It’s a big day, the global bosses have flown in, and it’s your chance to impress. Your A/V presentation is flawless, your lucky shirt looks immaculate, and you are 100% ready to shine. You are ready to go. As you lean in to kiss your husband goodbye, he clumsily knocks the coffee cup over, and your lucky blouse is covered in coffee splatter.
Your heart is racing, you tense up, and you are pissed off. What to you do?
You have just come to the fork in the stress road.
You have two options:
Option 1: Lose it… explode, yell, scream, shove his peanut butter toast up his clumsy nose. Let the accident start a big fight and add to your already excited nervous system. Eventually, you storm upstairs to change, fly downstairs and the car tyres squeal as you race to work with smoke coming out your ears.
Option 2: Feel the same emotions, you can’t stop them anyway, but this time you WAIT. Stop and think about the situation. Is he a clumsy bonehead? Absolutely, but he didn’t mean to spill the coffee? NO, and blowing up and starting a fight isn’t going to produce the type of stress that’s beneficial to your big day. Two deep breaths, accept the clumsy oaf’s apology, change shirts and nail the presentation. Easy.
Reading the two options above, we will all choose Option 2. It’s controlled, smart and will produce the best results. It’s a no-brainer.
Why then, do people pick Option 1 so often?
The truth is we don’t choose Option 1, we just default to Option 1 and lose our cool without thinking about it. It’s not a conscious thing and to understand it, we need to look back a few thousand years and grasp where we have come from.
As human’s we have evolved over millions of years. Our brain has gone on in layers (like an onion,) and we have an Old Brain and a New Brain. The Old Brain is there to keep us alive in dangerous situations and stopped our ancestors from being eaten by sabre-tooth tigers. It’s fast, reactive and is either on or off. The Old Brain is great when there is danger about, and it is where our Fight or Flight response is generated.
The New Brain is where our intellectual, rational and responsive thinking comes from. The New Brain is slower, thoughtful and can appreciate the nuances of a situation. The New Brain can look at a situation see the options available and set a path to ensure the best outcomes.
So, if we have this amazing New Brain, why do we take Option 1 so often?
The answer lies in our perception of stress. If we see the situation as a threat (late for work, presentation flops, lose your job…) we will let our Old Brain run the show; the New Brain disengages and Fight or Flight will ensure we don’t handle the situation well. The Threat reaction assumes that stress is bad and we either need to decrease it with avoidance, run or start throwing punches.
If we take the other fork in the stress road, we engage the Challenge response to stress and we come up with smarter solutions that will fix the problem rather than adding to it. The Challenge response keeps the two brains connected and ensures we keep our cool and make better decisions.Shit happens, we know that, it has been on bumper stickers since the early 80s. Some of the shit that happens is stressful. Stress could come from missing the bus, failing an exam or getting yelled at by the boss. These things are significantly less than ideal and will cause a stress response from your body and your brain. You might get angry and lash out. You may get anxious and go very quiet. We all react differently and these reactions can be fuelled by any number of emotions. One thing is guaranteed, stress will evoke a reaction.
The secret is not to eliminate stress but to understand it and utilise it in a way that is effective. The easiest way to do this is to keep your two brains integrated. Keeping the rational New Brain positively engaged ensures your response that is productive, that it has assessed the situation and determined the best way forward. “Flipping your lid” and ignoring your New Brain will entrust the emotional Old Brain to handle the situation alone. Old Brain fight/flight is perfect in the jungle, surrounded by predators, but not quite as good in modern society. Fights in board rooms generally don’t end well for anyone and running from relationships at the first sign of difficulty is a nice way to spend your life alone. You need your New Brain to supervise.
So, how do I keep the two brains integrated? The answer is self-awareness! Understanding your body’s stress response and not just assuming that the feelings associated with stress are bad. Take a moment to think about the situation and deliberately choose a reaction. Because things are rarely life threatening, the Old Brain shouldn’t be allowed to take control, the New Brain needs to act as a supervisor. The New Brain needs to ensure that responses are deliberate.Take a deep breath and allow a few seconds to ask yourself:
“What am I thinking?”
“Why am I thinking it?” and
“Is it helping?”
These three questions will engage the New Brain and make your response a conscious and deliberate choice that will help the situation. The questions are the key to self-awareness and can help avoid the situation where the unchecked Old Brain just makes the situation worse.
Next time you feel the familiar feelings of stress, ask these questions, engage both your brains and find the solution to the problem. The more you do this, the better you get at it and the closer you will be to ending toxic stress and becoming Stress Teflon.