| By Gill Heart, PhD |
The father of modern-day stress, Hans Selye, once said “It’s not stress that kills us—it is our reaction to it.” His wisdom holds the key to understanding our continued failure to improve our response to everyday stress. If living in a cave on top of a remote mountain is not an option for you, you will need to accept stress as an integral part of life. What we need to figure out, then, is how to change our reaction to it. A
CLOSER LOOK AT STRESS
Our physiological reactions to stress include increased blood pressure, reduced blood supply to the digestive system and immune system suppression. So the solutions that occur to you are probably aimed at reducing these reactions. Techniques such as breathing, counting, physical exercise and meditation accomplish this somewhat. After a heated argument, for example, you may feel calmer once you take a walk.
However, as far as the long-term impact—you’re too late. Your body has already suffered a stress-driven physiological blow. If stress was a one-time event, your body would be perfectly designed to deal with it. However, not only does stress breed stress, but separately, stress accumulates. It’s not long before these repeated blows result in irreversible damage. As so accurately put by Selye, it is not the stress, but our response to it, that is so dangerous.
HOW STRESS CAN CHANGE
Anyone familiar with Krav-Maga, the self-defense, hand-fighting technique developed by the Israeli army, knows that recovery from a blow is very difficult. Therefore, Krav-Maga instructors train their students to identify an incoming attack early so they can prevent it through physical blockage or deception. We can apply that same principle when we fight stress.
We must train ourselves to identify and prevent the incoming attack. That means before—not after—the physiological expressions of stress. We need a paradigm shift in our approach to stress. If we are to prevent our natural physiological response to stress, we need to identify that we are impacted by it much earlier. We need to change our habitual emotional response to stress, because it’s what causes the responses, as stated by Selye, that kill.
WHAT DO EMOTIONS HAVE TO DO WITH IT?
Recent neuroscience research reveals that under stressful circumstances, an interesting process takes place in your brain. When you are calm, the CEO of your brain is the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain right behind your forehead. This area is responsible for analysis, decision-making, controlling impulses and communicating.
However, as soon as you are exposed to information that causes you to stress out, a different area of your brain hijacks control. The new CEO—the amygdala—is primarily responsible for emotions, with fear at the forefront. Under this new CEO, you become emotionally driven and respond to the world as if you are under attack.
So, the paradigm shift is to learn to identify your habitual emotional response in real time and stop it. This way you can prevent, rather than reduce, the impact of repeated physiological blows to your body.
There is a unique group of professionals who do exactly that, and it makes the difference between life and death. These are Special Forces operatives trained to operate undercover deep behind enemy lines. Delta Force is one such example.
During missions, operatives are repeatedly exposed to incredibly stressful circumstances. At the same time, they required to make split-second decisions in a focused and goal-oriented manner. If an operative is impacted by stress, his access to the prefrontal cortex is impaired and, as a result, his view of reality is amygdala-controlled.
Here, the operative’s decisions are fear-driven and emotionally biased. Under these circumstances, Selye’s statement becomes even more tangible—the operative’s response to stress could actually kill him.
In order to avoid this process, these operatives are uniquely mind-trained. This training enables them to identify their habitual response early and stop it from impact-ing their decisions.