What is the stress response?

As humans we all come with a hard-wired survival mechanism, it is preloaded information, our survival instincts. This information is stored in the part of our brain often referred to as the reptilian or primitive part of the brain. The amygdale, hippocampus and hypothalamus among others drive our instinctive responses, they tell us when we are in crisis or emergency and then inform us how to behave. The problem comes however, when instead of primitive dangers such as wild animals and other tribesmen, we perceive an event in our lives as a crisis for example, problems with our jobs, relationships and self esteem. The primitive brain responds in exactly the same way to the crisis, tripping the switch of the stress response and encouraging us to fight, flight or freeze.

How does this manifest itself then? To fight or flight means we are flooded with chemicals and neurotransmitters to make us stronger and faster, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Once in our system these make us feel anxious and angry, our heart rate increases and we feel on the edge of panic or anger, or even both. Then there is the other end of the stress response, the freeze, we opt-out and put everything on hold including our chemicals in order to save valuable energies in case we need them later on. We are in a state of high alert, obsessive and vigilant in case we need to change quickly to fight or flight mode. Sometimes though, people can freeze and then spend so much time ‘opting out’ so as to avoid potentially harmful situations, this can lead to depression and sleep disorders.

If we think about our job, relationships and self esteem in negative ways, as things to worry about, we will trigger our stress responses as our mind receives information that we are under threat, in crisis and all is not well. We, in effect, put ourselves on red alert. The only behavioural outcome then is routed in panic, anxiety, anger and depression. If we are lucky enough to sleep well and have good social support structures this doesn’t evolve into a problem and is soon dealt with effectively by our brain and put into perspective, de-aroused and we are able to move forward. However, when this is not the case panic/anxiety/depressive disorders can develop and we may find that help is needed to get back on track.

In addition to anxiety and stress disorders there is also of course the modern day coping method which is reaching for our Drug of Choice (DOC). Our DOC could be caffeine, nicotine, salt, sugar, and of course alcohol. We are training our brains to accept this ‘quick fix’. We take on the chemicals contained in our DOC and this becomes our ‘pick-me-up’ – it doesn’t take long for the primitive brain to pattern match to the DOC and we become serotonin depleted preferring again and again to use our ‘fake’ comfort response instead of getting our neurotransmitters generating the crucial feel good chemicals we need. Humans are the only animals on the planet to have a neurological system to hard-wired into the need for rewards. We need to take positive action, have positive interactions positive thoughts in order to feel motivated and achieve goals. It is only through the achievement of these goals that we can become fulfilled and motivated. It is little wonder then that addicts of various DOC though their depletion of feel good chemicals lack the motivation to want to make changes.

The good news is that with understanding and insight getting back on track and back in control can be achieved. Once we understand that this mechanism is actually activating our stress responses we are immediately better equipped to return to intellectual control, turn off our flight, flight and freeze, switching our focus from negative to positive. Sounds simple? It is simple but not necessarily easy. Changing thought and behaviour patterns does take effort, like learning and acquiring any new skill. So, how do we turn-off our stress response and get back a sense of control?

Well, we need to address our sleep. Sleep is absolutely pivotal to positive mental health … all the usual advice is an excellent place to start, good bedtime routines, exercise, getting time outdoors and anything that promotes relaxation such as meditation, acupuncture, massage, hypnotherapy, listening to music and much more besides. Taking control of the negative radio in our heads is also pivotal … all those negative thoughts accumulate. Positive thoughts, distraction and forming manageable achievable goals will help restore intellectual control and turn down the stress response.

Imagine this … if you were out for a stroll in the jungle and you think you hear a lion approaching; you begin to turn on your panic response. Gradually you will feel more and more panicked, more and more stress hormones will race through you body, losing more and more intellectual control until the fight, flight freeze in switched on … but, what if you happen upon a stunning orchid grove. You stop to smell the flowers and begin to drink in your environment. What then? Well, your brain would stop panicking for a start! It would know that if you had time to stop and wonder at the vibrancy of the flowers and the beautiful sights and smells that surrounded you then the panic must be over and the threat must be gone. Apply this to modern day stresses and the effect is the same. Stop to notice the moment, be mindful and be in the present noticing little wonders all around you, smells, sights, colours, trees, birds, smiles, songs – basically anything at all that focuses you on the here and now; stops your mind and your negative radio racing away with you. Being mindful is a way of paying attention to the present moment, using techniques like meditation, breathing and yoga. It helps us become more aware of our thoughts and feelings so that instead of being overwhelmed by them, we’re better able to manage them. Practising mindfulness can give people more insight into their emotions, boost their attention and concentration and improve relationships. It’s proven to help with stress, anxiety, depression and addictive behaviours, and can even have a positive effect on physical problems like hypertension, heart disease and chronic pain.

Turning off our flight, fight, freeze response is also crucial, and of course, being relaxed is the opposite of being stressed. In her paper ‘Talking to the Amygdala: Expanding the Science of Hypnosis’ by Muriel Price Warren, she cites that by talking to the amygdala, an experienced hypnotherapist can relax the autonomic nervous system, shutting down, or curtailing, the trigger that sets off secretion of the adrenal and pituitary glands. When a patient is in a hypnotic trance the amygdala automatically shuts down the rapid alert system and turns off the stress hormones epinephrine, cortocotropin, and glucocorticoids and we can then inhibit the flight, fight or freeze mechanism. In the cases she mentions in her research the technique of relaxation through hypnosis has proven to be a highly effective tool in giving the body a chance to heal itself through its own inherent wisdom system. When we focus on what we want then the Reticular Activating System (RAS) will notice anything through our senses. Primarily what we see or focus on increases and the RAS can find those previously elusive solutions because we have changed from a problem focus to a solutions focus; when we change our filters our viewfinder has been modified so we can see things differently. Also when we are positive we become more attuned to noticing opportunities and we cope better with setbacks and remove obstacles (Warren cited by M. Hughes in ‘Hypnotherpay Today’ Association for Solution Focused Hypnotherapy Journal Volume 2)

With improved sleep, more positive thinking and the formation of achievable goals we can go a long way to combat the effects of stress and living in today’s hectic and demanding world. Couple these with some enjoyable regular exercise and we really can tip the balance in our brains, being much more relaxed and calm, and when we are relaxed and clam we remain in control and able to make a proper assessment of the situation. Taking frequent effective exercise is one of the best physical stress-reduction techniques available. Exercise not only improves your health and reduces stress; it also relaxes tense muscles and helps you to sleep. Once free from the negative and primitive brain responses that are instinctively tied to feelings of anger, anxiety and depression; all of which fuel addiction and of course the NEED for that DOC we are once again able to see the wood for the trees and that feels good. Once we have something to feel good about we are winning … instead of stress chemicals coursing through our veins we can instead generate serotonin, dopamine, noradrenalin’s etc chemicals that make us feel happy, motivated and successful. We can’t argue with our chemistry! How we think really does affect how we feel, our brain releases the chemicals we tell it we need, based on our assessment of the reality we inhabit.

So, stop to smell the roses, get your heart pumping, attend to your sleep routines and use all the tools you have to get your intellectual thinking self back on board, taking your foot off the flight, fight and freeze, and therefore feeling much calmer. And if you only do one thing differently, do something for yourself, only for yourself that you enjoy … when we do this we feel good and ultimately have more resources available for others. Relaxing and focusing on the positives really does help restore intellectual control, putting you back on a ‘full set of cylinders’ and able to make proper assessments of life’s situations.

Jessica Driscoll

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“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”
Lao Tzu

We all tend to prefer short term rewards (like chocolate cake now) over long term rewards (like losing weight or becoming healthier overall). This process is involved in many addictions and habits. When it comes then to New Year’s Resolutions the reasons they fail are often the wrong steps are taken at the wrong time even though we may think we are motivated to make those changes. Some of us don’t stick to diets and continue to smoke because they cannot see the long term goal. (Ref 1) We need the tiny steps and the drip feeding of the benefits. We also need to remain positive to get those all-important helpful motivating chemicals on board. Human beings are the only animal on the planet to have our behaviour tied in to a neurological reward based system. In other words, when we do nice things, we feel good because of the chemicals we then release. When we DO get up off that sofa and make it to the gym we feel damn good on the way home! That’s our chemicals working for us, rather than against us. So, how can we make this happen more frequently? How can we turn the ‘NO, it’s cold, no… we’ll do it tomorrow’ voice into a ‘YES you blooming will, let’s go!’? All too often now we reach instead for the quick fix reward, our modern day drug of choice, be it nicotine, sugar, salt, alcohol, cocaine, caffeine, solvents and so on. We have trained our brains to accept these quick fixes and so we ‘crave’ them; when instead if we increased our own natural chemicals and boosted our motivation we would soon form new habits, which would pretty quickly become accepted by the brain as the new way of doing things.

What makes people so clever is that their brains keep changing depending on what they are doing with them! The technical term is plasticity – neuroplasticity (Google it, it’s the big thing!). The brain continually changes throughout a person’s life as the neurons (see Figure 1) reorganise themselves and form new connections. This occurs when you learn something – whether that’s memorising a new song, acquiring a new skill (like driving, using your new mobile phone or playing the piano), or just falling into a new routine or habit.
Throughout your life, your brain is able to change with learning; and these changes mostly occur at the level of the connections between neurons. If you form lots of new connections, the habit or learning seems more ‘ingrained’. The more of an expert you become on a particular subject, the larger that area of your brain becomes – YES, you get cleverer!

When you are feeling unmotivated, what else are you feeling? A lack of motivation is not an isolated factor. It is not something that we feel and can dismiss as simply ‘the feeling of the
moment.’ When you are unmotivated, there is a reason. Certainly some lack of motivation can be attributed to having no interest in a task at hand. After all, how many of us really look forward to sitting down every year to sift through receipts and pay stubs to complete our taxes?

Motivation is about getting things done, whether it’s at work or home, putting that last cigarette out, getting off the sofa and in to the gym or changing eating habits and so on. Motivation is an important part of everyday life and something we need to understand. The role of brain function in motivation is an important one. First, the brain produces chemicals that it uses to accomplish millions of tasks every single day. Some of these chemicals can become out of balance if external stimuli such as our jobs, relationships or self-esteem place undue stress on the brain. When that happens, a person can feel lazy, lethargic, and even depressed. Also how we look and feel affects our lives whether its job prospects or relationships (Ref 2)

What gives you the motivation to go the extra five minutes on the treadmill, say no to a second portion or ‘one more’ glass of wine? It may be your levels of brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. The functions of serotonin are numerous and appear to involve control of appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation, mood, behaviour, cardiovascular function, muscle contraction, endocrine regulation, and depression. When we meet our goals WE feel good and we release these chemicals into our blood steam, they in turn make us feel better and so we feel EVEN MORE motivated!

Reward is an essential feature of most human behaviour: the need to obtain reward and avoid punishment is crucial to our motivation. Current work on functional neuroimaging is enabling us to identify the brain regions that control reward behaviour such as eating and drinking. These studies also provide insights into the underlying neural activities driving responses to financial reward or loss. There is also discussion of social factors such as cooperation and altruism in shaping human reward mechanisms. This is why when we help others and act positively towards our fellow humans WE feel good. You let someone out in a queue of traffic and a few junctions later you will see them do the same.

So, how do we make a new behaviour a habit?
Conditioning is the process by which an original neutral stimulus becomes associated
with a primary reinforcer, while instrumental learning is a process whereby animals learn to perform an action to obtain a reward or avoid a punishment. These basic principles govern human reward behaviour; we learn which cues signal positive and negative outcomes and we learn how our actions and behaviours can increase the probability of positive outcomes. (Ref 3) SO, the more you do something the easier it gets, we KNOW this! And, not only are you meeting your goal, as you continue to feel better and remain motivated you are making new connections ALL the time in your brain and so you will be getting cleverer too! You are gaining clarity, balance in mood and an increased sense of overall wellbeing.

William Montgomery leadership expert from AskTen in Bristol emphasises the importance of goals and not getting frustrated – The reason that it’s so important to not get frustrated is because when we get frustrated, we lose the motivation, and the energy to press on. Without the motivation and a certain level of enthusiasm, we can never achieve those hard but worthwhile goals. When you work on your own goals, learn to acknowledge partial success and don’t get discouraged easily.

Recently in Scientific American Mind magazine (Ref 4), they discussed three attributes that make up motivation:

• Autonomy – Whether you pursue an activity for its own sake or because external forces compel you, you gain motivation when you feel in charge. In evaluations of students, athletes and employees, the researchers have found that the perception of autonomy predicts the energy with which individuals pursue a goal.
• Value – Motivation also blossoms when you stay true to your beliefs and values. Assigning value to an activity can restore one’s sense of autonomy – several studies have found a positive correlation between valuing a subject in school and a student’s willingness to investigate a question independently.
• Competence – As you devote more time to an activity, you notice your skills improve, and you gain a sense of competence. A study on students and their attitudes and engagement with athletics during a two-year period found a strong link between a student’s sense of prowess and his or her desire to pursue sports.

This discussion of motivation and creating new habits takes me think of a client of mine who came to see me to lose weight. And one day she decided to go out for a walk. Then she started walking a few times a week. On one occasion she tries running for a while. Then she begins to run more often. Each time she can go a little farther. She soon notices that she is sleeping and eating better, that she has more energy and looks better in the mirror. Like the movement of the butterflies wing, that isolated first walk may have started a sustained chain of events, that are now building towards improving her self-esteem and increasing her energy, affecting her entire brain-body system. One day, feeling physically and mentally stronger, she finds a new job. She begins to make more friends, starts to laugh more – and turns her life around.
This woman’s extraordinary metamorphosis began with an ordinary walk. There are many tools right at our finger tips for changing our mental health, both in correcting our problems and simply in becoming the kind of person we want to be. (Ref 5)
So, why not make 2013 your year to get it done? Give yourself a fighting start by attacking your body with a motivated brain! Get your chemicals on board and go for it. If you feel you need extra help to get started why not consider complimentary health disciplines such as hypnotherapy, acupuncture or even life coaching or a personal trainer? Once the footprints of the new patterns are there, you will soon be able to take your own steps forward, turning those footprints into pathways, and eventually motorways as the new behaviours become habits.
Above all else … watch your thoughts …
By Jessica Driscoll
Clinical Hypnotherapist and Solution Focused Brief Therapy Practitioner

1) Rush University Prevention Centre, and was published in the August 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
2) Natalie Evans – Personal Trainer
3) Mental Capital and Wellbeing: Making the most of ourselves in the 21st century State-of-Science Review: SR-E2 Neuroscience of Human Reward. Dr Rebecca Elliott Neuroscience and Psychiatry Unit, University of Manchester
5) Michael Hughes – Hypnotherapy Supervisor