And now for the technical bit…

Stress often gets a bad press, but stress isn’t all bad news as the STRESS RESPONSE is designed to protect us when we feel under threat.

When our ancestors needed to react quickly, fear probably saved them from death or injury, enabling them to act quickly and escape from an angry predator. Even now if a car pulled out suddenly when you were crossing the road, the stress response would enable your body to work at it’s peak ability and jump out of the way!

The Limbic Brain

The Brain

Having an understanding of how the brain works can really help us to know how we can work with our brains by using our minds.

The brain may appear to be one mass, but it is made up of layers, some of which are ancient parts of the brain and formed early in our development.

The Reptilian Brain manages our basic survival and governs things like breathing, balance, temperature and digestion. It first appeared in fish 500 million years ago.

The Emotional or Limbic Brain is responsible for recording memories of what we enjoyed or didn’t enjoy, producing our emotions and regulating the stress response in relation to experiences we have. The limbic brain is where we make value judgments, which have a strong influence on our behavior and are often unconscious. It first appeared in small mammals around 150 million years ago.

The New-Brain or neo-cortex developed in primates and is the newest part of the brain. It has two large hemispheres and the largest part is the Pre-frontal cortex. It has enabled us to develop language, thought, imagination, consciousness and plays a part in memory. It’s likened to the CEO of the brain, in charge of the executive functions like thinking, planning, decision-making, solving problems and controlling our impulses. It only developed in the last 2-3 million years and has enabled human culture.

Under Stress

When our brain receives information from our senses, the amygdala, which lives in the ancient limbic/emotional part of the brain and is sometimes called the “Guard Dog” of the brain, assesses whether it is a threat by recognising the feelings it evokes. If it sees something as a threat, for instance, we may be encountering a barking dog and have been frightened by a dog as a child, it then releases a chemical mix that enables us to fight or flee. This causes a physiological response, sending blood to muscles, releasing sugar to increase energy, heart rate and blood pressure increase ready to fight or flee and digestion shuts down. At the same time, the amygdala inhibits the ‘slow thinking’ rational brain resulting in a response that isn’t thought through and is based on emotions and feelings. The effect of stress then is that we loose our ability to think clearly, reason and make decisions. Short-term memory is also affected and we can feel much more emotional. This is often called an “amygdala hijack” where the amygdala hijacks the rational brain.

We can all have moments when we lose our cool but then we have to deal with the consequences.

Many celebrities have had an amygdala hijack and these have often been when they have lashed out at paparazzi and then they are the ones that get a bad press!

Another good example is ‘road rage’ when normally calm people have completely lost their temper and attacked another person or vehicle over a minor incident.

We might think “what were they thinking?” But clearly in that moment they weren’t. I’m sure we can all remember times when we have over-reacted.

Mindfulness can help us keep our cool when things get heated.

Find out more about the Amygdala Hijack here.

Stress and You

We may not have bears and wolves around so much now a days, so what are our modern stressors? They could be:

  • School work
  • Tests and exams
  • Thinking about the future
  • Friendship issues
  • Money
  • Having the right body, look and lifestyle
  • Home problems
  • Social media
  • Bullying and cyber bullying
  • Performance in sport or the Arts

How does this relate to when YOU feel stressed?

Do you notice quicker breathing and heart rate? A knot in the stomach – not feeling like eating? Restless and need to move? More emotional, or not being able to think clearly?

Can you identify the areas in your life that cause you stress?

Do you notice it’s when we keep THINKING about these things that often causes us stress?

When we paint these vivid images in our minds, the ancient parts of the brain aren’t able to tell the difference between these imagined fears and a real life bear and our body gears up to fight or flee in the same way.

We can all cope with stress for short amounts of time, but if it continues, it can lead to problems like:

  • feeling overwhelmed
  • having negative thoughts
  • poor sleep
  • feeling nervous or anxious
  • irritability and anger

Stress and You

How does this relate to when YOU feel stressed?

Do you notice quicker breathing and heart rate? A knot in the stomach – not feeling like eating? Restless and need to move? More emotional, or not being able to think clearly?

We may not have bears and wolves around so much now a days, so what are our modern stressors? They could be:

  • School work
  • Tests and exams
  • Thinking about the future
  • Friendship issues
  • Home problems
  • Money
  • Having the right body, look and lifestyle
  • Social media
  • Bullying and cyber bullying
  • Performance in sport or the Arts

Do you notice it’s when we keep THINKING about these things that often causes us stress?

When we paint these vivid images in our minds, the ancient parts of the brain aren’t able to tell the difference between these imagined fears and a real life bear and our body gears up to fight or flee in the same way.

We can all cope with stress for short amounts of time, but if it continues, it can lead to problems like:

  • feeling overwhelmed
  • having negative thoughts
  • poor sleep
  • feeling nervous or anxious
  • irritability and anger

Why Mindfulness?

Mindfulness works by anchoring our mind in our bodies, which can only be here in the present moment. By noticing our breath or feet on the floor, we can begin to calm our mind and nervous system (PHEW! even reading about stress can make us feel stressed!!)

Noticing and releasing some of the tension in our body and calming our breathing, gives the message to our brain that all is well (Ahhhh!) – this is the Relaxation Response. Pausing and noticing the thoughts that gave rise to the stress in the first place helps us to notice our thinking and perhaps question it and relate to it a bit more wisely.

The Modern Science Bit

Science really backs up the findings from the practice of mindfulness. Neuroscience imaging shows that over time Mindfulness makes changes to adult brains, which helps with:

  • focus and attention
  • better managing our feelings
  • wellbeing and stress reduction
  • creativity
  • kindness and empathy to self and others

Next steps…

MTK is a way of discovering the science for your self. Dive into a practice or find out more first…

Take a Practice
Listen to the Podcast

One small thing…

Next time you feel stressed, notice what is happening in your body and soften some of the tension.

Try taking a deep mindful breath and slowly release it.

Imagine you are looking down on yourself and the situation and observe any reactivity.

Smile…

It’s good to share…

Have you learnt something from these tools?
Do you know someone who might benefit?
Is there something we could do better?