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Modern predators: Stress and our bodies

‘I’m so stressed’ is uttered an average of 15,789 a day in every office across the world (ok, so that isn’t an actual fact, but we are fairly certain it’s said a lot). And while we all know how it feels to be stressed, how many of us don’t really understand what being ‘stressed’ means, why we even feel it in the first place, and what’s actually going on in our mind and body when we’re experiencing it.

The first thing to remember is that stress itself isn’t a mental illness. However, it can be a cause of mental health issues for some or exacerbate existing issues for others.  At times, stress can also be really useful in helping us to get sh*t done. Ultimately, it’s intrinsically linked to our mental health and wellbeing, so understanding it is incredibly important. 

 

What’s the back story?

Research in neuroscience has given us some great insight into what happens to the physiology of the brain when we feel stressed. We have a number of interrelated systems of the brain which work together to maintain and control our emotions. The key system which is related to stress is our threat system.

This is the system that is activated when we feel like we’re not safe or that something is wrong. It’s designed to help us detect and respond to threats and when activated can cause us to experience really challenging emotions and physical sensations, plus difficult thoughts and images can appear in our minds. The most common emotions activated include feelings of anxiety, anger, shame and disgust.

 

Threat system

This system has evolved over millions of years and is important in making us aware of danger and things that could go wrong. Our ability to quickly detect and respond to danger has contributed to the survival of our species.

These responses include defending ourselves (known as ‘fight’), running away (known as ‘flight’) or avoiding detection (we call it ‘freeze’). All of these were really important when the threat to life was very real - for example the threat of being eaten by a bear. This system, quite literally, helped to keep us humans alive.

Once this system is activated, the brain releases the hormones adrenaline and norepinephrine in order to help us respond quickly. It also releases the stress hormone, cortisol. Higher levels of cortisol in the bloodstream, such as those associated with high levels of stress, have been shown to have negative effects on our body and our minds including impaired cognitive performance, suppressed thyroid function, hyperglycaemia (a.k.a high blood sugar), higher blood pressure and lower immune system functioning, to name a few.

 

New threats

Throughout much of our evolution, the major threats we encountered were predatory ones. But today, the threats are very different. Most of us are lucky enough not to live in a world where we are faced with physical threats to our safety on a daily basis.

The majority of the threats we encounter are internal; fears, worries and concerns that we would rather not have. In addition, we are also sensitive to social threats (a sign that someone is judging us in a negative manner). Although these threats aren’t a matter of life or death, our minds respond in exactly the same way they would if they were life threatening. Now don’t get me wrong, our threat detection system is still important. However, this system - which is hardwired to help us survive - can also be the cause of a lot of problems for us.

 

Creative concerns

The creative industries can be incredibly fast-paced and stressful environments to work in. Our threat systems can often be activated for large amounts of time. This might be on a chronic low level, or for short sharp bursts, such as when a deadline is due. As mentioned, the impact of this on our physical health can be great, so it’s unsurprising that needing time off work for stress-related complaints is not uncommon.

But that’s not the only issue. In an industry that prides itself on thinking quickly, creatively and ‘outside of the box,’ too much stress can stop you from performing to the best of your ability. We know that when it comes to creativity, the area of the brain which is really important is the prefrontal cortex. This system allows us to imagine, make decisions and be creative.

However, when we are under stress, our threat system takes over and trumps everything else. Therefore, the more the threat system is activated, the less room there is for the creative parts of our brain to work well. This is important stuff if you’re working in a highly stressful creative job. It explains why often, when we are stressed, we can’t think clearly and struggle to come up with useful ideas.

It’s so important for us to get to know and understand the workings of our mind, and – good news – there are strategies we can put in place to reduce the sensitivity of our threat system and cultivate the part of our brain which is designed to calm and balance the threat system (also known as the soothing system).

While soothing strategies can be personal and varied, actions such as practicing deep breathing can help - as can mindfulness (no, it isn’t just for yogi masters). It’s also proven to regulate emotions, increase concentration and strengthen your prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain that supports a number of our complex behaviours). There’s a lot of relatively inexpensive - or even free – apps, classes and teachings around breathing techniques and mindfulness that could be useful.

The trick is making the time to do it.

 

Mitigating workplace stress

  1. If you run a business: make sure you have a health, mental health and wellbeing strategy in place that aligns with your business values, making it relatable and relevant to your people. 
  2. If you manage a team: have open and honest conversations with your direct reports to understand what areas of their job they find stressful and help them identify ways to manage their stress in those moments.
  3. On a personal level: find ways to activate your own soothing system in order to try and keep things balanced.  When we are in this place we are not under threat or striving to achieve - instead we are in a place of contentment, emotional safety and connection with others.

 

Dr Hannah Taylor, clinical psychologist at Head Office.

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