The Neuroscience of Stress
Everyone needs a “just right” amount of arousal chemicals for optimal functioning of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the area of the brain responsible for our executive functioning, including thoughtful decision-making and planning for the future, among other things.
Picture a bell curve. To the right of the curve is increased stress / stimulation, and to the left of the curve is decreased stress / stimulation. Our cortex is regulated by two main chemicals (dopamine and norepinephrine) and becomes stimulated (or not) based on the task at hand. When we are alert and interested, we get the right amount of chemical release. But when we are stressed and out of control, we get BIG releases of these chemicals. All the connections in this part of the brain become dysfunctional, engaging other kinds of receptors that actually impair prefrontal cortex function. The impact of being over-stimulated or under-stimulated results in the SAME cognitive impairment of the brain: foggy thinking, poor memory, lack of empathy, inability to regulate impulses. As well, chronic stress results in actual architectural changes in the cortex. You actually start losing dendrites, a branched part of a neuron involved in cell to cell electrochemical stimulation. Stress is VERY real, and actually has the ability to alter the structural make up of your brain. Cray, eh?
So what does this have to do with YOU? Behavior from the top trickles down to your team, so if you are a stressed leader and not taking care of yourself, how can you possibly model good behavior to your colleagues and employees? Moreover, as a leader, you need to be able to access your brain when it is at its best (in balance). When you are overstressed or under-stimulated, you don’t get optimal executive functioning. Below, I share some strategies for managing stress and getting your PFC closer to balance or “online” as we coaches like to say.
Name Your Emotions
According to BeAbove Leadership, an organization specializing in the intersectionality of neuroscience, consciousness and leadership, “research shows that simply naming an emotion reduces amygdala activity.” This is one of the reasons I listen to my clients and try to help them name the emotions that they are feeling. Often, a client will show up at a session experiencing a whole host of different feelings. After listening very carefully to them, I often reflect what it is I hear them saying, and then attempt to name an emotion. I will say, “it sounds like ‘guilt’ or it sounds like ‘grief,’” and in doing that, it helps them make sense of their own emotions. If I’m not right on with the emotion, it’s the opportunity for them to say, for example, “no, actually it’s not guilt; it’s more ambivalence.”
Journaling how you are feeling each day can also markedly help with stress management; simply waking up in the morning and taking 10 minutes to write down how you are feeling that day can help you process stressful feelings when you don’t have an empathetic listener.
Reframe Your Perspective
Shifting and reframing your perspective is one way to effectively reduce stress. I once left a coaching session feeling a bit stunned. My “inner child” wanted to flee. A client who was feeling a lot of anger in his life had taken it out on me by yelling at me and insulting the coaching profession. I left feeling as if I had failed, and the experience had me questioning my coaching abilities. The “stun” was my fight or flight. In that moment, my prefrontal cortex got (PFC) stressed, and I had very little access to it, as it was flooded with dopamine and norepinephrine.
After some introspection and self-coaching, I was able to reframe this session as a gift instead of an utter disaster. Though it felt stressful for me, my client had triggered something that reminded me of how some people would lash out at me for things when I was growing up, thereby stimulating a very emotional response and memory to the stressor. And this made me feel worthless. So in bringing up this feeling again was an opportunity to heal it, to use my PFC to think more about it and to calm my stress response and self-manage through difficult to be with emotions. Moreover, I realized that my client felt safe enough to express his anger with me. Following that we had a breakthrough session and he showed up ready and willing to be coached. Taking the time to think and reframe a stressful event can help build a new neural pathway to thinking about a situation, and bring the PFC back online to help you make sense of your own emotions.
Practice Focus and Attention
The data from studies relating to focus and attention just gets more and more fascinating, particularly around meditation. It’s not just “new-agey stuff.” Studies show that meditation changes the composition of the brain.
Long-term meditators have increased amounts of grey matter in parts of the brain associated with sensory functions, and they also have more grey matter in the PFC. Some studies indicate that meditation also reduces the size of the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for the fight or flight “freeze” response of the brain and strengthens the brain region responsible for processing information related to people perceived as being different front you (our seat of empathy).
What’s this got to do with stress? Well, the data suggests that meditation builds more “good” types of connections in the brain, to help it become more resilient to stress. So with more focus and attention, you can build your resilience and have stronger connections between the logical and empathetic areas of your higher executive functioning brain and your limbic system, making you more resilient to stress.
Make a Powerful Choice
When you are out of balance on the curve, sometimes it requires you to make some lifestyle choices, and sometimes it requires you to make powerful choices. The difference between just making a choice and a POWERFUL choice is that there is often more at stake with the powerful choice. A powerful choice might feel more difficult to make because the consequences of the choice are so life-changing that it is too scary to think about removing the source of the stress. Powerful choices often require courage, as in the event of choosing to quit a job, get out of a toxic relationship, or simply to just stop doing something.
Lastly, our PFC and the relevant chemical release is proportional to the task at hand. While some might feel a little stimulation from something and it feels like a good amount of stimulation, for others it can provoke a much stronger chemical response and overload the PFC with chemicals. What tips and strategies have you picked up along the way to manage your stress? When you are feeling like you want to “fight or flee,” how have you gotten your PFC back online to where things feel just right?