How Stress Commandeers Your Brain

Many of us are very familiar with the feeling of not being able to order our thoughts, or the overwhelm of our brains not being able to chart a clear path forward when we’re stressed.  What’s even more frustrating is when you know you should be able to handle what’s presented to you, but your energy and thinking seem foggy, stunted and disconnected.

Stress has a funny way of commandeering our thinking and dissolving clarity.  I’m not talking about the immediate stress of an emergency, or something that pushes you into finding an immediate solution.  The adrenaline, challenge and “interest” produced by an immediate problem is usually enough to focus us on a solution.  The kind of stress that dissolves our clarity is the ongoing and underlying type associated with long-term uncertainty and constantly moving goal posts.

This type of prolonged stress and uncertainty requires our understanding if we’re to reclaim ourselves.

There are two main components of prolonged uncertainty and moving goal posts which we need to consider.  These are the mental aspect of how we handle stress, and the physiological effects (physical wellbeing) of prolonged stress on our body.  It’s possible for us to guard against both of these destructive mechanisms if we know what we’re dealing with.

The Mental Aspect of Prolonged Stress

Stress knocks us off balance by causing us to seek control.  Read that again…

Often, our inability to see information clearly and make agile decisions when we’re under prolonged stress is because our brain is busy trying to balance us.  When stress is introduced, it knocks us off balance by altering what we thought we knew for sure.  Our natural response to that is to try and regain that balance by feeling in control again.  We all know what happens when you take something away from a toddler that it was unsafe for them to be playing with – they seek to take back control of the situation, usually loudly or forcefully.  Their response will continue until they are provided with a solution that makes them feel soothed and rebalanced in their certainty.

This is not dissimilar to what our brains try and do for us as adults when what we thought we were dealing with changes.  Our brains use whatever tricks they can think of to try and regain control.  Some people may raise their voice and throw their weight around.  Some may stop their process to mine for further information and get side-tracked or paralysed in the process.  Some may go round in circles, uncertain of what they need to feel back in control.

All of this is just mental gymnastics to try and soothe ourselves, which diverts us from the facts on the table.

The bottom line is that the requirements for making an agile decision don’t change, even when we’re under pressure.  What changes is our mental focus which we allow to be derailed by our ego’s need to rebalance our feeling of control.

What we need to make an agile decision is clarity.  Clarity is achieved by reasonably observing the information necessary and making an educated decision that we’re prepared to act on.  Once we’ve acted on that decision, we then circle back to observing what that action precipitates with the intention of making the next decision we can act on.  This is known as an OODA loop – Observe. Orient. Decide. Act.  This simple yet powerful tool is attributed to John Boyd, and you can read more about it

When we remind ourselves that there are simple ways like this to get back on track, we can recall our brains from their control seeking side-track and help ourselves (and others) find clarity and a way forward.  One step at a time, with the agility to continue to make the next decision needed to correct our route and outcomes.

The Physical Aspect of Prolonged Stress

Stress triggers our “fight or flight” reflex which is the primal response that allows us to address threat.  This response releases hormones into our blood stream that allow us to cope with the physical requirements of fighting or running away – namely adrenaline and cortisol.  These hormones dilate the blood vessels, increase our breathing rate to get more oxygen into our blood, and speed up our heart so that more oxygenated blood can get to our muscles to facilitate our physical response.  You can read more about our initial response to stress here in a previous article called “Taming the Squirrel”.

Adrenaline and cortisol are intended to be short-action catalysts however, not long-term solutions.  What happens when we have been under pressure (threat) and continuous change for an extended period of time is that our bodies start to experience adrenal fatigue.

In order to facilitate the immediate physical response to threat, these hormones divert blood flow away from “less important” functions like digestion and the immune system.  It’s not rocket science that the prolonged presence of these hormones in our systems leads to an eventual physical weakness or crash due to these deficits.

Unless we’re prepared to lasso our brains and regain control of our mental processing, we can ignore the warning signs of our bodies under prolonged stress.  Therefore the link between our mental processing of stress and our physical wellbeing is hugely important.

Without taking personal responsibility for our mental and physical wellbeing (no one else can feel your stress levels for you or change them), we can become
 fatigued and depleted.  Fatigue (both mental and physical) requires rest to recuperate.  Depletion cannot be solved by rest – hence why we might return from a holiday still feeling tired and unready.  Identifying our needs and filling them is paramount to us being able to continue if we choose to operate in an environment of prolonged stress.

Depletion requires us to “refill our cup” – and how we do that is an individual thing.  It might mean taking time out in nature, or with certain people.  It might mean feeding ourselves with new learning and growth.  It might mean physical activity that activates us.

If you’d like to explore what that might be for you further, this article on “
15 Ways to Feel Happy and Balanced (Even When You’re Busy)” from Life Skills Australia might give you some insight.

Regaining control of our mental and physical wellbeing when we’re under prolonged stress is the personal responsibility of each of us.  Left to flounder, the effects can be catastrophic and long-lasting.  What do you need to get your thinking back on track this week, and what are your replenishment needs?

by Christen Killick

July 5th, 2021

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