How Does The Brain Respond To Stress?
There are three states, or zones, that make up the stress response cycle. The brain goes in and out of these states in the course of the hours and days of your life. Your physical, emotional and mental health all depend on what zone your brain habitually hangs out in. Two of the zones--fight/flight and the freeze/collapse zones-- use a huge amount of energy to maintain, and cause a lot of wear on our bodies (as analogue, think of the wear caused by sprinting a marathon-length course). Our best defense is awareness. Watch this video to learn about the three zones.
What are the 3 stages of the stress response?
This is a simplistic diagram of what the protective part of the brain, which controls the stress response, is meant to do through-out the day as it perceives objects, people and events. In Zones 1 and 3 the brain is perceiving the current situation as a threat in some way and therefore, the limbic brain goes on auto-pilot and immediately sends 'stress response' signals through electrical communication and chemical signals for the body to go either into anxious/angry strategy to attack or flee the threatening event. If the brain chooses zone 3 as it's stragedy, it will signal to the system to shut down and "play dead" as a survival strategy.
Healthy Brain Response
A healthy brain is meant to be in zone 2 as "home base" and go up into fight/flight (zone 1) or down into the freeze response (zone 3) only when it identifies the 'other' as a threat of some sort. For the protective brain, which controls the stress response, the definition of threat or danger is very specific: is this THING is going to cause bodily harm in less than a minute? If it concludes 'yes' then it will make a flash decision in miliseconds to either: fight it, run from it, or play dead. Not a very wide range, but it historically has got the job done to keep our bodies alive. And then the brain is meant to immediately return to zone 2's calm and open state upon resolving the threat. Calm, perceive threat, attack, then calm again. Calm then freeze, then calm again. And that's the strategy for how our protective brain has kept us alive for thousands of years.
Of course, we all noted when we looked at those three zones that we don't live in zone 2 most of the time. We find our home base to be a combination of anxious/ depressive with a touch of calm, maybe, after a long walk in the woods. Or we'll use alcohol to force ourselves out of that anxious / angry Zone 1. Why is that?
What we have come to understand in the study of the stress response and the brain is that there is an unfortunate event that happens when the brain is attempting to be efficient in its use of energy: it generalizes. And when the brain generalizes: "Oh, I know this person, just like dad (not safe)..." it becomes habituated and stupid, producing a stress response when there is no actual danger. And we experience, as example, not just momentary fear in response to a new person but chronic anxiety in social situations.
What do we do about this habituation of the brain? Read more about how to help decrease stress.
One of our greatest tools for change is self-awareness. First we need to take a step back, take a deep breath, then look at our patterns, then we have the opportunity to make different choices. Whenever we identify someone or a situation as unsafe, for the automatic functioing brain, it hears: go into a stress reaction because something's about harm you physically. The reality is that regardless of how mean your boss is, how jealous your best friend is, how low your bank balance is, you are safe. You may have just said "Ya, but...." and given a reason, probably very legitimately so, about how the above are problems, but that is very different than unsafe. Problems are solved with a very different part of the brain than dangerous threats. The pre-frontal cortex solves problems. The limbic brain/brainstem solve dangers. And if you're ever confused about whether the stress response is the right strategy just ask yourself this question: would it help solve the problem to punch it, run from it or play dead? If the answer is no then take a deep breath, or 10 or 20.
What stress does to the brain for Children
When a child is exposed to unsafe people and situations, which includes being neglected, the brain becomes habituated to a stress response, which is now called "complex trauma / PTSD". If you are someone who has had childhood trauma or diagnosed with PTSD, reading the work of Dr. Basel Van Der Kolk and his book The Body Keeps the Score, is a great education.
Neurofeedback Training for Stress Management
Neurofeedback training is an effective brain training method to cope with stress. As one of our clients in California stated: "Neurofeedback has been a great way for me to deal manage my stress better. I feel more calm, alert and can engage more intimately with the present moment." Schedule a session in NYC, Los Angeles/Pasadena and Boulder or learn more about renting or buying a Neurofeedback Home System. Just as effective training as in-office visits and we ship the equipment directly to your home.
Written by Natalie Baker, Advanced Neurofeedback Trainer and Founder of Neurofeedback Training Co. She is also a licensed psychotherapist in New York.
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