Wired For Stress- the gateaux of catastrophe
Ever had one of those days/weeks/months when you are in a never ending cycle of drama and stress?
Nothing seems to go right and there is a never ending stream of STRESSssss. If you’re human chances are that this is unfortunately all too familiar and common in your life. Once a source of stress has been dealt with then magically “poof’ another one comes along to take its place. But why do we seem to be wired to dine from this never ending buffet of problems, worry and stress? Why do we keep taking another bite from the Gateau of Catastrophe?
I coined this term from a client during a counselling session who after having worked really hard at overcoming some very tricky relationship problems began to re-pick at the resolved issues. They began to go over all the negative awful events in the past week/month/year and I suddenly commented ” Do you really want another slice of Catastrophe Gateau?”. A light bulb went off for them and they put down the gateau there and then.
You’re wired for stress.
I hate to break the bad news but our brain is wired for stress, its part of our makeup.
As Ruby Wax puts it in her book Sane New World “As soon as you even think about stress, a whole cascade of reactions happen: your thalamus (the relay station of your brain) sends out a wake-up call to your brain stem.” This is the oldest part of our brain, developed about 400 million years ago. “It prompts us to mate, kill and eat, which is perfect if you’re living in a field or working for Goldman Sachs.” Signals are then sent to all vital organs and muscle groups, getting them ready into “fight or flight” mode. Adrenal glands release cortisol, the stress hormone, which suppresses the immune system to reduce inflammation from potential injuries and stimulates the amygdala to keep you vigilant, which produces even more cortisol. “It also suppress activity in the hippocampus reducing your memory so you only think about what you did last time you had a similar emergency. This chemical also stops your digestion and the urge to have sex. Another chemical, epinephrine, increases your heartbeat so it can move more blood and dilates your pupils (to help you find your foe in the dark). All this is useful if you’re actually in danger. If you’re not actually in a life or death situation and those chemicals can’t stop pumping through you, they will wreck havoc on your body and brain”.
To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). If we miss out on something pleasant its not an imminent survival issue but if we get attacked/killed its not a great way of ensuring we pass on gene copies. Therefore the brain is biased towards negativity as a survival mechanism and not towards our happiness.
So why is this a problem now?
Because in our modern world this prehistoric brain is responding to life events as if they are in fact mortal dangers and our drive to survive and multiply is killing us. For example
Not enough likes on social media/relationship conflict/that big chat with your boss about being late again and the brain kicks into fear of social exclusion which back in our prehistoric mammoth times likely meant death . Or at least a nasty clubbing.
Our drive to forage and not starve means we are constantly striving for the next promotion, the better car,higher family expectations or reaching scholastic ideals.
Our brain is geared to be not only be on guard but also be negatively biased.
Now for the good news .Neuroscience has progressed so much in the recent decades that we can now take advantage of new knowledge through understanding neuroplasticity. This suggests that it is possible “re-wire” the brain, change unhelpful habits, cultivate positive thoughts and awareness, thereby building up brain muscle in a same way we train our bodies. By learning to reduce “negative commentary”, become less obsessive about “being busy doing stuff” we can in fact have a slice of life not the entire Gateau of Catastrophe.
Mindfulness is the key.
Mindfulness is the current buzz word but its actually been around for a very long time. It is not just about being present (as opposed to just resting or emptying your mind) and it does not require you to bend into a pretzel or become a Buddhist unless you want too.
The following 3 steps are easy to use anywhere, anytime tools. The aim is not a rapid intense halting, rather to gently coax our brain and nervous system into a more chilled out state. Practice makes permanent and remember our brain has been fantastic at being in catastrophe for millions of years so it will take time to rewire!
When you catch your brain going through endless scenarios take a moment to “switch” the focus to your breathing. Notice if its rapid ,slow or deep. You arent trying to change it just notice
Take a moment to take 3 measured breaths in the nose for a count of 4 and then out the mouth for a count of 6. If you get distracted dont worry keep coming back to counting in and out until you get to 3 full “in and outs”
Describe SLOWLY AND IN DETAIL 3 things you can visibly see, 2 things you can hear and one physical sensation ( not an emotion ).