How the brain responds to stress

Since the days of the hunters and gatherers the brain has responded to stress in three ways – fight, flight or freeze response. How does this work? We look at how the brain sends a distress signal which triggers neurological and chemical responses.

Research shows that when you are under stress your brain is less productive and you have less capacity to be creative.

So in tough times it is a good idea for leaders to help reduce stress in employees by focusing on opportunities and solutions.

Lets take a closer look at what happens to the brain when you are under stress.

Watch the next video in this series here:

Part 4 – Stress indicators: Are you or your colleagues stressed?

And watch the previous video here:

Part 2 – What are the major causes of stress in life and work?

And if you know of anyone who would benefit from this video, please share it with them.

Video Transcript

What is the neuroscience of stress?

Hi, Andrew from SACS, and welcome to video number three in our eighth video sequence on leadership in tough times.

So far we’ve covered the issue of what we meant by leadership, we’ve talked about stress and stressors.

In this video, we’re going to be talking briefly about the neuroscience of stress, and some of the techniques that we talk about in stress management later, depend very heavily on an understanding of the neuroscience of stress.

The next video in this sequence will be about whether I’m stressed and whether my colleagues are stressed, and how you can find that out.

So, this one is about the neuroscience of stress.

A whole brain perspective

Now, the neuroscience of stress can be dealt with in a range of different ways, simple ways, complicated ways.

We’re taking a simple perspective, a kind of a whole brain and a whole brain system perspective on the neuroscience of stress.

And what we find is that this brain tends to respond in three ways, the fight response, the flight response or the freeze response.

Now there is a fourth way that’s been a identified more recently in neurological studies, but we’re going to start off with these three, the fight response, the flight response, or the freeze response.

Now, of course, this evolved from the time of the hunter gatherers, and we are being attacked by saber-tooth tigers or snakes or whatever.

So you have three choices historically.

The fight, flight and freeze response to stress

You have the fight response, which is that whatever the threat is, I will attack it. And the neurological chemicals and responses that happen in response to that tend to be the anger type responses.

Then you have the alternative which is rather than fight this enemy, I will run away from it, and that’s called the flight response.

And again, you get very strong neurological and biochemical responses to help you to run away, including things like the capillaries on the outside of your body will shrink, which cause you to be less likely to bleed profusely if you get hurt by whatever it is that you’re going to try to run away from, that happens with the fight response or the flight response.

You also get pupil dilation, and there’s a very biological reason for that. And that is that many of the threats that we experienced in the hunter gatherer days were experienced at dusk. And if your pupils dilate, that makes you more able to see but in particular, it improves your peripheral vision.

So you are less likely to be able to be snuck up on by one of these threatening experiences. So the fight and flight response.

Now the freeze response is what happens when you can’t run away and you can’t attack. And so you’ll often see that animals will hunker down.

You know, they’ll try to hide in the grass, and there’s the old story about ostriches burying their heads, I don’t actually think that happens, but there is that old story where they’re really trying to hide, trying to in effect hope that they will not be noticed by whatever the attacker is.

The modern day response to stress

The thing that you need to understand about all of this neurology is that it happens as much today as it did in the days of the saber-tooth tigers.

But of course, it’s not a great solution these days because what happens is that the threats that we experience these days take much longer than the threats that we tended to experience back in the hunter gatherer days, you get attacked by saber-tooth tiger, well, you live or you die, but if you’ve got stress at work, you’re getting the same fight, flight or freeze response.

Your amygdala is active. You are pumping into your body a whole bunch of chemicals like adrenaline, and those kinds of things which are long term, not good for you, and cortisol which can in fact cause cancer. And so what tends to happen is that the fight, flight and freeze response is kind of geared to a simpler era where it was like flipping a switch. You live or you die. And if you die, you go on to try other things.

Now, the forms of stress that we experience are persistent. And so we tend to get sublimated responses to fight, flight and freeze.

So, a sublimated response to flight might be where you are going to undertake politics in your workplace and try to in effect derail the efforts of the organisation in that way, or the flight response could be, I’m not going to go to work. Absenteeism will increase.

And the freeze response, that’s when people will have what’s called presenteeism, where they turn up to work, but they’re really not actively involved in the workplace.

Distress signals

But the neurology of it is that when the brain experiences stress, the amygdala sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus.

And that’s what gives rise to all of these neurological and chemical responses. And so, this is where the heart beats faster. You get rapid breathing, sensors become sharper, and you get a rush of adrenaline.

When we’re under stress, our brains are less productive and have less capacity to think creatively.

And David Rock, who’s a very famous neuroscientist was heard to comment that when people are under enough stress, it’s actually like they’ve lost IQ points.

Your ability to be objective, your ability to stand back and reflect on things to sum up an entire situation goes.

And you may notice that if people are really stressed, have you even noticed how they really drill down into the detail, “Then she said this, and then he said that, and then I got this email and then the customer rang?” All that detail minded stuff is certainly evidence of amygdala, because what’s happening is the person is over responding. They’re over aroused. And therefore they become what’s called hypervigilant.

The body keeps the score

By the way, if you’re interested in this kind of stuff, very fascinating book called “The Body Keeps the Score” by gentleman, by Bessel van der Kolk.

And that talks about not just the neurology of this kind of stuff, but how persistent it can be.

If somebody’s in a persistent, stressful experience, sometimes it can take only two months from stress to move from acute, which means something that’s happening right here and right now to chronic, which means that it’s become part of my neurology.

So that’s part of the neurological response to stress.

What is new brain, old brain?

Now, here we have a picture of the brain (refer to video), and this is a picture from a project called the Human Connectome.

And what it shows, you notice that there’s a sort of a separation between the older part of the brain, which is the inner part of the brain and the newer part of the brain, which is the outer part of the brain.

Now, what do I mean by newer and older? Well, the newer parts of the brain simply evolved more recently, and the older parts of the brain are really to protect an organism.

The newer parts of the brain are to respond to a situation where we need to survive and be effective in a social milieu, in cities and in societies and in communities and that kind of thing.

The way this works is that the old brain and the new brain, firstly are not particularly well connected to each other. An old brain experience can be quite contrary to the workings of a new brain.

In other words, we can be frightened of something irrationally. And our new brain knows we shouldn’t be frightened of that, but there’s not a great deal that you can do about it because the old brain cannot be readily convinced by the new brain.

That’s why some people are very frustrated by the things that they’re frightened of or they have difficulties with, but they’re in effect almost two independent systems. And that’s why you can be very insightful and clever in certain things, but kind of goofy in others because that’s just the way your neurological response has developed.

One of the things that we know is what you focus on can have a big impact on people’s neurological responses.

So if you focus on the things that are associated with the past, and focus on what’s wrong, and you focus on negatives, that will tend to kick off the old brain, which is where you’ll get your anger, fear, depression response, fight, flight, freeze.

In tough times focus on the solution

So, leadership in tough times can be enormously heavily about what you focus on.

And so it’s a good idea to focus on solutions. It’s a good idea to focus on opportunities. It’s a good idea to focus on what we can control and forget about what we can’t control.

All of those things tend to lessen the stress response, and tend to make people more reflective, turn on their new brains.

And so they’re likely to be able to come up with solutions to the issues that are making the world tough for them at that time.

So there’s a little bit about neuroscience of stress.

And in video number four, we’ll be raising the question, “How can you tell if you are stressed?” Often people are stressed and they don’t know. So we’ll give you a simple self diagnostic, but also how to diagnose whether other people are stressed.

We’ll talk about the main signs.

Join us to find out a little bit more about how to lead in tough times.

Watch the next video in this series to find out more about leadership in tough times:

Part 4 – Stress indicators: Are you or your colleagues stressed?

And watch the previous video here:

Part 2 – What are the major causes of stress in life and work?

And if you’d like some help with developing your leaders to better handle challenging times, contact us about our Wellbeing and Engagement Survey.

SACS Consulting
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