Life is stressful. We get it. But 'stress' comes as a negatively loaded term, and this is a reinforcing concept that plays on a psychological tendency to become overwhelmed by stress, to physiologically respond in a way that wrests all control away from us. We regress to instinctive and reactive creatures. Yet we are at the top of the food-chain for a reason. And this rests in our executive control mechanisms. It's time to reframe stress in terms of challenge not threat...
In my blogs I put forward ideas from Adventure Psychology to help people figure a way to thrive in uncertain times, and make sense of the crazy world. By adopting an Adventure Mindset (I'll gradually reveal how) you can approach the challenges of life with an adaptable resolve, and embrace the chaos knowing full well that it's a wild ride so you might as well enjoy it!
“To ensure robust executive control tendencies we should strive to be aware of how we think and act, how the environment exerts demands upon us, and how we typically respond to our own body signals. We can re-appraise and re-evaluate situations by being more mindful of these processes and interacting factors. We can strive to maintain calmness and composure, and perspective. These are hallmarks of so-called high performers, and indeed those seen to prevail under conditions of extreme stress. ."
Take back (executive) control
Think of a time when you have been really stressed. It shouldn’t be hard. If you are perpetually stressed then we need to do something about it.
How did it make you feel? Does the very thought get your heart racing, palms sweating? Do your emotions ramp up and raise ire? Was it (and is it still) unpleasant? Indeed has this put you in a negative frame of mind right now?
Stress is a natural, everyday, response that we all encounter. It’s a vital part of our functioning as healthy (and unhealthy) human beings. Without ‘stress’ we wouldn’t really get much done. Hold onto that thought as this is a key armament in the endless war against becoming ‘stressed out’.
Our inbuilt mechanism to function normally (and occasionally optimally) incorporates complex systems within the brain and body that regulate all manner of processes, from the beating of your heart, the jumble of thoughts in your head, to the rumbling of your bowels. And more besides.
The ‘stress response’ is not simply something that kicks in when someone jumps out of the bushes as you nip to the shops at midnight for a guilty Mars bar. Or makes the bottom fall out of your world when a letter bearing unpleasant news drops onto the doormat.
We are in a constant ebb and flow throughout the day as the governing board of the brain goes about its business managing the demands that are encountered. Whether this is pouring resource into the areas that need to think through a complex problem. Or to alert someone to turn the heating up as its all of a sudden gone very cold and one is not feeling as chipper and alert as one needs to be. Or indeed when a sudden shock greets one unexpectedly (“what do you mean there’ll be redundancies??!!”).
Simply put, we need energy and resource in the higher centres of our brains to make decisions, think through options, or to manage the emotions that enrichen (and complexify) our lives. At the same time, we have a convoluted system of pipes and tubes within us that sustain our normal way of operating to stay healthy, energised, comfortable, safe and secure. This is known as homeostasis. A balance in the force as it were. Disrupt the balance and the brain goes on high alert, withdrawing investment from some regions to address the needs that have arisen, striving to restore things back to normal. This can cause conflict. Or stress.
Some stress appears to be the be-all and end-all. It dominates our thinking. In fact we tend to negatively load the term instinctively. Instinct tends to come to the fore when the higher centres of ‘executive control’ are taken somewhat offline(such as reside in the pre-frontal cortex). (See earlier clarifying statement about the re-prioritisation of resources.) Areas of the brain that deal with homeostasis, include those that are involved in what is referred to as interoception (meaning the awareness of bodily signals that allude to homeostasis – the insular cortex is one such region). It is possible to become pre-occupied with the emotional significance of this imbalance as we shift to a state of ‘discomfort’. If we allow the executive control areas to lose this control, then the stress response will escalate into the more instinctive and reactive mode already cautioned about. Fortunately we have at our disposal a capacity, via these executive processes, to take charge of the interoceptive tendencies and re-appraise what the bodily signals mean. This includes apportioning significance to the signals being elaborated upon. We can regulate our emotional response on this basis.
By seeing ‘stress’ in terms of the interplay between and among different brain systems that seek to spend resource efficiently we can take more control over our stress response. Awareness of situational factors – both in the external environment and the demands placed upon us to function within it (including tasks that need to be fulfilled), as well as the internal homeostatic environment that keeps us ticking over – is a valuable component in strengthening and maintaining executive control. And with that not allowing ‘stress’ to take over and determine how we respond to circumstance.
This is where also an awareness of how we operate physiologically and (neuro)psychologically can help us discipline ourselves to be more in control and executively robust! A couple of key systems come into play upon encountering stressors: a sympathetico-adrenal system which orientates attention and alertness to help appraise what is going on in the situation, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis which serves to promote longer lasting adaptive responses to attempt to restore homeostasis. Involving the release of the likes of epinephrine and norepinephrine, cortisol, these neurobiological processes seek to boost the brain to figure out what’s going on and to rapidly do something about it to bring things back to normal. In the mix is activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which serves to speed the heart up and prepare the body for fight or flight. By beginning to understand what is going on, and how our mental processes may be neurophysiologically redirected by virtue of these responses, we can already begin to enhance our executive capacity to take back control. You might call this meta-cognitive awareness, for want of a better term (that will do nicely in fact).
To sum this up: perceived/encountered ‘stress’ which threatens to upset homeostatic balance in turn strives to draw resource away from the higher order cognitive processes we enjoy at the top of the food-chain, and regress us to more instinctive creatures. This in turn strips away control and renders us potentially panic-stricken. But in fact, this very executive capacity is the thing we can use to prevent this happening.
To ensure robust executive control tendencies we should strive to be aware of how we think and act, how the environment exerts demands upon us, and how we typically respond to our own body signals. We can re-appraise and re-evaluate situations by being more mindful of these processes and interacting factors. We can strive to maintain calmness and composure, and perspective. These are hallmarks of so-called high performers, and indeed those seen to prevail under conditions of extreme stress. But one thing that stands out in the arena of adventure and extreme situations as being a key component for building resilience is something called a ‘challenge mindset’.
One may choose to respond to circumstance by either seeing obstacles and prospective stressors as threats to one’s homeostasis, purpose, and path to success. This is to lead one down an avenue towards instinctive response and being overwhelmed and at the behest of the situation. In fact, when a situation is appraised as threatening, a cardiovascular response is initiated which impairs cognitive functioning. Alternatively, one can see obstacles, no matter how daunting, as challenges that are to be overcome. Challenges stimulate us and prompt us to find solutions, to stretch our thinking and exert effort to adapt and prevail. Indeed this is at the heart of the stress response. For stress, framed thus, is, as was initially alluded to, the impetus to shift from a place of stagnant comfort, by means of disrupted homeostasis, to change position, to put into practice strategies that can lead to growth and achievement.
Of course adventurous, and extreme predicaments can provide this in abundance. Adventure by its very nature is stimulating exciting, daunting, challenging. It requires a disruption to homeostasis – you are never going to get much adventure lounging on the couch. You have to get up, lace up your boots, and stride purposefully out of the front door, up the garden path and off into the hills far and away. Singing merrily about how the road goes ever on, or some suchlike.
Obviously, if you are awash with anxiety, despair, hyperactive stress circuits, then this likely requires inervention of a more medical nature. But as a means to begin to address daily incidence of so-called stress and take back control, you can address the notion of executive control little and often. This means recognising the way your brain processes interoceptive signals pertaining to your bodily sensations and how your homeostasis is being disrupted. It means being aware of the environment around you and how this impinges on your ability to think clearly. It is about realising the demands placed upon you both situationally and from within. And as the first, major step towards being in command, adopting a challenge, or as I like to call it #AdventureMindset is a strategy you can employ to tackle each day with vim and vigour.
So, don’t stress about it! This is your opportunity to assert yourself...