If only our stress response could be a little more judicious

There you are, first day back from a relaxing holiday where you didn’t even take your work phone. You’ve opened Outlook and hundreds of emails begin to flash before your eyes. Your heart starts beating a little faster, you break out in a mild sweat, your shoulders tense and your jaw starts to clench.

All of a sudden you think “I should have just taken the stupid phone with me…” and your heart races faster again. You think, “what a waste of time that holiday was, here I am, 5 minutes in and I’m already stressed!” You try and recapture that last beach walk where you recited the affirmation that the stresses of work would not rule your life and firmly tell yourself not to be stressed.

Then you recall that a “landmark” PwC report has once again revealed the ill effects of workplace stress and how it’s costing companies $10.9 billion dollars annually in stress related illness. “How the hell are my employees going to handle the stress if I can’t even get on top of it?!” you think.

Before you know it you’re sitting in your office, stressed about stress and no affirmation or relaxing holiday is going to save you from it now.


Perhaps this is a slight dramatization. Maybe you just catch yourself in traffic clenching the steering wheel and cursing, or dealing with an overbearing client, frustrating employee or a deadline that keeps getting pushed out. If this kind of scenario sounds familiar in any way though, you are not alone.

These days the dangers of stress are touted almost as much as the harms of smoking. It can harden arteries, shrink the brain, cause memory loss, lower immunity, decrease libido, increase blood pressure, effect fertility, cause irritable bowel syndrome – the list goes on. Yet, unlike smoking, you can’t just toss away the packet and stick on a patch to rid yourself of it.

But unlike smoking, stress is not actually bad. Our body is well designed not only to deal with it, but also to thrive on it. Just like our bodies inbuilt ability to regulate itself with the change in seasons, we also have a process called allostasis, which is our inbuilt ability to regulate the environment of stress. In most cases this regulator works well and actually requires small bouts of stress to help us work optimally.

Just think of the exhilaration of the deadline met, the presentation where you owned the room, the triumph of holding it all together in the face of a total work meltdown. In these instances allostasis is at work ensuring that you are awake, alert and oriented to changes in the environment—this is a good thing. If you were dull, lethargic, disengaged and tired just imagine how that presentation would go.

However, allostasis is often thought of as the fight/flight response, because taken to the extreme it prepares us for those two eventualities. The main idea of this response is to get maximum energy to the parts of the body that need it most in the event of a life and death situation, such as coming into the path of a Saber-toothed Tiger.

The problem is allostasis has not evolved to recognise that such dramatic fight/flight responses are rarely required in our modern lives. Increasingly we are finding the situations that trigger the stress response are ones where neither fight nor flight is necessary. That long list of emails, the overbearing client, or the chaos of Punt Road – none are life-threatening like a Saber-Toothed Tiger.

But what if the mind and body could become more judicious in the face of stress?

Enter, Mindfulness. The buzzword of the year, with an impressive body of research, its bevy of famous followers and a Time Magazine cover that cites this era as the ‘Mindful Revolution.’

On entering the mindfulness classroom we begin to analyse and understand the nature of how we physically respond to stress and the habitual patterns we’ve developed over time. We learn there is no quick fix to chronic stress. Techniques such as breathing and pauses operate like aspirin, providing short-term relief from immediate pressures. Formal mindfulness practices, such as daily-seated meditation, are the long-term solutions that target the continuous pressures of modern life.

Just like bicep curls develop strong muscles, daily-seated meditation builds the muscles of the brain. By strengthening the neural connection between our prehistoric fight/flight response and our prefrontal cortex, we override automatic behaviours and habits, making us more judicious in our stress reactions.

Research proves mindfulness training helps foster positive coping, leading to improved allostasis and eventually psychological thriving. It has also been proven to:

  • Create greater mental clarity and focus, upgrading our capacity for critical thinking and problem solving;
  • Enhance our focus on the present moment, thereby promoting greater engagement in the here and now – of particular importance to those operating in fast paced environments;
  • Improve awareness of our own thought processes and the emotions they trigger, enabling more effective emotional regulation and resilience;
  • Unleash our capacity for innovation and creativity;
  • Promote new possibilities in difficult teams or interpersonal relationships by replacing habitual reactions with more considered responses;
  • Support a more panoramic perspective making us better able to manage change; and
  • Enrich our appreciation of the greater meaning and purpose in what we do.

Sounds like a no brainer hey? But the important part to remember when reading about all these benefits is that it is a Practice, an age old one at that! Essentially, the science and the research “proves” what we know to be true from the actual experience of meditating. In other words, reading about Mindfulness is not going to bring you any closer to calm.

What I have learnt for myself, as a once stressed out corporate , and what I have witnessed on countless occasions in my classroom is enough proof for me. With time and practice people do truly become calmer, they have a greater capacity for empathy, and find they respond in a much more balanced way to things, people and events in their life. They take affirmative action in actually changing their physiology – in making their stress response work for them.

But don’t just read about it. Try it for yourself – put on the lab coat and let yourself be the judge!

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