Understanding your Brain on Stress

How many of us are worrying about organising Christmas, stressing about finishing off our workloads to allow us to have a restful break,and at the same time, fretting about the state of the world and anticipating all manner of future concerns?

Contrast this with Santa’s reindeer who are probably busily munching on lichens and carrots.  They’re not worrying about their impending workload, the time pressures for worldwide present deliveries or the fact that Santa hasn’t been his usual jolly self.  Their bodies aren’t generating cortisol as a result of thinking anxious thoughts over and over again about what Santa might be thinking – have we upset him? Is he thinking about retirement? Does he like Rudolf more than the rest of us? etc.

Bringing our Bodies and Brains back to Balance

Our brains, like those of reindeer, are designed to help us maintain homeostatic balance. When we are faced with a stressor in the outside world, it can knock us out of balance and the stress response is what our body does to bring us back into balance or homeostasis. The physical and hormonal changes created by the stress response help our bodies adapt to the situation at hand – our hearts beat faster, blood pressure goes up, blood flow is diverted to essential parts of the body, such as muscles, to run and our immune system is shut down as being non-essential to a fight or flight response.

This all makes good sense when we need to flee from external stressors (such as thugs in a dark lane at night or, in the case of zebras, lions looking for dinner) but it’s not so helpful when we are triggering these stress responses just by our thoughts. For zebras, the stressors are external, short term and linked to survival. Ours stressors are mostly internally created, sustained over long periods of time and related to regrets about the past, worries about the future and our relationships with others.

1 Fact – Humans have the largest neocortex as a proportion of brain size. This is about 27% compared to 7% for dogs and 3% for cats (we couldn’t find the figure for reindeer!).  This part of the brain is responsible for complex thought, conscious judgement and self- reflection.  These key executive functions are unique to humans and enable us to create concepts, deal with 100+ emails a day and learn from our life experiences.  They are also the same functions that enable us to relive past events in our mind and contemplate the future.  Yes, these are the same functions which create the very thoughts that create the stress response.

3 Insights

For many of us, Christmas can be a time for our thoughts to go into overdrive.  It is not only a transition time between the end of one year and the beginning of the next, but there are people-related challenges everywhere – who do we buy gifts for, how much do I spend, how much will they spend, how do we avoid drinking too much at the Christmas party and saying what we really think?

Insight 1 – we can adopt ‘a stress enhancing mindset’ instead of a ‘stress debilitating mindset’ and take a more positive approach to the stresses we experience.  Kelly McGonical suggests in her insightful TED Talk ‘How to Make Stress your Friend’ that we can choose to see stressful situations as helping us to develop our ability to deal with stress and build our capacity for coping with it.  Individuals who view stress as debilitating tend to over or under react, whereas those who see stress as ‘enhancing’ have a more moderate cortisol response and are more willing to seek out and be open to feedback during stress.  This allows them to incorporate learning from a stressful situation into their personal or professional growth.  By looking for what we can learn and how we can improve, we give ourselves the gift of greater strength and resilience and we change our relationship with stress.

Insight 2 – we can harness the power of our neocortex to consciously choose to bring our thinking back to the present and see the present for the (Christmas) gift that it really is.   When we are present, we are directing our attention to what is happening right now, and focusing our energy and effort on what we can do. When we allow ourselves to feel imposed upon, or perceive ourselves as not having choice in a situation, we create negative thinking.  Instead, we can choose to bring our conscious thinking to look at a situation and find the positives and put a different frame around it e.g.  “the work won’t all be done before I go on leave so I will have something to come back to when I am fresher and can give it more of my thinking power” or “the family won’t be all together for Christmas this year so it is good that everyone has a chance to enjoy Christmas in their own way and we can respect our different choices”.

Insight 3People who are mindful are better able to control their thoughts and are less quick to react.  They are more ‘in the moment’.  In an experiment students were asked to listen to a recording asking them to think about their breath and to be curious about their thoughts, without judgement and to practise refocusing their attention on their breath cycle if their mind started to wander.  The control group was told they could think about anything they wanted to and to let their mind wander freely.  When both groups were later exposed to an injustice, the people who had practised mindfulness were less likely to have negative reactions and retaliated less than the control group.  We know that there are going to be times when we will experience feelings of unfairness and injustice, especially at Christmas.  If we have practised being mindful when things are going well, we will have this ability to draw on when we are most tested.

4 Tips

Tip 1 – Be kind to yourself. We can use our feelings to remind ourselves that they are showing us that we care and if we didn’t care, life would be less meaningful. Acknowledge the emotion and label it e.g.“I am feeling anxious about the family coming over for Christmas”.  Neuroscience research is showing that just acknowledging your stress can move the response from the emotional to the more conscious and deliberate thinking part of your brain. This is where the saying ‘name it to tame it’ originates.

Tip 2 – We can own the realisation that things that matter to us can create strong feelings and in turn, stress.  If we accept that we will be tested when we are in such situations and we can remember that things that matter to us are all part of living, then we reinforce that we have made a choice to live a life of impact and to acknowledge that along with this, we have signed up for the stress that comes with it.

Tip 3 – Be open to the opportunities to learn from what we perceive as stressful experiences.  At some stages in our lives, we will all be touched by sadness, driven to anger, upset by grief, hurt by another’s words or actions and impacted by events as we move through our life cycle.  Our ability to experience these, reflect on them and learn from them distinguishes us from other mammals. We are able to look for ‘the gift’ in every situation all of the time, we don’t need to wait for Christmas.

Tip 4 – Take time out to be mindful and enjoy the gift of the present.  Mindfulness practice can be as simple as just concentrating on your breathing.  We recommend using a simple tool such as MybrainsolutionsCalmBeat to help slow down breathing whilst giving us something to focus on and hold our attention.  Using this for a few minutes each day will help with stress management and improve sleeping.

Take a walk in nature or if you can’t do that, then look for a while at an image of nature.  Images of water have been proven to be particularly calming and restorative.

Count to 10 – yes it really does work.  This brings the neocortex into use and allows us to lower our emotional reaction and create time for a more productive response to a stressful situation.


If we can learn to use our more sophisticated and higher capacity developed brains for our benefit then we will have greater choice over how we manage our stress responses.  Long term chronic stress is a choice – Zebras and Reindeer don’t have to make that choice, but our gift to ourselves this Christmas is knowing that we have choice and through this, we have control over what we allow to stress us– let’s use this gift well.

*The reference to zebras is from the work of Robert Sapolsky and his book Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers