All of us experience stress from time to time. A certain amount of positive stress (known as “eustress”) motivates us, but too much negative stress has a detrimental impact on our lives. 2018 research by the Mental Health Foundation found that 74% of British adults felt “overwhelmed or unable to cope” at some point over the previous year.
The brain is wired to sense danger and provide the appropriate stress response (fight, flight or freeze) to help us survive. To have the energy to run or fight, the brain shuts down the prefrontal cortex which is where our short-term memory is located and where all of our best thinking and planning happens. As a result, we have a narrow focus on the perceived danger, and our mind is closed to everything else. This behavior prepares us for the worst thing that could possibly happen.
When we are stressed, hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released into our system. These hormones are all right in short bursts, but when we operate in a stressful state for extended period, their ongoing presence can cause health problems such as anxiety, depression, headaches, digestive problems, heart disease, weight gain, memory and concentration impairment, and sleep problems. On top of these problems, the chemicals are electrical inhibitors that prevent the brain from working optimally and from creating or rewiring neural pathways.
Chronic stress also results in our muscles’ forgetting how to relax, which is a problem because they need to be able to relax to allow blood to flow sufficiently through our bodies in order to move oxygen in and toxins out.
How can we switch from that default operating system (the “stress or survival zone”) to one where we can consciously choose how to respond?
Fortunately, we also have a direct response network, the full-connection operating system. This system uses the brain to take in information from all of our senses and the environment in real time. In this mode, you can observe by standing back from your thoughts and moving closer to the reality of what is happening in the moment. Therefore, you can respond more flexibly to the events that unfold.
First, you notice the early warning signals — your thoughts, emotions and physical reactions — which tell you that you are about to go into the stress response. We know from neuroscience that you have a six to 10 seconds to interrupt the default reaction and choose a different response. In that time frame, you can making the conscious choice interrupt the stress response and switch to the full-connection operating system.
By repeating this process, you create new neural pathways, rewiring your brain until it is hardwired and you can switch at will between operating systems. This new response opens you up to your true power, where you can see the opportunities and potential from a greater perspective in every situation.