Stress? Chill …
Despite What Your Lizard-Brain is Telling You,
there is NOT a Saber-tooth tiger about to pounce!
Our nervous system has been evolving for about 600 million years. During all this time, creatures – worms, crabs, lizards, rats, monkeys, hominids, humans – that were real mellow, watching the sunlight on the leaves, getting all Zen, absorbed in inner peace … CHOMP … got eaten because they didn’t notice the shadow overhead or crackle of twigs nearby. The ones that survived to pass on their genes were fearful and vigilant – and we are their great-great-grand-children, bred to be afraid.
Excerpt from Just One Thing, Ch 38: Don’t Be Alarmed,
Rick Hanson, PhD
Yes, our brains are ancient!
And our brains bring along some ancient baggage. Specifically, we bring along our “lizard brain.” That is, we bring our phylogeny along with us: our cortex – our most evolved, thinking brain – is layered upon older, primordial mid-brain and hind-brain structures. We didn’t lose our lizard brains when we stood upright and began to think. No, we simply added onto our lizard brains. They remain part of us, even now … and that can be a problem.
Symptoms of Stress
Unfortunately, those portions of our brains that are keeping an eye out for Saber-tooth monsters – our amygdala, for example – are still with us. That darn lizard brain is constantly thinking there is a saber-tooth tiger lurking in the bushes. We inherited that vigilance. It’s hard-wired: it’s always with us.
Once upon a time, that baseline of watchfulness kept us alive. Now is a different story: unless you’re living in a war zone (tragically, many people do live in war zones), that level of vigilance is not doing you any good.
It is this baseline of watchfulness – of unease, of anxiety – that is the true source of most of our perceived stress.
Blame it on your lizard brain!
After all, that pile of emails that is accumulating in your inbox is not life-threatening, yet it bumps your blood pressure, preparing you for fight-or-flight. The report or presentation that is due tomorrow is not life-threatening, yet thinking about it is keeping you awake. Your frustration with your computer-program that keeps crashing has you ranting. That fender-bender that you just had on your way to work has you pumped full of adrenaline and cortisol; your amygdala – your lizard brain – is raging. And yet, despite what your brain is telling you, this is not a life-threatening event. Sure, it’s a hassle. It’s inconvenient.
But you are, in fact, okay.
Your brain’s default setting of apprehension is actually the source of nearly all of your perceived stress. It’s not the actual events themselves.
So, What’s the Problem?
That baseline of apprehension, or anxiety, of stress … it’s not healthy!
In fact, research clearly shows that the resulting elevated cortisol level has the following negative effects:
- inhibits your immune response
- is linked to impaired memory formation
- is linked to atrophy of brain memory-structures (hippocampus)
- is linked to impaired cognitive function
- prevents estrogen cognitive boost in post-menopause
- is linked to elevated amyloid-beta (marker of Alzheimer’s)
- is linked to risk for mental illness
Sorry. Those are the facts.
In other words, although some level of stress is good – it might actually get you to stop procrastinating and write that report, or clean out the garage – chronic stress causes chronically elevated cortisol levels. And that is not good. An elevated cortisol level impairs memory, slows cognition, and actually results in atrophy (loss of neurons) of important parts of your brain.
Did you get that? Chronic stress causes your brain to shrink! Definitely not good.
So, how can you chill a little?
Dealing With Stress: How to Become STRESS-FIT?
First, keep your brain in good condition by keeping your body fit: after all, your body is the temple of your mind. That is, your body is the temple for your brain, so take good care of both, by making the effort to remain physically fit. Of course, that’s what this entire site is about, and you can read more here.
Next, Be Mindful: Hit the Stop Button!
Put your lizard brain on a leash! Be mindful … be aware when that sensation begins to percolate up from your lizard brain.
Recognizing activation of your lizard brain is the key!
As soon as you notice that your thoughts are going to the dark side – that you are becoming even a little bit anxious – hit the stop button. Put the brakes on your lizard brain.
Well, according to Dr. Hanson, you should simply practice telling yourself that you are okay. At this moment. Where you are right now. There is nothing actually threatening you. Look around you; take a breath. Right now, you are alright. You are okay.
Try it … really, it works …
As you move through your day, be mindful … notice when you are becoming a bit anxious. Your breathing is becoming shallow. Your heart rate is increasing. And yet, nothing is actually threatening you right now. It is your perception that is causing your anxiety. That pesky lizard!
Tell yourself, “I’m alright right now.”
Rick Hanson, PhD, Author, Neuroscientist
Train Your Brain to Override Stress
Your more-evolved brain – your cortex – can be taught to override the primordial anxiety of your lizard brain, but it takes practice. It takes conscious effort: mindfulness. It’s not easy, but it is simple: be mindful, aware of your condition and emotions; and if you’re not being threatened, if you’re really okay, just tell yourself that you’re okay. Keep reminding yourself if necessary … “I’m okay right now.”
Train your brain. Be “present.” Be aware of reality: you are not actually in danger.
Chillaxin … MBSR
Do this repeatedly as you move through your day.
As you’re driving; as you’re taking the elevator; as you’re preparing dinner; as you’re checking your email; even as you’re exchanging insurance information following that fender-bender:
Be mindful. Be aware of those anxious lizard-brain sensations … and just take a slow, deep breath, and tell yourself, “I’m alright right now.”
Because chances are, you ARE alright, right now: there is no saber-toothed tiger lurking in the bushes.
Benefits of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction:
- you will live longer
- you’ll have greater creativity
- you’ll have improved cognitive function – you’ll be smarter
- you’ll reduce your risk of dementia
- improved overall outlook on life:
you’ll be happier while you’re living longer!
So tell your lizard to chill: You’re alright right now.
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I want to thank Dr. Daniel Friedland, founder of SuperSmartHealth, for his course on Conscious Leadership, Peak Performance Leadership. In his course he reviews the neuro-anatomic basis for stress and self-doubt, and provides a systematic approach for recognizing and correcting maladaptive thinking and behavior based on the reactive lizard brain: mindfulness-based stress reduction. If you ever have the opportunity to hear him present a lecture on this topic, don’t miss it!! He is a gifted presenter, and an authentic leader. And I give Dr. Friedland’s course, Peak Performance Leadership, my highest recommendation. Note: we have NO financial arrangement with SuperSmartHealth or Dr. Friedland.
I also want to thank Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Just One Thing, and also Buddha’s Brain. Both excellent reads, but the first one (and first of the resources listed below) has essentially become my “weekly devotional.” There are fifty-two chapters; I focus on about a dozen of them. They serve as reminders, provide my daily mantras. It was Chapter 38 that provided the opening quote above, and the inspiration for this post. Great book. Note: we have NO financial arrangement with Dr. Hanson. I am grateful for his permission to use that quote from his book!
Image Credits: all images used under license from depositphotos.com
- Just One Thing, by Rick Hanson, PhD: http://www.rickhanson.net/books/just-one-thing
For transparency: we have no financial or other relationship with Dr. Hanson.
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