What happens to your brain when you get stressed

Know your enemy, says leadership coach Jeremy Old.

by Jeremy Old
Last Updated: 30 Sep 2019
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Food for thought

Anyone who says that workplace stress is an individual problem hasn’t studied the litany of toxic effects it can have on the life of an organisation. At a strategic level, stress contributes to poor judgement, greed, destructive rivalry and incompetent, reckless and unethical decision-making. 

On a management level, it drives quick-fix decision-making, ‘impression management’, flawed problem solving, confirmation bias, unethical and controlling behaviour, weak relationship building, de-motivating leadership and burn-out.

On a operational level, stress provokes employee disengagement, costly mistakes and rework, waste, absenteeism, sickness, personal conflicts, poor communication, compassion fatigue, insensitivity to customers’ and colleagues’ needs, accidents, lethargy, low creativity, resistance to change and incoherent teamwork. 

Stress is decidely everyone’s problem. 

What’s happening in our brains when we’re stressed

To reduce the negative effects of stress in your business, you first need to understand exactly what it is. 

Nature programmes us to react instinctively or emotionally to any real or perceived threat to either our physical or emotional wellbeing. In ordinary circumstances, when our senses perceive anything, the signal first travels to a part of the brain called the amygdala. 

This tiny region in the centre of the brain is a powerful early warning system, constantly on the alert for life-threatening events. Basically, the amygdala stores memories of past life-threatening events in the form of rough and ready patterns and its role is to identify similar patterns as and when they arise in the environment.    

At the point the amygdala perceives a situation that pattern matches with a previously threatening incident, it immediately overrides the frontal cortex (the higher thinking part of the brain) and automatically fires our body into overdrive. 

Crucially, this process occurs before the information reaches our conscious awareness. As a result, we often slip into this trance state without noticing it. 

Sometimes-called ‘hijacking’, this process drives us to take dynamic but impulsive action to prepare us to either attack or run away (fight or flight). Broadly speaking, we experience this mechanism emotionally as either anger or fear.

Either way, the body-mind kicks into action with a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin that prepare the muscle tissues, blood circulation, oxygen flow, heartbeat, and even our elimination system for a massively strenuous and life-saving effort. 

Unfortunately, at the same time, our logical, intellectual and rational faculties progressively diminish according to the level and intensity of the perceived threat. In other words, we are increasingly unable to think straight.

Stress at work

Happily, few of us experience life threatening events at work, but we do experience incessant threats to subtle emotional needs (these include our need for some autonomy and control over our lives, our need to feel part of a larger group and our need to feel competent).

So, instead of panic or rage, we might experience this type of low-grade stress as worry, resentment, embarrassment, doubt, irritation and so on. But however mild our reaction it still gets in the way of effective problem-solving. 

For instance, as soon as we start to get stressed we begin to lose the ability to listen attentively or empathetically to other people, it becomes increasingly difficult to analyse and plan patiently, we also lose access to our imagination and several other faculties.

To make matters worse, these emotional stressors are often interminable and because there is no dynamic or physical way to take evasive action, we can easily get stuck in a state of emotional arousal indefinitely. 

The good news is that we can therefore improve employee engagement, productivity and performance by low-stress working environment. That does not mean bingeing on Indian head massages, yoga mats, and counselling. 

Instead focus on what the science tells us about human motivation and our innate strengths and psychophysiological constraints. A major revelation here is that we have survived as a species by evolving to become highly socialised, collaborative mammals who thrive off active problem-solving on behalf of the group. 

When management loosens up the traditional hierarchical structure and enables people to work collaboratively, stress levels go down for everyone and there is a commensurate rise in productive working.

Jeremy Old is author of Reinventing Management Thinking: Using science to liberate the human spirit

Image credit: vchal/Getty Images

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