STRESS happens when our needs are not met in BALANCE

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Think of a time when you were stressed… maybe it was recently, maybe it was a year ago and you haven’t been stressed since. But just think of any time that stress creeped into your life. What did it feel like emotionally? What did it feel like in your body? What did your mind feel like? Were you able to think? 

Now, what went wrong? What were you stressed about?  Let’s look at our list of emotional needs. Security, status, control, privacy, attention, achievement, intimacy, community, meaning/purpose.  These are our nine emotional needs. When any one of these emotional needs is not being met, we become stressed. We perceive these unmet needs as a threat to our physical existence. Because really, when our needs are not met in balance, we’re not well and our existence starts to deteriorate and is indeed threatened.  According to our brain, whatever it is that is currently blocking us meeting our emotional needs is ‘the enemy’ and is therefore dangerous!  This is the ‘black and white’ thinking of the limbic system, or the emotional brain. 

There are three main parts of our brain. The two parts most involved in this stress response are the limbic system (or the monkey brain) and the neocortex (or the wise owl brain). The limbic system is your emotional center. This is the part of your brain that determines whether or not you get stressed, whether or not you feel like you’re in danger, and whether or not you feel anything really.

 The neocortex is the most evolved part of our brain – it’s that walnut looking part that wraps around the top of the limbic system. It’s the image that most of us normally think of when we think of what a brain looks like.  This is where all the slow analytical processing takes place. So, the limbic system and the neocortex work together to try to keep us safe and help us get all of our needs met in balance.   

It is important to understand that the limbic system, or the monkey brain, only knows how to ‘think’ in black and white.  It doesn’t know shades of gray.  It only knows how to react quickly – it’s all or nothing with the monkey brain! It doesn’t let you stop to think, “what is the context of this situation. Is this really dangerous? Is this really threatening my life?”  It just uses a process that we call ‘pattern matching’, to quickly look through all your high stress memories to see if any new piece of information coming in is a match to the old high stress ones that it has stored.  If there is a match, it assumes it must be high stress and dangerous as well! There is no thinking here, just reacting.  The monkey brain doesn’t have access to your context and it doesn’t have access to your analytical thinking processes like the neocortex does. The wise owl brain on the other hand, is a slow, precise thinker, and has access to all your faculties and contextual understanding (i.e. who you are, how old you are, where you are in that moment, etc.).

One important thing to understand is, the higher your stress levels arethe less access you have to your neocortex!  At some point as our stress levels increase, we hit a threshold where we no longer have ANY access to our ability to think, we will be 100% reacting.  The tricky part is that we generally have no awareness of this transition. At this point, our personalities and values are inaccessible because they reside in the neocortex (which in this moment we no longer have access to).

When our limbic system perceives through pattern matching that either our emotional or physical needs are being threatened, it sounds the alarm! Adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) start coursing through our systems, body and brain. When that happens, the connections between the limbic system and the neocortex physically close down. We actually lose access to that wise owl, evolved part of our brain. When we’re stressed and emotions are high, we can only react. We can’t act rationally from a thoughtful place because we are literally, not connected to it.  All we can do is react out of survival.

Interestingly, our brains don’t know the difference between fear stress and love stress that gives you those butterflies in your stomach.  As far as your brain is concerned, its life or death. As you can see, love is literally… blind!

So, the next time you feel your stress levels rise, take a break. Change your physical location. Maybe try stepping outside and taking a few deep breaths with long slow exhales out of your nose (which will quickly calm your autonomic nervous system). Then revisit the situation once you’re calm and can see it in a new light – through the eyes of your neocortex!