Now that you have a plan of action that you can use whenever a stressful behavior pattern occurs, you need to recognize what causes these trigger thoughts and other stress responses so that you will be better able to utilize productive stress management techniques. While different people react emotionally to stress in different ways, our bodies react to stress very similarly.
When you feel stress or anger your body and your brain perceives that stress as a threat to your safety. Any time you feel threatened, whether it is a physical or emotional threat, your brain shifts from normal, high-level, logical functioning to a response based on pure emotions, and finally to a fight-or-flight response.
Imagine your brain inside your head and place your hand on your forehead. This is where the frontal lobe of your brain is, where all higher-order thinking takes place. Logical thinking and decision making occur here, and this is also where behavioral control (self-regulation) is also located. Now move your hand back to the crown of your head. This is the area of the brain where the limbic system resides. The limbic system is where emotional responses come from; this is where your trigger thoughts originate, as well as those impulse buys at the department store. Now move your hand down to the base of your skull at the back of your head, where the back of your head meets your neck. This is where the brain stem is, which is responsible for all of the functions that the body needs in order to stay alive, including breathing, digestion, sleep patterns, and stress responses. You spend most of your time using your higher-order thinking skills located in the frontal lobe of your brain, but let’s take a moment to explore what happens when you become stressed:
You are happy and the day is going along smoothly. You feel like you are in the zone. Then, your child decides that she wants to do something different from the group. She begins pulling out toys when it is time to line up, running around the room when it is time to lie down, or generally being defiant. At this point you begin to become stressed and trigger thoughts start going through your head. You have moved out of the frontal lobe and into the limbic system. All of your responses at this point become emotional in nature, but we already know that it doesn’t take much to reach the next level:
In my next post I will explore what happens during fight-or-flight.