The modern world is fast paced with a huge amount of distractions and pressures on our every day lives – social media, fashion magazines, gossip magazines, super skinny pop stars. Our problems are often thought of as ‘first world problems’ and a bit self-indulgent, and to some degree they are. The majority of us don’t have to worry about a roof over our heads or where the next meal will come from or physical threats to our existence.
But we still have the same physiological makeup as our caveman ancestors. We still utilise the freeze-flight-fight mechanism, be it a life-threatening incident or simply being late for a meeting.
Deep in the heart of our original Primitive Brain, the Amygdala (the fight/flight centre) kicks into gear when it senses a threat of any type, and sends messages to the Hypothalamus telling it to get the body ready to act. The Hypothalamus floods the system with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which makes your heart beat faster, palms go sweaty, churning stomach, increases your breathing rate – all symptoms of your body being under stress. Of course your issue is resolved – you get to your meeting on time, or find a place to park – but the more we use this system, the more efficient it becomes. And before we even know what has happened, we can spiral into panic attacks, road rage, tearfulness, etc. All in all, not being quite ‘us’.
So how can take back control – live with our stresses but not give in to our inner caveman?
Well, with a little practise, you can train yourself to cope. It’s all about creating spare capacity within the brain to deal with whatever life throws your way. Imagine in your brain you have a space where all your stresses, negative thoughts, worries, fears, etc are stored – a metaphorical Stress Bucket. Every time you encounter a situation that your brain perceives as a threat or barrier, or you worry about something that’s going to happen (imagined or real), or dwell on past regrets, losses or sadness your bucket gets filled a little bit more.
The problems arise when all these seemingly small things pile on top of each other until your bucket fills to the brim and you just can’t fit any more in. This wipes out any spare capacity you might have for dealing with new issues – and it’s when we flip out over a seemingly small incident such as not being able to find a parking space or going into road rage mode because someone didn’t wave a thank you when you let them in, losing your temper at the children or not being able to make a decision over something as simple as choosing a sandwich in M&S!
As humans, we very quickly become very good at focusing on all the negative aspects in our lives and forget to appreciate the good – in fact it’s hardwired into our DNA to be negative and to worry, it’s what kept our ancestors alive. It’s why we’re sitting here today but it’s not helpful in our modern daily lives.
So, in order to counter-balance this natural leaning towards negativity, we need to focus on the positives in our lives. And it’s not the huge things, rather all the little things that we take for granted and don’t ‘see’ anymore: a bright sunny morning, birds singing, a hug from a loved one, a smile from a stranger, being let into traffic… these are the things that make up our daily lives and the big things (birthdays, parties, reunions, holidays) enhance our already enjoyable lives. This stops us filling up our stress bucket and ensures we have plenty of spare capacity to cope when we need to, because we all know that there is always someone ready to ruin our day!
It is also important that we regularly empty our stress bucket, and in order to do this, we need to get good quality sleep – not necessarily longer but better. During our sleep we go through stages of deep sleep into REM (rapid eye movement) into light sleep, and we do this four or five times throughout the night. During the REM phase we re-run the events of the day and move it from our emotional Primitive Brain to our Intellectual Brain, so out of our stress bucket and into the memory bank. Slowly, any arguments or unpleasantness, losses, sadness, worries, anxieties, etc are released. They are of no further use to us and whilst we know these things have happened we don’t need to hold on to them anymore.
When we don’t have good quality sleep we feel it physically and mentally: reaching for sugary foods to boost energy levels, slipping quickly into anger responses, or panic, wanting to pull the duvet over our heads and not have to face the day, being tearful… these are all signs of an over-full bucket. No-one can function effectively when they have not had a good night’s sleep – just think about all those new mums walking around like zombies!
In the therapy room, the hypnotic trance replicates the REM state and helps with bucket emptying, and using hypnosis at the point of sleep (by listening to the CD provided at your initial consultation) can turbo-charge that essential REM making it super-efficient!
This two-pronged attack (not filling and emptying your stress bucket) can help you regain control on the here and now.
Next time you feel the pressure rising, think about that stress bucket filling up, and take a deep breath and regain control over your actions instead of allowing your Primitive Brain to rule you.