Your Brain on Stress
Julie Wilson, MA
Someone said to me recently that he felt like talking about stress is sign of weakness. It’s not.
Stress is not a character flaw, and talking about it doesn’t mean you’re weak or not fit for duty. To the contrary, finding ways to proactively manage stress is a way to practice good self-care, and to ensure good physical and mental health. To really get the gist of it, it’s helpful to understand what stress really is.
Stress is all about science… brain science.
The brain loves patterns – it’s what it does best. It looks for:
- “when has this happened before?”
- “what did I do then?”
- “I’ll just do that again.”
That’s why we drive the same way to work every day, have the same morning/evening routine, sit in the same pew at church every Sunday, and eat the same foods we’ve always eaten. It explains why it’s so hard to change our routines.
The brain perceives anything that doesn’t match an existing pattern (i.e. change) as a potential threat and sets off a cascade of physical, chemical, and emotional reactions to prepare the body for fight or flight. IT HAPPPENS TO EVERYONE and it happens whether we like it or not.
Sometimes, the brain easily realizes that there’s nothing to be concerned about, and the body quickly returns to normal. At other times, we hold on to the emotions of the situation (are you still mad at the guy who cut you off on the way to work this morning?) and our body sits with increased heart rate, higher blood pressure and increased fats and sugars that can put us at risk for a wide range of physical illnesses such as hypertension, stroke, heart attack, obesity, digestive and reproductive disorders, muscle aches and pains, and migraines.
Additionally, our ability to make sound decisions is seriously compromised when we’re under stress because the part of the brain responsible for those executive functions partially shuts down. And, if we lose sleep over whatever is stressing us out, our performance is even more diminished.
Talking about your stress is a good first step for finding ways that work to help manage stress and build resilience. LAMP services can help get you started – we offer a listening ear and no judgment. Plus, employees and health plan members receive their first 5 sessions at no cost. Here are some other ideas:
- Attend the Your Best Brain series
- Improve your sleep with ProjectZ, a web-based sleep program available to employees and health plan members
- Attend a yoga, meditation or mindfulness class (Check out the group fitness schedule)
- Get out of your head – listen to music, get into nature, finger paint
- Exercise by doing something you enjoyed as a kid…ride your bike, throw a frisbee, dance, hula hoop, swim
- Download a meditation app (CALM, OMG I Can Meditate) and PRACTICE EVERY DAY
So, the next time you dismiss your stress as no big deal, remember that it all starts in the brain and can seriously impact your health and well-being. But you CAN change your response to stress: decide to take action.