It’s not enough that we have to duke it out each day with the mercurial Mr. Murphy and his law that insures that all things that can go wrong will. No, we are saddled with an even more annoying pest: the ubiquitous false alarm of stress, time panic, and guilt generated by our own minds. With friends like ourselves around, who needs enemies?
Most of us take the thoughts in our brains at face value. They are in our heads, so they must be true. But the reality is only experience is real, not thoughts. Unfortunately, our brains aren’t built for the time they live in, for the social stressors of the modern world, which they are clueless to compute. Lost in time, they are prone to conflate non-life threatening issues from deadlines to workload as if they are life-or-death emergencies.
Humans have the same brain we did back in hunter-gatherer days, 100,000 years ago, when life-and-death events were a daily occurrence. Few things today threaten your life, but your ancient brain makes you think your existence is on the line anytime something overloads your ability to cope. It happens out of your consciousness in a part of your ancient brain that houses your emotions and your ancestral warning equipment, the amygdala, part of the limbic system that once was all we had for gray matter.
This outmoded defense trigger is out of its depth these days. Feel overwhelmed because you have too much to do? That’s enough for the life-or-death signal, the stress response, to go off, because you have overloaded your perceived ability to handle the load. Does that deadline seem impossible? Before you can even think that or verbalize it, the amygdala switches on the alarm.
Are you going to die if you don’t meet the deadline? Hardly. Two hundred emails in your in-box are very good at setting off the fight-or-flight button. They make you feel you can’t cope. “Can’t cope” for the caveman brain = “I’m going to die.”
Once the danger switch has been pulled, you and your modern brain are mere passengers on the panicked ride of fight-or-flight. The amygdala hijacks your modern brain and its ability to offer rational analysis.
The first thought you have after a setback or highly stressful event is catastrophic, in line with the part of your caveman brain that thinks you are about to be an ex-living person. This sets off a pattern we know and don’t love so much, that of “awfulizing,” a loop of dark self-talk generated by the fact that your brain is fixated on your imminent demise. You don’t get a specific death message, though, just the racing pulse, churning abdomen, and relentless negative chatter of impending doom or doubt.
Stress management and work-life balance are about managing the false alarms that bombard us every day, thanks to an overreactive amygdala, the brain’s early warning system. The root of the problem is that we are designed to react before we think.
Humans couldn’t be trusted to think their way out of a jam way back on the family tree, so we were equipped with a defense mechanism that goes off first, before we’re even conscious of the threat. How fast? Daniel Goleman reports in Social Intelligence that it can react within .02 hundredths of a second. You’re not going to beat it to the punch, but you can counterpunch.
How do you control a hair-trigger reflex like that? You have to stop and catch yourself, when the false emergency, false urgency, and false guilt go off. Stop and ask when the stress erupts, am I going to die? Is it an emergency? Is the frenzy valid, or am I picking up on the panic of someone else? Is it the end of the world if I don’t send this email in the next few minutes? Is the guilt based on real physical harm I’ve committed, or is it just a projected anxiety and manipulation by others?
If you had someone constantly crying wolf about calamities that didn’t exist, you would stop listening. Unfortunately, it’s hard to ignore the wolf cries in our heads, because they seem so convincing. They’re coming from us, after all! But they are almost always false, whether the trigger is a challenge that appears insurmountable or a rush that seems so critical, it’s apocalypse now if we don’t get it done in a millisecond.
The way out of the trap is constant consciousness, being mindful of what it is we’re doing and not lapsing into rote mechanical momentum. Stress and time panic thrive on non-thinking and non-challenge of the events around us. They drive overwhelm and the feeling of a world spinning out of control. Disputing the false alarms as they pop up keeps you in charge of your own mind, instead of at the mercy of a remnant from hunter-gatherer days.
Subject all stressors and hurry-worry to scrutiny. Take a deep breath, then pull out a piece of paper and a pen. What is at the bottom of the stress? What is at the bottom of that? Keep going until you find the trigger. Is it life-or-death? What’s the false story driving the bogus emergency? Tell your brain that you’re not going to die from this particular event, and as a result, that THERE IS NO DANGER. When you convince your brain of that, the stress response stops in four minutes. Bring out the facts, and the caveman brain has to admit what is already abundantly clear—it’s a drama queen.
If you would like to manage the false alarms of the stress response and keep time panic at bay, explore a stress management training for your department, organization, or yourself. Click the button below and find out how our programs work and how affordable they are.