Your Brain on Stress

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at the Bethany Presbyterian Church’s Women’s Retreat on spiritual practices, the brain, and living in the unforced rhythms of grace.

One of the main practices I encouraged was breathing deeply.

Little did I know that my own practice would get a serious testing just a few days later.

Recent advances in neuroscience and brain imaging has radically expanded our understanding of how the brain works.

God has fashioned our brain with two important systems, the one we are most familiar with, fight or flight, and the second lesser known companion, pause and plan.

We know what fight or flight feels like. Historically, the saber-toothed tiger would give chase and the much slower human would call upon an instinctive burst of energy to run like hell or stand her ground and fight.

The brain in fight or flight mode suspends all future considerations in favor of immediate escape from death. No planning is necessary unless it’s the instantaneous calculations for running to a safe tree or cave, or taking good aim on the attacker.  Immediate gratification options that would dispel the threat and fear are valued, as well as risk-taking behavior that might increase chances of escape.

Fight or flight narrows the world to a pin-point of focus: survival.

The problem is that the brain cannot tell the difference between a physical life or death threat from a hungry tiger, or a metaphorical threat in a  stressful work situation, family conflict, gridlock traffic, overwhelming to-do lists, or worries about finances, health, or family members.

And even more challenging: these stresses are not dependent on the hungry tiger losing the scent or getting tired of the chase. The human brain was built to jump into fight or flight mode for brief periods. Now, we are a nation constantly running or fighting.

A person under constant stress finds it incredibly difficult to plan for the future, because the brain is focused on the present perceived danger. Instant gratification–choosing anything that promises to dissipate the stress– will win out over choices toward long term goals.  Willpower becomes non-existent. Risky behavior becomes the norm.

The other, lessor known system, pause and plan, is the brain’s long-range vision. It encourages and supports choices toward future goals. It says no to instant gratification and strengthens willpower.

How can we move from fight or flight into pause and plan?

Take a few deep breaths.

It may seem simple but breathing deeply and slowly for a few minutes will shift the brain into the pause and plan system. The stressor will still be there, but the brain will be able to move from a focus on surviving a predator’s attack to figuring out longer term strategies for dealing with the situation.

A few months ago, I realized I needed to move from my lovely apartment into a less expensive living situation. Jobs are scarce these days and I decided I’d rather start living creatively now, than get into a difficult position down the road. I’ve been incredibly blessed to find a room with a family from my church.

Leaving the Contemplative Cottage (at least, this incarnation of it) has been painful.  Just after the women’s retreat and  a few days before a wonderful bunch of friends came to help me move, I paced my half-packed apartment fearfully and couldn’t decide what to do next. My brain had taken off-line any ability to plan or make long-range decisions, and all I wanted to do was hide under the covers. The moving tiger was in full chase.

Once I became aware of what was happening, I sat down and spent ten minutes just breathing, slowly and deeply. The shift was striking. Suddenly, I could plan again. The future didn’t seem like a black hole. My heart rate slowed. My anxiety lifted. There was still sadness that I needed to move and concern over not having a job, but it was coupled with a feeling of confidence that I could face it and whatever comes next.

I was also able to feel connected to my community and to God’s presence.  In fight or flight mode, I often find the world becomes very lonely, narrow, and small.  Whatever is chasing me seems bigger than God. Shifting into pause and plan opens up the world, reminds me I’m a friend, well-loved daughter, and member of the Body of Christ, and helps me trust God’s provision and redemption of my circumstances.

The next time you find yourself chased by a metaphorical tiger, stop and breathe deeply and slowly for ten minutes. At first, you will probably think it will do no good, but that is just the fight or flight system at work, negating long-term strategies. Give it time, and the tiger will slowly fade back into the jungle.

For more about the brain, willpower, and the challenges of living under constant stress, read The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It, by Kelly McGonigal.