How to avoid toxic stress in your everyday life

Don't let toxic stress poison your life.

Guest writer Luke Mathers is a Body Science stress expert and has owned more than a dozen businesses specialising in the field of optometry. Here he writes about how your reaction to situations could cause you toxic stress and how to overcome it. 

Imagine your whole family is coming over. You’ve cleaned the house, tidied the yard and spent hours cooking and preparing a healthy nutritious meal for all your soon-to-arrive guests. Your significant other comes into the kitchen with good intentions but accidentally drops the bowl filled with the salad you just prepared – smashing it all over the floor.

You have two options:

1. You lose it and explode. You find yourself yelling before getting into a massive fight with your significant other. Eventually, you pick up the pieces of the smashed bowl and ruined food. However, you’re still seething long after your extended family arrives. 

2. You feel the same emotions but this time you STOP. You take a minute and BREATHE. Next, you take a moment to think about the situation. Is your significant other a bit clumsy? YES! But did they deliberately smash the bowl on the floor? No. Blowing up, having a fight and being in a foul mood isn’t going to produce the type of stress that’s going to help your day. Instead of taking out your frustrations on your significant other because of an unfortunate situation, take a moment, accept your beloved’s apology, help each other clean up the mess, and then look in the fridge or pantry to see if there’s something else in there to substitute the smashed salad.

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Logically reading the two options, we would all choose the second one – it’s controlled, smart and will produce the best results.

Then why do so many of us end up taking the first option?

The truth is we often don’t choose the first option. Most times, we default to losing it without thinking about it. It’s not a conscious thing and to understand it, we need to look back a few thousand years and grasp where we have come from.

As humans we have evolved over millions of years. Our brain has gone on in layers, much like an onion, and we have what’s called an “Old Brain” and a “New Brain”.

Let me explain: the Old Brain is there to keep us alive in dangerous situations. It’s fast, reactive and is either switched on or off. The Old Brain is great when there is danger about and it is where our “fight or flight” response is generated, i.e. stopping our ancestors from being eaten by a sabre-tooth tiger.

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On the flip side, the New Brain is slower and more thoughtful. It can appreciate the trials of a situation. The New Brain is where our intellectual, rational and responsive thinking comes from. The New Brain can assess a situation and set a path to ensure the best outcomes.

So, if we have the New Brain, why does the Old Brain take over so often?

It’s all to do with our perception of stress. If we see situations like getting sick, parking tickets, or a bill no one knew about as a threat, that’s when we allow the Old Brain to take charge.

In turn, the New Brain crumbles which is when fight or flight kicks in and the situation isn’t handled well. The “threat reaction” assumes that stress is bad and we’ll natural respond by screaming, running or, worst case scenario: throwing punches.

When stress hits and we choose the second option, which is the “challenge response”, we are able to come up with smarter solutions that will fix the problem rather than adding to it. The second option ensures our two brains stay connected and we’re able to keep calm, thereby making better decisions.

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The fact is: stress happens – it’s a part of life and can come from so many things life throws at us. The one guarantee of stress is that it will always get a reaction out of us. You might get anxious and go silent, or get angry and lash out. Stress affects us all differently and fuels any number of emotions.

The secret is to understand and utilise stress it in a way that is effective – not to eliminate it.

The simplest way to is to keep your two brains integrated. Keeping the rational New Brain positively engaged ensures that your response is productive; that it has assessed the situation and determined the best way forward.

Flipping out and ignoring your New Brain means the emotional Old Brain will end up handling the situation alone. 

To keep the two brains integrated we must be self-aware by understanding that feelings associated with stress are not always bad. By taking a moment to think about the situation, you’re able to choose a more rational and calm reaction. Situations are rarely life threatening and the Old Brain shouldn’t be allowed to take control – the New Brain needs to act as a supervisor. The New Brain needs to ensure that responses are deliberate. Take a deep breath and allow a few seconds to ask yourself:

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  • What am I thinking?
  • Why am I thinking it?
  • Is it helping?

Next time you feel the familiar feelings of stress, ask these questions, engage both your brains and find the solution to the problem. The more you do this, the better you’ll get at it and the closer you will be to ending toxic stress. 

How well do you handle stress?