Stress – science sheds a light
Neuroscience is answering important questions about stress and
how the mind, brain and body interact to create emotions. This
has significant and positive implications for how we manage and
treat the symptoms of stress—burnout, anxiety, anger and
for stress at work
There are some generalizations we can make about work conditions
leading to negative stress or dis-stress. One is preventable,
the others are often in the ‘reality is’ category, a fact of
Embarrassment, sarcasm, criticism and put-downs.1
resources to do the job (time, skills, tools, systems and
no control over the situation or how the work is done.
Unacceptable risk levels involved.
A Rozanski New England Journal of Medicine Volume 318:
Increases abnormalities in heart rate as significant and
measurable as those from a heavy workout or pre-attack
myocardial chest pains.
neurobiology of stress
happens when we’re exposed to threats or challenges that we
perceive are greater than our ability to respond. We begin to
feel dis-stress. The body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode,
activating the immune system and releasing a chemical soup of
adrenaline and cortisol.
happens when we feel challenged and want to ‘rise to the
occasion.’ We experience positive stress—a stimulus for growth
and a natural part of life. The body releases endorphins,
perceptions are heightened, motivation increases and physical
strength is enhanced.
inside job, or not?
The traditional view
of stress assumed that the critical difference between Positive
(Challenge) Stress and Negative (Dis-stress) was how we
interpret the event (step 3 below.)
exposed to the event/stimulus.
evaluate the experience using our thoughts, perceptions and
interpret the event, applying meaning and assessing our
ability to handle it.
interpret the event triggers our stress response. Positive
This can still hold true in
some situations. Yet more often than not, our conscious mind is
simply making up reasons for the way we're feeling, that sound
logical and plausible. You may remember from the last
neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga2, calls the conscious mind the
2Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Different
new view of how we ‘do’ stress
Using advanced technology, scientists tracked brain
electrical and biological changes in neural pathways—to
isolate conscious and unconscious processing. A more accurate
sequence for doing stress has emerged.3
exposed to the event/stimulus, taking in sensory cues (we
see, hear, touch, smell or taste) many of which, are outside
our conscious awareness.
cues activate neurological associations that may have little
or nothing to do with the current experience,
trigger a defense system - freeze, flight or fight – that
operates independently, outside of conscious
evaluate the experience and our ability to handle it using
thoughts, perceptions and beliefs that may also be outside of
awareness and true, or not.
conscious mind interprets meaning after the event. “ I’m
stressed because …”
3Neuroscientist Joseph Le Doux, Your Emotional Brain
Our physical and emotional response to events, has more to do
with the unconscious processing of sensory cues
environment, than previously acknowledged. And less to do with
conscious meaning. So ... trying to manage stress consciously, is only part of the answer.