Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lighten Your Load: Your Brains (plural) Coping with Stress

We thrive under pressure. In fact, evolution dictates that the survival of our species relied on facing life challenges, adapting, and then overcoming those obstacles. Thereby arriving  to where we are today. But, today things are different. No longer something physical like a Saber-toothed Lion we can run from, stress is invisible, ever present and just as deadly as it ever was.

Let’s step back for a moment. Did you know that evolution has given you three brains: the lizard brain, the dog brain, and the human brain (Reptilian Complex, Limbic System, and Neocortex)? Each one marks a progression of sorts.

The lizard brain is of basic instinct and need: purely selfish. However, about 100-million years ago mammals came into existence and with them came the Limbic System. A second brain the covers the first. Suddenly, emotions were introduced. Mammals were able to experience loyalty, jealousy, compassion, etc.

More recently, say 100-thousand years ago, the precursor to humans; primates immerged with the Neocortex. This third brain covers the first two and introduces reason, logic, cause and effect. It allows us to think and act well beyond our basic response to emotion or survival. But let’s get back to the topic of stress.

As I said earlier, today’s stress is invisible. While the older brains can only feel and act, our evolved brain is now capable of imagination and “what if” scenarios. And, for each one of those perceived dangers, our dog and reptilian brains want to immediately act against them. They want to escape or destroy them: fight or flight.

But how do you run away from say you afternoon meeting with your boss? It could be a meeting where you get a promotion and a pay increase, or a meeting where you get reprimanded and dismissed. Nevertheless, a whole slew of activities begin to physically happen because your dog and reptilian brain have engaged your lymphatic system and sent a flood of Cortisol (the stress hormone) into your system.

Heart rate and blood pressure increases. Pupils dilate and breathing becomes shallow. Even your bowels seem to respond either by letting loose or clamping shut. Is it no wonder why they say stress can kill?

Unfortunately, our “superior brain” permits us to concern ourselves with far more than we need to. It allows us to worry about the future, about things that haven’t happened yet, and of things that may never happen. But what I’ve learned is that today is more than enough to occupy my thoughts. Of course, planning and preparation for the future is essential for hope, personal achievement and growth, it is not the immediate. The “immediate” is what calls for action; action that I can take now.

What is my answer to coping with stress? Lighten your load. Make sure you are only carrying today’s pressures because today’s problems are usually stressful enough. Leave tomorrow’s burdens until later.

As Always - Enjoy Your Life!

John Aaron Villarreal

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