Why learning about how stress works is important in building resilience

“People don’t care about how stress works”

I recently had a fairly intense discussion with a guy at a conference who argued that my focus on teaching my clients about their nervous systems was a waste of time. “People don’t care about why it works, they just want to know what works.” He said. And I agreed with his statement. We’re bombarded by information and more than ever are looking for that quick fix. The quick fix is what we want, and New Year’s clickbait is a testament to that. But I disagreed with his implication that knowing what works is enough.

The trouble is, quick fixes like that don’t work for someone who is suffering from chronic stress, is fatigued, or depressed, and struggling to achieve their goals or make essential changes in their lives. Rarely does “do this” work, because people are complicated, and people living complicated lives are, er complicateder?

By the time people recognise that stress is affecting their lives, performance, families or friends, they are quite a long way along the road to chronic stress. One of the characteristics of chronic stress is that we progressively become desensitised to the messages that our bodies are sending us. The more stressed you are, the less aware you are that you are stressed.

Under relentless stress, your body gives up

Eventually your body gives up sending subtle messages, and starts shouting at you. Fatigue, anger, palpitations, sleeplessness, anxiety are all examples of your body shouting at you to calm the heck down.

I have a friend who is really in to cars. Not the latest supercharged gas guzzlers, just the mechanics of cars. He’s forever tinkering with engines and clutches and exhaust systems. As far as his other half is concerned, he just has one car, but I’m sure he has enough bits to build another three in his garage.

And it always amazes me how he can hear a car going past and spot something that’s wrong with it. Whether it’s a worn bearing or a timing issue, he spends so much time listening to engines and other mechanical systems, that he’s tuned in to the signals that they give out, that automotive muggles like me just don’t pick up on.

Developing a “Mechanic’s ear” for stress

The equivalent of “mechanic’s ear” in body function is called interoception. And there’s a huge body of research to support the fact that people with the highest levels of interoception tend to be amongst the healthiest and most resilient people amongst us. They naturally stop eating when full, go to bed when tired and go and exercise when they feel that they need it, they listen to what’s going on inside.

The culture of “hard work” means we don’t handle stress well

Our cultural norm is to stay in our heads for a large part of our day and in doing so we cut off our body from our immediate world and when this happens we no longer hear our biological signals. Do this for enough time and we are oblivious to how starved our bodies are for self-care, support and nourishment.

For example, a person gets home after a LONG day of work, staring at a screen and they have muscular tension in their jaw, shoulders and back. By being in their thoughts and upper brain centres all day, they have not once tuned in to their body signals that were actually giving them the message that things were “tightening up” – there was never a chance for a momentary pause of re-set and relief. The signals of thirst and dehydration weren’t on their radar. And then they think it’s the job’s fault, but in fact it is their lack of awareness that has led to the rising of their stress and tension levels throughout the day. Using my car analogy, this is like waiting until you’re stranded on the hard shoulder before you realise that you forgot to put fuel in it.

Interoception - one of our most important senses, is lost through stress, stimulants, lack of sleep and the general abuse of modern living. Can you feel your heartbeat without checking it at your wrist or neck? If not then your interoception is poor!
Interoception – one of our most important senses, is lost through stress, stimulants, lack of sleep and the general abuse of modern living. Can you feel your heartbeat without checking it at your wrist or neck? If not then your interoception is poor!

So when I work with clients, whether face to face, online or through e-Learning, I focus on the following:
Education on the biology of our stress response and our autonomic nervous system, and how those systems influence our body function, physical sensations, emotional health, decision-making and intelligence.
Building strong self-awareness of what’s going on inside.

A broader understanding of the components of resilience such as mindsets and beliefs that make it difficult to get chronic stress again.

Interoception plus education equals resilience

When you can actually learn the intricacies of your own biology and how you respond to stress and how stress has affected you in the past, you can begin to re-route the toxic reactions to this stress in a much more intelligent way. You become your own mechanic.

    • When you get more biological knowledge on board you can begin to dampen and even eliminate unnecessary stress toxicity which means two things:
      A decrease in an overall “pressure” throughout the body and its organs and vessels, mainly because there’s less adrenaline being pumped out of the adrenal glands.
    • Less cortisol is being pumped around in the blood which means less chemical toxicity to the body’s organs and the brain. Of course we need cortisol to be released at specific times of the day, but we don’t want it on 24/7. When we can get ahead of our stress responses and bring more biological awareness and attention to ourselves and not continually simmer and bathe in stress toxicity we slow down our aging process by reducing the wear and tear on our bodily systems.

Now I’m not saying that some of this couldn’t be achieved by the “do this” brigade, and if you find an off-the shelf system that works for you, great, but be sure to consider whether that solution give you the tune up you need, or is it just a new paint job for the New Year?

Further Reading

Craig, B., How Do You Feel? An Interoceptive Moment with your Neurobiological Self. 2014. Princeton University Press.
Craig, A.D., How do you feel? Interoception: the sense of the physiological condition of the body. 2002. Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
van Der Kolk, B., The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. 2015. Penguin.
Mor, N. and Winquist, J., Self-Focused Attention and Negative Affect: A Meta-analysis, 2002, Psychological Bulletin.
Farb, N., et al., Interoception, contemplative practice, and health. 2015. Frontiers in Psychology.

Matt

Experienced business leader, mentor and coach, with fascinations for technology, psychology and ancient philosophies. A self-confessed techno hippy with a unique talent for bringing the best out in people.

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