Stress and the mind


In part 1, I discussed the brain’s involvement in the stress response. In this part, I will discuss the psychological effects of stress.

The physiological effects of stress are often the thing that highlights to you that something isn't right. Whilst there are many psychological effects that you can experience, these tend to creep up on you slowly and therefore you don't see it happening until you feel really out of control.

The psychological effects of stress are widely varied but they all come back to the basic need to preserve oneself from danger. When the fight or flight response has kicked in, everything becomes about saving ourselves in that moment in time and as a result we can become very focused on the problem, blinkered almost, and we struggle to think about the repercussions of our actions, plan for the future, commit to anything or set goals for ourselves. This is because our brain can only deal with what's in front of our face at that moment in time and what's the point in planning for the future if we're about to be eaten?!

This also explains why our thinking can become very black or white – we're either safe, or about to be eaten. Our thinking is generally very negative when we’re stressed. This makes sense because when we're faced with a wild animal, we're not going to think “It's probably eaten”, we're going to quite rightly think “It's going to eat me, run”, so we can often see things from the worst possible perspective. And we have difficulty thinking logically and rationally too.

Our memory can become poor due to a decline in hippocampal function as a result of the HPA axis being continuously activated, causing you to forget things.

We're not so well adept at problem solving, making judgements and decisions when we are in fight or flight mode and we can often feel confused and overwhelmed. Our concentration levels suffer and we find it more difficult to exert conscious control over our behaviour, thoughts and impulses. This occurs due to a decline in prefrontal cortex functioning as a result of the HPA axis being continuously activated.

Our thoughts can be quite obsessional in nature, our mind racing with thoughts and worries and going over and over things repeatedly. The obsessional nature of the fight or flight response makes perfect sense to me. If there was a wild animal nearby, we wouldn't just look once and then get on with whatever we were doing. We would keep checking to make sure it hasn't got any closer or gone away. Obsessing over the problem and ruminating are the main ways that this manifests but it can also cause us to develop repetitive checking behaviours (such as those typically seen in obsessive compulsive disorder) and habits generally.

In flight or flight, we are hypervigilant to our surroundings which can make us a little more jumpy than usual, sensitive to sounds (especially at night), and keeps us on red alert looking out for that next problem, among other things.

Everyone is different and chronic stress manifests itself differently each time.

Having a good understanding of the mechanisms involved when the fight or flight response is triggered is useful for us especially when we are experiencing anxiety or stress. My clients often tell me that they thought they were the only one experiencing the kind of thoughts, feelings and physical symptoms that they were. That they felt like they were going mad especially when the symptoms they had were a bit more obscure. But this is not the case. You are not alone. You are not going mad, All the patterns of thinking, your feelings and those physical symptoms are normal and happen for a reason within the stress response. Your brain is doing what it is programmed to do. It’s trying to keep you safe. However, being constantly on red alert is draining as I’m sure you are aware and is not necessary either. Because you are safe. You’re not about to be eaten by some wild animal. Sure, you may be experiencing difficulties in your life or you’re having to deal with situations or objects which make you feel scared and uncomfortable but your life isn’t under threat.

And this is where hypnotherapy comes in. Together, we will find new ways of thinking about everyday life as well as specific situations so that you are not creating unnecessary stress for yourself and so that you can approach situations in a calmer, controlled way. We will look at various relaxation and breathing techniques to create a relaxation response which reduces down the cortisol levels in your body and therefore the stress you feel. And we will look at your behaviours and things that you can do to help reduce your levels of stress and anxiety. I ensure that all my clients have plenty of tools and techniques available to them. I want you to feel safe in the knowledge that you can help yourself. That if you do start to feel anxious or stressed, you know what to do and can stop it from escalating. We cannot unfortunately guarantee that anxiety and stress will never occur in your life again but with a better understanding of what they are and what you can do to help reduce and minimise them puts you in control and you can be confident that you can deal with whatever life has in store for you.