How to work with your brain & react better under pressure
3 min read
20 Sep 2019

Sometimes we over-judge and over-complicate our analysis of how and why we react to things as we do.  It’s not that we are broken … it’s just part of being human… it’s how our brains were built.

A simple understanding of some of the “brain blocks” that have stayed with us through evolution, and an ability to connect with these when facing a challenge, can change the way we handle stress and unhelpful reactions to events in our lives.  It’s like being given the instructions and special little key for the IKEA kit “Human”.

Here are some of the brain blocks for the Humankit that may be determining your stress reaction, and how to ask the right questions to bring you back to your best self.

1) The brain’s priority is to keep us alive – safe from danger, part of a tribe, learning from experience, leading a life of purpose (your own personal values and needs) – and it will always react to signal when any of these are at risk.

~ Ask yourself “What is at risk for me right now?” until you find a core value – actual physical survival? Not looking stupid -> my pride -> how the tribe perceive my contribution -> survival… is this a bit of an over-reaction?

2) Under stress, we default to our survival instincts (staying alive functions) – breathing, fight or flight – keeping us alive in the face of danger, creating emotions, creating and tapping in to memory.  We shut down access to more executive functions – rational thinking, creativity, empathy, decision making, understanding, personality.

Keeping communication between the survival and rational brain areas open and active is key

~ Ask yourself “is this my emotional or rational reaction?”

3) The brain uses a lot of energy – for something that weighs c 2% of total bodyweight, it uses 25-30% of our energy – and it will tend to default to the most energy efficient process… survival not executive function.

Ask yourself is my brain properly fed and watered?”

4) The brain works on a use it or lose it basis – like walking in sand dunes, a well-trodden path is easier to use and the most likely path we will take, a path that isn’t used eventually disappears and it takes effort to use it and rebuild it. The brain creates an “automatic” system for doing somethings or making certain decisions regularly (on a personal basis) to minimise the energy those day to day tasks require.

 ~  What thought and action paths do you use most – positive, negative, defensive, proactive, hopeful, despairing?

5) The brain takes signals from the outside world, the body and its own internal world and then uses them for context in order to decide how it feels about a situation.

~Are you picking up all the signals you need to make early, balanced choices? Could you reframe these signals to be more supportive 

6) The brain has biases designed to keep us safe: negative bias – it will assume the worst as this is the easiest way to ensure safety; present bias – it will always favour the safe option now over reward in the future if this involves risk or change …

~ Is there a bias that is stopping me from seeing opportunities?

7) There is a fear system, but there is also a strong reward system. Tapping in to the reward system by clearly laying out the benefits of doing something (and recognising achievement) is more powerful than trying to arm-wrestle fears in to submission.

~ Try writing down as many benefits of doing something as you can think of, and separately as many consequences of NOT doing it … short and long term…think ultimate victory and catastrophe respectively

8) You can change your brain, and how you view things, growing or weakening specific pathways or areas, but it takes time and effort.

~ How could I spend a bit of time working on this so it’s better in the future?

Can you think of any of these brain blocks that are currently at play in your life?  How could you minimize their impact?



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Over the years, as an ambitious employee, team focused manager and supportive friend, I developed a deep understanding of the challenges and pressures that we all face not only day to day but also in our long-term  health, happiness and career development.

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