our physical response. The most immediate snag with that in our modern environment is that our brain is one of those parts now functioning on restricted flow. This is why it’s hard to sound intelligent in those first few seconds after your ego has leapt into action.
When we’re under immediate stress, we’re often told to “breathe slowly”, or “count to ten”. There’s sense in this, because 10 seconds is the length of time it takes for the initial physiological response (hormone rush) to start to clear our system, and if you breath slowly and deeply, your brain figures you can’t possibly be running away from a sabre-toothed tiger and you must be safe – and it starts to step down the adrenaline response.
Our job, as advanced adults, becomes to manage ourselves during this initial response time. Ideally, don’t speak. Breathe. At least until your brain comes back online…
3. The effects of prolonged stress aren’t pretty.
Whilst our caveman brains deal with our immediate safety needs by employing the fight or flight reflex and its associated physiological responses, it also has a plan for periods of more prolonged stress. The same hormones that did their initial jobs, start to do other jobs when our short-term future is uncertain. For example, Cortisol (the stress hormone) starts to help us store weight – in case we can’t find food and need our reserves.
Over prolonged periods, we start to wear thin though. There’s only so long we can go with functions like our immune system on Priority-2…. If we don’t manage ourselves, eventually we start to get sick and unhealthy as our systems start to fail.
4. SELF-management is key to our survival.
One of the primary problems with stress is that it’s a very personal thing. Different things stress different people to different degrees, and no one can feel our stress for us. Therefore, it is primarily our own responsibility to manage our stress levels, both immediately, and in the extended term.
Learning to manage our ego is part of adult maturity. It can be a tough task, especially if you’ve never been told that your ego isn’t the whole of you – merely part of your early warning system – and definitely not the part of you that should be allowed to talk to others. When the ego’s primary function is to look after Number One, those conversations never go well. If you’d like to explore that further, you can read more about ego management here, and about ego and team here.
Right now, though, we’re dealing with a different type of stress. It’s long. It’s drawn out. And it’s a level of uncertainty most of us have never had to live with. That means that our bodies are in desperate need of management and respite if we’re going to continue on as healthy humans.
Here’s what you can do:
Many of you will have seen Time Management described using these four quadrants that evaluate whether the subject at hand is Important or Not Important, Urgent or Not Urgent. The idea is to delegate what’s urgent but not important, delete what’s neither urgent nor important, and manage what’s both important and urgent so that you can hang out in the one remaining box – the important but not urgent box.
Why is this? Because the “important but not urgent” box is where the magic happens. It’s important enough to give us meaning, but not urgent enough to create that physiological stress response that strips us down physically, mentally and emotionally. Yes, things will land on our plate that are both important and urgent, but living permanently in that space is known as fire-fighting – and now you know why it’s not an ideal place for us to hang out long term.
It’s possible that, with all the changes this year has brought, you may be hanging out in the “firefighting” box where your body and mind are now starting to wear thin due to prolonged exposure to that stress response and constantly making a new plan. It’s also possible you’re hiding out in one of the other less desirable boxes because you’re tired out and uncertain how to move forward.
Acknowledge yourself. Acknowledge what we’re going through, and what our natural response has been. Acknowledge that we need a better plan if we’re going to overcome and elevate. Examine what it is you need to do to start living in the “Important but not Urgent” box, because by doing so, you create some space between yourself and that physiological response of adrenaline and cortisol coursing through your body. No one else can do this for you. They can help if you can identify what help to ask for. But no one else can feel what’s going on inside you. Claim some space. And use it to breathe.
If you’ve got a seemingly unmanageable To-Do List, I recommend reading “Eat That Frog” by Brian Tracy. Here’s the link to the short version.
by Christen Killick
September 7th, 2020