Stress

In Defence of the Fight or Flight Response

Photo Credit: Gabriel Matula on Unsplash.

Photo Credit: Gabriel Matula on Unsplash.

In many stress management books and articles we are painted as hapless victims of a pathetically primitive survival system – the Fight or Flight response (aka the stress response). The argument goes that the Fight or Flight response whilst suitable for helping our ancestors deal with sabre-tooth tigers and the suchlike, is wholly inappropriate for us modern day humans when, for example, we're stuck in a traffic jam or facing an unrealistic deadline at work.

According to the Fight or Flight critics, this woefully outdated response goes off like a car alarm every time we are in trouble and makes everybody sick, and the best thing would be if we could stop it with a ‘magic bullet’ or have it surgically removed. Some stress ideologists even claim that Mother Nature is trying to kill us!

The question is, should we really perceive ourselves as victims of a natural response that has played such a key role in our survival across millennia?

The Fight or Flight response is remarkable. It evolved to help us deal with physical threats against which we could take physical action (e.g. the oft quoted sabre tooth tiger). However, the majority of the threats we face today do not represent physical threats to our survival, rather they are perceived threats to our Physical and Emotional Needs. These perceived threats may be real or imagined. 

The amygdala, a very primitive, early developed part of brain (which gives the signal to activate the Fight or Flight Response) isn’t able to distinguish between actual life threatening physical events and imagined threats. Indeed, when the Fight or Flight response first evolved we didn’t have a ‘thinking brain’ and there was no such thing as imagination. Today, when we imagine ourselves in a scenario where one or more of our Physical and Emotional Needs is under threat, we are likely to trigger the Fight or Flight response.

The consequence of triggering the Fight or Flight response is a mixture of physiological, mental and emotional symptoms we label stress. Stress, while often disquieting and unpleasant, is intended to galvanize us to take urgent action, or make urgent plans, to solve the riddle of the situation in order to save ourselves from the threat. 

The Fight or Flight response functions like a fire or burglar alarm, and the stress it produces is not meant to be ignored, or endured. It’s a call to action. So rather than subscribing to the idea that the Fight or Flight response has outlived its usefulness and should be switched off, we need recognise it for the valuable role it continues to play in our day to day survival and well-being.

To reduce the stress we experience from inappropriate activation of the Fight or Flight response we need to:

  • learn how to stop misusing our imagination

  • get better at appraising threats

  • enhance our coping capabilities

  • learn to deal with stress before it begins to have an adverse impact on the way we live our lives.

What Next?

If you’d like to explore how well you are currently dealing with stress and how you can manage your stress better, contact me on 021 056 8389 or email tony@tycoaching.nz.

 

Have a wonderful week.

Go well

Tony

 

REMEMBER - "When you change your mind you change your life."

 

Tony helps individuals to harness the power of their mind to achieve success and well-being in life, work and business. Tony's particular area of expertise lies in helping people to 'change their minds' so they gain freedom from worry, anxiety and stress, overcome limiting beliefs and unhelpful habits. Tony’s solution focused approach to coaching uses a range of techniques drawn from the fields of solution focused coaching, neuroscience, positive psychology and clinical hypnosis.

 

How to Master Anxiety

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Everyone experiences anxiety to some degree - but individuals who suffer from severe anxiety have excessive and unrealistic feelings of dread, apprehension and impending disaster that interfere with their normal everyday lives and relationships.

By learning how to master anxiety we can stop the interference.

Understanding how anxiety manifests itself

Understanding how anxiety manifests itself is important because it enables us to identify the warning signs and take proactive action.

In their excellent book “How to Master Anxiety – All You Need To Know To Overcome Stress, Panic Attacks, Phobias, Trauma, Obsessions and More” authors Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell describe the various ways in which anxiety can manifest itself.

Perhaps:

  • when you wake in the morning and open your eyes, a vague, unidentifiable feeling of fear or anxiety envelops you. You go through your day with that unidentifiable sense of impending disaster.

  • your anxiety is less intrusive than that. You look perfectly normal, behave perfectly normally, get on with your life apparently normally. And yet you don't feel fulfilled or truly happy or fully in the heart of things. A lot of the time you feel panicky or nervous. You can't relax or settle down to things. "What if?" and "shouldn't I?" questions run through your mind most of the time ( although you might not be aware of this). The disabling anxiety is almost always there, on your shoulder, weighing you down. At night, it stops you getting off to sleep and, if you wake in the early hours, it kicks in at once, preventing you from dropping back to sleep again quickly.

  • suddenly, for no reason you can fathom, your heart starts to pound; you are sweating and shaking; struggling to take in enough breath, you feel that you are choking; your stomach drops to the ground and you have the terrible feeling that you are going to lose control of your bladder and your bowels. You are in the midst of a panic attack. With each occurrence you feel more hopeless and helpless. You start to avoid places where there might be a risk of experiencing a panic and gradually your world starts to shrink as you avoid more and more places.

There are very many different ways that severe anxiety can affect people, these are just a few examples, but there is one impact that is common to all. Like a tyrant, severe anxiety stops people from enjoying a normal, happy and fulfilling life.

Anxiety is not something we have it’s something we do.

“Anxiety is not all powerful and inexplicable - it can be managed very easily ... when you know how. 'Instead of anxiety working against you ... it can be tamed to work for you, just as it was always meant to.”

Ivan Tyrell and Joe Griffin

The physiological, psychological, and emotional state of being anxious is an outcome of our mind/body system completing the STRESS process. The STRESS process is part of our natural, innate survival system.

Accepting the fact that anxiety is not something we have - it is not an “it,” “thing” disease, or illness – rather it is something we ‘do,’ is one of the keys to mastering severe anxiety. Why?

Because it puts us back in the driving seat. If we are the ones ‘doing’ our anxiety then with the right help, tools and techniques we can change the way we run our STRESS process, and thereby reduce the risk of experiencing severe anxiety and/or regain control over the anxiety we are currently experiencing.

Tools and techniques

''You already have all the tools you need to take back control.”

Ivan Tyrell and Joe Griffin

There are a number of tools and techniques which are applicable, whatever form severe anxiety takes. These include:

  • Identifying and addressing missing physical and emotional needs

  • learning to make the best use of our existing resources (internal and external) particularly our imagination. Misuse of our imagination is usually at the root of anxiety. We can use the positive power of our imagination to manage our thoughts and feelings and change our experience of anxiety.

  • Identifying and changing our thinking habits. For example changing negatively focused “What if?’ thoughts to positively focused “What if” thoughts.

  • Learning how to re-interpret our bodily sensations

  • Learning how to relax

  • Learning how to get the right amount of good, quality sleep

These tools and techniques once learned, become skills for life that enable us to master anxiety.

What Next?

If worry, anxiety or stress are causing ongoing problems in your life, give me a call me on 021 056 8389, or email tony@tycoaching and let's explore how I can help you develop the life skills that will enable you to master your anxiety.

REMEMBER - "When you change your mind you change your life."

 

 

Have a wonderful week

Tony

Tony helps individuals to harness the power of their mind to achieve success and well-being in life, work and business. Tony's particular area of expertise lies in helping people to 'change their minds' so they gain freedom from worry, anxiety and stress, overcome limiting beliefs and unhelpful habits. Tony’s solution focused approach to coaching uses a range of techniques drawn from the fields of solution focused coaching, neuroscience, positive psychology and clinical hypnosis.

The 3 keys to regaining control of your stress

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To stop stress impacting adversely on our performance, health and enjoyment of life there are three key things we need to do. But, before I discuss those three things, let’s take a look at what stress is. 

Stress

"Stress, like Einstein's theory of relativity, is a scientific concept which has suffered from the mixed blessing of being too well known and too little understood.”

~ Dr Hans Selye (the ‘father’ of stress research)

 

In my work with clients I define stress as the name we give to a particular cocktail of sensations, feelings and thoughts we experience in response to a perceived threat.

 

Stress is something we experience not ‘something’ we have. It is not something that exists in our workplaces or homes. If it was a ‘thing’, we could simply collect up all our stress, put it in a rubbish bag and leave it out on the street for collection. Hey presto, instant stress relief!

Stress is vital to life

Stress has a bad name but it isn’t inherently bad. It is in fact natural, normal and helpful. We wouldn’t be able to live without it. Stress only becomes a problem when the experience starts to have a negative impact on our performance, enjoyment of life and well-being.

When we’re experiencing stress, it’s a sign that our body is prepared and energised, ready for action. Stress helps us perform the thousands of actions we undertake each day, which in simple terms, involves either moving towards something (pleasure) or moving away from something (pain).

As the Performance/Stress graph below shows, we need different amounts of stress to complete different actions. Simple everyday tasks may not require us to experience a lot of stress whereas to meet challenges and achieve our goals we may need to experience much more stress. However, too much stress impairs our ability to perform both physically and mentally. And when our stress level climbs too high and stays high for a period of time (chronic stress) it is no longer useful or healthy.

Source: stress-rx.com

Source: stress-rx.com

Effective Stress Management enables us to:

  1. Thrive and perform under pressure - the green zone on the graph.
  2. Avoid distress and chronic stress – the orange and red zones on the graph

The Three Keys to Effective Stress Management

To effectively manage our stress we need to do three things:

  1. Understand how we experience stress – become familiar with the STRESS Process
  2. Change our perception of events, situations and people
  3. Cope with the excessive and/or unhelpful stress

Let’s take a quick look at each of these three keys:

1.    The Stress Process

As the saying goes, “knowledge is power”. When we understand something much of the fear of it is removed. For an explanation of the Stress Process head over to this Blog post.

2.    Changing our Perception

“Changing distorted perceptions is an essential stress management tool."

~ Dr Valeri O'Hara PhD, Clinical Psychologist

We tend to think that stress is caused by external events, situations and people but this is incorrect. If it were, everybody who was exposed to a particular external event, situation or person(s) would experience stress, but this is not the case.

Take a traffic jam for example. One person in the traffic jam may sit and fume becoming very angry at the delay, but another person in the same traffic jam may quietly accept the situation, calmly sing along to songs on the radio and think that getting upset or irritable won’t move the car one millimetre forward. This is the same traffic jam for both drivers, yet two different responses due to the different perceptions of the event by both individuals.

Our perceptions are shaped by a range of factors including: our identity, beliefs, assumptions, values, attitudes, memories, expectations, conditioning, personality traits and thinking style, and life experiences.

Moment to moment, we receive sensory information from both the external environment and our internal environment (mind and body) and we interpret this sensory information and assign it a meaning. If we perceive there’s a threat to our physical and/or emotional well-being we activate the stress response and experience stress.

This process of perception is the one and only cause of stress.

Unfortunately, we often interpret events much worse, than they actually are or will be, thus greatly increasing the intensity of the stress we experience.

The good news is when we know how, and with a little practice, we can change our perception from an unrealistic, inaccurate one, to a more realistic and accurate assessment. And when we do this we can dramatically reduce the stress we experience in the moment (acute stress) and reduce our overall stress level (chronic stress).

3.    Coping with the symptoms of stress

It’s impossible to avoid experiencing stress, so it pays to have some effective tools and techniques in our stress management toolkit to help us cope with and reduce the level of stress we’re experiencing.

Here are three fundamental coping strategies that your toolkit should contain:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing:  The method I teach my clients is called 7/11 Breathing.

 

  • Get Moving: to burn off the excess stress hormones in our body we need to get moving.  I’m not necessarily talking about joining a gym and lifting weights, or running a marathon. Just 30 minutes of brisk walking a day can be very beneficial. So can a regular swim. Or going for a bike ride. Or yoga. Even gardening or housework, as long as you work up a sweat! As well as burning off stress hormones movement produces “good mood” chemicals in the brain like dopamine.

 

  • Get enough sleep. Sleep is essential for the body to function properly. The optimal sleep duration for an adult aged between 26 and 65 is 7.5 hours, reducing as we age. It is considered optimal to have fallen asleep by 10:30pm, and wake at 6am. If you’ve habitually skimped on sleep, you probably won’t even remember how it feels to wake up fully rested. Plan for a good sleep. Go to bed before 10:30pm. Do not check email before bed. Do not watch TV in bed. Give going to bed before 10:30 a go for a week, and see if there’s a difference in how you perform during the day.

What Next?

If anxiety or stress are causing ongoing problems in your life, give me a call me on 021 056 8389, email tony@tycoaching.nz  and let’s explore of you can use the three keys to unlock your stress.

 

REMEMBER - "When you change your mind you change your life."

Go well

Tony

 

Tony helps individuals to harness the power of their mind to achieve success and well-being in life, work and business. Tony's particular area of expertise lies in helping people to 'change their minds' so they gain freedom from worry, anxiety and stress, overcome limiting beliefs and unhelpful habits. Tony’s solution focused approach to coaching uses a range of techniques drawn from the fields of solution focused coaching, neuroscience, positive psychology and clinical hypnosis.

 

 

Writing about your core values is powerful and beneficial

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Research tells us that writing about our core values is one of the most effective psychological interventions we can engage in.

In the book The Upside Of Stress health psychologist Kelly McGonigal refers to a 1990s study in which a group of Stanford University college students were given the task of keeping a daily journal over the winter break. Some of the students were asked to write about their most important personal values and then describe how the events of each day connected with those values. Another group of students was simply asked to describe the positive events that happened throughout their day.

When the students returned to University after the break, the researchers discovered that those students who wrote about their personal values were healthier, experienced fewer illnesses, and had better energy and attitude than the students who merely wrote about the positive events in their lives. In the intervening years these findings have been replicated in nearly a hundred additional studies.

McGonigal writes: “It turns out that writing about your values is one of the most effective psychological interventions ever studied. In the short term, writing about personal values makes people feel more powerful, in control, proud, and strong. It also makes them feel more loving, connected, and empathetic toward others. It increases pain tolerance, enhances self-control, and reduces unhelpful rumination after a stressful experience.

In the long term, writing about values has been shown to boost GPAs {grade point averages}, reduce doctor visits, improve mental health, and help with everything from weight loss to quitting smoking and reducing drinking. It helps people persevere in the face of discrimination and reduces self-handicapping. In many cases, these benefits are a result of a one-time mindset intervention. People who write about their values once, for ten minutes, show benefits months or even years later.”

Researchers believe that one core reason for why this activity is so powerful is that journaling about your personal values and connecting them to the events in your life helps to reveal the meaning behind the events that cause you to experience stress. In McGonigal’s words, “Stressful experiences were no longer simply hassles to endure; they became an expression of the students’ values… small things that might otherwise have seemed irritating became moments of meaning.”

In the short term, writing about personal values makes people feel more powerful, in control, proud, and strong. It also makes them feel more loving, connected, and empathetic toward others. It increases pain tolerance, enhances self-control, and reduces unhelpful rumination after an experience that resulted in stress.

In the long term, writing about personal values has been shown to boost test scores, reduce doctor visits, improve mental health, and help with everything from weight loss to quitting smoking and reducing problem drinking. It helps people persevere in the face of discrimination and reduces self-handicapping.

The research shows that people who write about their values once, for ten minutes, show benefits months or even years later.

To create your mind-set shift:

1. Set aside ten minutes.

2. Identify between 1 and say 8 core values - the things that are most important to you. For some examples of common core values click here.

3. Once you've identified your core values, pick one and write about it for ten minutes. Describe why this value is important to you. You don't have to write about anything that is currently a challenge or threat.  You could simply write about how you express the value you've chosen to write about, in your everyday life, including what you did today that was in alignment with this core value. Or if you are facing a difficult decision, you could write about how this value might guide you.

You may want to repeat this exercise with at least two more of your core values at another sitting, or revisit this exercise when you are feeling especially overwhelmed by stress.

The lasting benefits of this exercise are not the direct result of the ten-minute writing period, but of the mind-set shift that it inspires.

More on the Upside of Stress

Click here for a short video summary of the book - The Upside of Stress and  click here to listen to Kelly McGonigal's TED talk "How to Make Stress Your Best Friend."

What Next?

If you’d like help eliciting and exploring your core values, or you’d like to gain more control over your anxiety or stress, give me a call me on 021 056 8389, email tony@tycoaching.nz and start enjoying the benefits.

 

REMEMBER - "When you change your mind you change your life."

Have a marvellous weekend.

Go well

Tony Yuile

 

Tony helps individuals to harness the power of their mind to achieve success and well-being in life, work and business. Tony's particular area of expertise lies in mind management - helping people to 'change their minds' so they gain freedom from worry, anxiety and stress, overcome limiting beliefs and unhelpful habits. Tony’s solution focused approach uses a range of techniques drawn from the fields of solution focused coaching, neuroscience, positive psychology, mindfulness and clinical hypnosis.