Stress has a bad reputation, and it doesn’t deserve it.
Too many articles, books, and stress reduction guides tell us that if we want to be happy and healthy, we need to “get rid of” or “reduce” stress. Unfortunately, trying to eliminate stress from your life or trying to stop feeling stressed usually creates more stress.
When we understand what’s going on in our brain when we experience stress, each of us can understand stress—and how to manage it—in a completely new way.
You probably already know that feelings of stress begin in a part of your brain called the amygdala. We call this the brain’s “alarm” because its fundamental job is to signal us when we need to pay attention in order to keep alert and be safe.
The alarm is the ancient part of our brain that protects us. When you feel yourself getting drowsy in a meeting at work, it’s this alarm in your brain that gives you a quick jolt to pay attention. Missing critical information or getting yelled at by your boss both qualify as the kind of trouble the alarm helps us avoid.
The alarm also alerts us to life-threatening, immediate danger. If another car on the road swerves into your lane, without thinking your body mobilizes. Your muscles tense. Your heart pounds. You react and steer out of the way. That was your alarm too.
What most of us don’t realize is that our alarm is always on. We are actually always experiencing some level of stress. The alarm orders chemicals like adrenaline into our bloodstream, just a small amount when we’re sleepy in a meeting and at high levels when we need to get away from danger as quickly as possible.
If the alarm weren’t always active, we’d spend our lives in bed, always be late, and never care about people or what happens to us. Stress only becomes a debilitating problem when we don’t pay attention to our brains’ calls to keep us alert and safe. The alarm is a good thing, if you know how to recognize its signals.
For instance, at the end of a long workday you still have to finish a presentation. Your brain knows that if you stay much longer, you’ll miss your child’s soccer game.
At that moment your alarm will be triggered by two competing values: you want to do great work and you love your child. Your alarm may keep sending stress signals—intrusive thoughts like “I’m a terrible parent”, increased heart rate, even sweaty palms—to remind you that you have to choose. Research shows you can’t do two things at once. Either choice can be a good one, but not choosing—or making a choice without giving careful thought to what really is most important to you—will only amp up your alarm.
The alarm's signals are valuable. When we know that stress is in our body because we have an important decision to make or trouble we need to look out for, we can use stress as vital feedback. Our brains want us to create the life we want and do more than just survive. The alarm will keep us stressed until we focus on what's most import to us.
The first secret to stress management most of us have never been taught is that to feel less stressed we have to intentionally listen to and give careful thought to the stress messages from our body and brain. Once you start thinking about what’s important to you, your alarm will slow the bodily feelings of stress because it knows you’re paying attention and thinking clearly.
When a situation is really dangerous, like when a car cuts us off, we want our brain to react. But most of the time, when we feel stress it is an opportunity to notice something needs our attention and regain control of our lives.
What causes you the most stress? Why? Let us know in the comments section and we hope to include your experiences and stories in future blogs.