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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 frustration.   

Conditions 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 life.  

  • Embarrassment, sarcasm, criticism and put-downs.1 

  • Lack of resources to do the job (time, skills, tools, systems and information.)

  • Little or no control over the situation or how the work is done. Unacceptable risk levels involved.

1 Dr. 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.

The neurobiology of stress
Negative 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.  

Positive stress 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.   

Stress an 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.)

  1. We’re exposed to the event/stimulus.

  2. We evaluate the experience using our thoughts, perceptions and beliefs. 

  3. We interpret the event, applying meaning and assessing our ability to handle it. 

  4. How we interpret the event triggers our stress response. Positive or negative.

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 newsletter, that neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga2, calls the conscious mind the know-it-all interpreter?

2Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Different

A new view of how we ‘do’ stress
Using advanced technology, scientists tracked brain activitythe electrical and biological changes in neural pathways—to isolate conscious and unconscious processing. A more accurate sequence for doing stress has emerged.3

  1.  We’re exposed to the event/stimulus, taking in sensory cues (we see, hear, touch, smell or taste) many of which, are outside our conscious awareness.

  2. These cues activate neurological associations that may have little or nothing to do with the current experience,

  3. yet they trigger a defense system - freeze, flight or fight – that operates independently, outside of conscious awareness.

  4.  We 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.

  5. The conscious mind interprets meaning after the event. “ I’m stressed because …”

3Neuroscientist Joseph Le Doux, Your Emotional Brain

The bottom line
Our physical and emotional response to events, has more to do with the unconscious processing of sensory cues in the environment, than previously acknowledged. And less to do with conscious meaning. So ... trying to manage stress consciously, is only part of the answer.

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