The hero stress response

I don’t know about you, but I feel that we’ve learned a lot this past year. We’ve learned what we are made of, that we can be faced with the impossible and can survive. And it seems that, at this point in our global nightmare, the population has split itself into the ‘everything is fine now’ and the ‘oh my god, what are you thinking?’ groups. In truth, I find myself vacillating wildly between the two. I want to believe it’s all over. I really do. But the cautious part of my brain is wary. 

So, I have a plan. In truth, this plan is to help me survive the uncertainty, and any other challenges that life throws my way. Those of you who have read How To Be Broken (see below for link) will know that I have generally considered myself a pretty damaged human being. I get stressed A LOT. I do not react well to change. And I consistently assume that I will not cope when things go wrong. 

The last year has taught me that a lot of that is wrong (yay!). But it’s also taught me that things do go wrong, that disaster doesn’t only lie within my imagination, and that when things do go wrong, I need to be able to react. 

It was reading Rachel Clarke’s superlative Breathtaking (see below for link) that gave me the idea. In it she talks about the efficiency of a hospital’s disaster plan, how, when everything goes wrong, the entire organisation shifts to a different mode of responding, focused on dealing with the situation before them. 

What a good idea, I thought. Why can’t I do that? 

So…my current plan (because I do not have enough to do and needed some new project to fill the fifteen uncounted for seconds in my day) is to develop a psychological equivalent – a Brain Go Bag if you will. A mode of responding that I can access when it all goes wrong, so that I do not find myself lost in the quagmire of chaos. And because I love to talk psychology, my plan is to share my ideas with you, as and when I’ve acquired them. 

Proviso – this is assuming that I do not again succumb to Long Covid or find myself distracted by something shiny. Ooh look, a penny…

Where was I? 

Okay, yes, the Brain Go Bag. 

Step one – it makes sense, I think, to begin our Go Bag with the basics. The stress reaction. And the first question we need to ask ourselves is what does stress mean to you? We know what the headlines say. Stress is BAD. Stress KILLS. Bad, bad stress. And, honestly, there is merit in that. Too much stress for too long can have some impressive effects on our physiology. What these headlines miss, however, is the fact that the stress reaction – that massive jolt of hormones and neurotransmitters – occurs for a reason. That it has been developed by 300,000 years of evolution in order to allow us to respond to threats within our environment. That the stress response is designed to make us faster, perceive more stimuli, be stronger, and develop tighter bonds with outers. 

Ask yourself, what do YOU think of the stress reaction? Do you consider it to be a threat? Or an enhancement? 

If you’re like me, stress is the enemy. When I sense the stress reaction beginning, I immediately go on high alert. As humans, we are predisposed to focus all our attention in on the source of threat. Hmmm…which means that, my perception of the stress reaction as a threat leads me to focus all of my attention on that stress reaction, rather than what actually triggered it in the first place. 

That means, any problem solving actions I attempt to take are focused on minimising the stress reaction. I may do breathing exercises, or yoga. I may drink wine or eat ice cream. And whilst all of these things are fine, generally speaking, they do absolutely nothing to deal with the initial trigger that caused the stress. I am treating the symptoms, not the illness. 

But what if I shift my thinking? What if instead I treat the stress response as a signpost – here there be dragons? An alert that something has happened in my environment that I need to respond to. If I do that, it means that I can focus my attention not on the stress itself, but on what caused it. 

Crum et al have developed a technique that will allow us to train our minds, twisting our perception of the stress response from threatening to actually being something of use to us.

First we acknowledge our stress. Don’t judge yourself for feeling it, just note that it’s there. Pay attention to it. What is it doing to your emotions? What is it doing to your physiology? What behaviours is it triggering? 

Write all these things down. This kind of labelling and documenting can move us from an unthinking reaction to the stress response into something that is far calmer and more measured. It also means we are paying more attention to it. When we pay attention to something, we build a stronger memory trace, helpful if we are trying to develop new habits. 

The next step is to welcome the stress. Please feel free to snort derisively at this point. However, consider the logic of Crum and colleagues – the stress response is only triggered by a challenge to something you care about. So, consider it to be a signpost, pointing out something important to you, internally or within the environment. 

Identify what this stress reaction represents. What is the care beneath the stress? 

Write that down too. 

Then finally, utilise your stress response. Remember, it has not evolved merely to torture us, rather to help us defend that which is important to us. So consider your reactions – are they focused on removing the stress or on dealing with the underlying trigger? Consider how you can use the focus the stress response gives you to respond better. And identify the good within this stressful situation – are there lessons to learn, chances to grow stronger or wiser? 

Stress is ubiquitous. It is a part of the human condition. But rather than treating it as the valuable evolutionary development that it is, we have come to see it as the enemy, a problem in and of itself. Fortunately, research by Park et al and by Jamieson et al tells us that the mere awareness that there is another way to look at the stress reaction can pay powerful dividends in terms of our performance and in terms of our mental health. 

And so, as the first tool in your Brain Go Bag, you have your own stress response. Your guide to what matters to you, and your way of dialling up your responding so that you are capable of handling whatever it is that life has to throw at you. 

NB, also, please enjoy this image of my cat handling stress by paddling my dog’s head.


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