Stress Can Hijack Your Brain

Stress Can Hijack Your Brain


You slept well, you’re getting ready for work, and then… you find a little surprise your dog left for you on the bathroom floor, your kids start bickering, you spill something on your shirt and have to change so now you’re late, there’s a traffic pile-up that makes you wait, fuming…

By the time you get to work, you’re completely stressed out and ready to bite people’s heads off over any little thing.

So you try to calm down, telling yourself that everything is fine and counting your blessings and putting on a happy face.

Does this work?

Stress triggers are designed to get your body ready to fight or to flee, whichever seems most useful. They activate fast emotional responses like fear and habitual pathways that function quickly and smoothly. They shut down the part of your brain that thinks about things and bypass your rational problem-solving completely.

Think of it in terms of your ancient ancestors. When they saw a saber toothed cat or an angry bear, they needed to get out of the way as fast as possible. They didn’t need to consider multiple possibilities and decide on the best course of action.

The automatic, emotional part of the brain took over and they got an adrenaline surge that would give them the energy to run. They ran without thinking about it.

The trouble is, our stressors today aren’t usually things we have to run from. They range from small inconveniences that mount up over the course of the day to the emotional stress of having to be nice to difficult people. But they cause real stress: anger, fear, disgust, and disappointment are real emotions. And we can’t think past them.

Our emotional brain goes right to that habitual pattern and we end up trying to talk ourselves out of feelings we don’t like… or following a path we don’t want to follow, whether it’s stress eating or a few cocktails after work or blowing up at someone who just happens to be in the way.

The solution? Don’t try to think your way past the stress. Instead, practice alternate habit patterns that will work better. Meditation, relaxation practices, deep breathing — if you practice these regularly, they’ll be available to your emotional brain when you need to respond to stress.

If you don’t practice, these thought patterns won’t become habits, under the control of your basal ganglia. They’ll just be thoughts, easily overrun by your biological reactions and your emotional brain.

And once that fight-or-flight response is past and you’re able to think, deal with those negative emotions so they have less power over you in the future. Contact us for help.