Coping with the stress of unexpected events

I’m ok, you’re ok, until the unexpected happens

Most people think they are getting along ok with the stresses and strains of daily life. As long as things are routine, we think that we are ok. Trouble is, life has a habit of throwing curve balls at you. Everything from an accident, a poorly child, redundancy or a big change at work throws a huge spanner in the works and suddenly our stress levels are high and we can’t sleep.

Mike Tyson - Everyone has a plan until they're punched in the mouth

People are not disturbed by things but by the view they take of them – Stoic Philosopher Epicetus argued that we don’t respond to an event, we respond to the meaning of an event. And that the meaning of an event is shaped by our ego and concept of loss. Neuroscience helps us understand that this is “programmed” in to our body through our beliefs, our identity and our practiced behaviours.

Red alert! The trouble with Neuroception

So when this event occurs, the first thing to recognise is that this is normal and you aren’t going mad.

You see our body has an in built “danger” detector which is there to sense threat outside of our conscious awareness. This process is called neuroception. You know those times where you just felt something wasn’t right? It was your neuroception – a function that involves all of your senses and your nervous system at an unconscious level, evaluating the situation and any threat to you.

When something big happens as described above, your neuroception goes in to overdrive… suddenly you aren’t safe any more… maybe it’s your home or family under threat, maybe it’s your perception of your self or your ego (sorry, sometimes it is!) And when your body signals danger, it triggers the same stress response that we had when we were living in nomadic tribes, hunting and foraging and came face to face with a tiger.

Making calm decisions in the midst of chaos and emotions

In this situation, our bodies have three main options:

  • Fight – go to war with whatever the threat is
  • Flight – run (metaphorically) in the opposite direction
  • Freeze – do nothing at all in the hope that the threat might lose interest, or that at least if you don’t thrash about it will hurt less when you’re eaten

Which one you do depends on the situation, and you’ll probably find yourself doing something unconsciously before your conscious mind catches up! And understand that decisions made in this state are unlikely to be very wise. In fact they are most likely ego-based and ignorant of the long term impact.

Knowing this doesn’t fix things or reverse time. But it does give us the opportunity to choose our next step. You’ll find yourself spotting the signs of your unconscious in self-defence mode, which gives you the opportunity to do something about it.

Situations happen and we don’t always have control

So here’s what you can do about it:

  1. Accept that there’s not much you can do about the unconscious bit. Whether you fight, flee or freeze, it is what it is. Let it pass.
  2. Find somewhere safe. Find somewhere or someone who makes you feel safe. If that “safe” place is at the bottom of a glass or wine or pint of beer or packet of biscuits, look harder. Self-medication is (unfortunately) a stressor which actually prolongs the high stress state and makes you more likely to make bad decisions. Golf courses, spas, staying over at a friend or family’s house, a weekend at the beach, something or somewhere that physically removes you from the situation.
  3. Find a pad of paper and jot down answers to the following questions:
    1. What does this (event) appear to mean about me and for me?
    2. What do those people that care about me think of me now?
    3. What opportunities do they see this (event) gives me that I didn’t have before?
    4. What do my closest friends think are the three most important values in my life?
    5. How can I turn this situation in to an opportunity to make a difference?
  4. Give those questions time to seep in to you. They are designed to take you out of your “self”, your “ego” and your normal rails of thought. Mull them over when you are in a relaxed state of mind.
  5. When you catch yourself feeling stressed out, take notice of what you’re thinking. What’s going on for you in your head that is making you feel that way in your body?
  6. Get counsel from those that you trust. But pick people that will tell it to you straight. If you don’t have someone like that, get yourself a coach. Even one session with a good coach will give you clarity and help you decide your next steps.
Your thinking, feeling and physiology are all linked, changing one changes the others. The easiest way to change your thinking and feeling is to change your physiology. Posture, position, movement are all handy ways to change how you feel.
Your thinking, feeling and physiology are all linked, changing one changes the others. The easiest way to change your thinking and feeling is to change your physiology. Posture, position, movement are all handy ways to change how you feel.

When stressed, even smart people make stupid decisions

Ultimately the most important thing is to not let your emotions or ego rule your decision-making. Our emotional self is really very poor at making life-changing decisions.

Find what works for you and practice it. There are lots of tips on the website that can help you. Alternatively get in touch to talk about Rescue Coaching or one-off Coaching sessions to help you decide on a wise way forward.

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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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