Ideally, we would live by our values effortlessly. They would dictate our thoughts and actions without conscious intervention on our part. When we are under pressure, regardless of its source, our values seem impossible to adhere to. Why do we struggle to align with values such as “innovation,” “kindness,” or “creativity” when we’re threatened by disruption, high pressure, or volatility?
When we are stressed, our values shift from collaborative and aspirational to defensive and primal. This is natural and is a finely evolved mechanism that supports adaptative behavior for most of the animal kingdom. However, modern life has accelerated the pace of change, and our ancient nervous systems can be challenged by the sheer volume and speed of stimuli in our environment.
When we communicate with other people poorly, or our defensive systems are chronically engaged, our physiological state becomes maladaptive. This can continue for any period of time with all the negative repercussions that chronic distress brings, such as inflammation, anxiety, and even depression.
Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory focuses on the significance of how our physiological condition is implicated in behavioural and mental problems. In essence, it says that when we’re in trouble, the autonomic nervous system resorts to older, more primitive mechanisms in an attempt to overcome the challenge and ensure survival of the organism.
Explaining fight or flight mode
The autonomous nervous system controls automatic physical processes like breathing, the heartbeat, etc. It has two components: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. When we perceive danger, the sympathetic nervous system puts us in “fight or flight” mode: we prepare to fight or we run away. After this process transpires, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. We calm down, begin to heal, and balance is restored.
The parasympathetic nervous system’s main component is the vagal nerve. It controls this system’s functions of the lungs, liver, heart, spleen, digestive system, pancreas, gallbladder, and kidneys. It plays a crucial role in stimulating the “rest and digest” functions of these organs.
The vagal nerve also controls the mouth, larynx, and pharynx muscles. They ensure that we can speak and swallow safely. The nerve fibres controlling these bodily functions comprise about a fifth of the total fibres. The remaining ones are responsible for transmitting sensory information between the brain and the other organs.
This information from the senses lets us know if something isn’t right with our bodies. The body often experiences the first signs of stress. This is why chronic stress can manifest in chronic illnesses. We can repress negative emotions, but when the stress manifests physically, it gets harder to ignore. A malfunctioning organ or a respiratory issue will continuously remind you of itself until you address it.
What is freeze mode?
We covered fight vs. flight, but there is a third form of defense: freeze mode. You go into this mode when neither fight nor flight makes you feel safe.
Why? The vagal nerve has two sets of pathways: an older and a newer one from an evolutionary viewpoint. The older set is comprised of unmyelinated neural pathways. We share these with reptiles, among other vertebrates. Messages along these pathways travel slowly because the pathways have no protective myelin sheath.
When we feel safe, these pathways maintain homeostasis in the body. When we detect danger, they trigger immobilization. The metabolism and heart rate slow down. We can even stop breathing.
Values in defensive modes
Obviously, our values can change based on the state of our autonomous nervous system. We adopt “survival” values when in fight, flight, or freeze mode. These values focus on physical and economic security. They are associated with low levels of tolerance and trust and relatively ethnocentric viewpoints.
When something inhibits the evolutionarily newer set of vagal pathways, the older ones take over. They are reptiles’ main form of defense. There is one key difference here: reptiles can naturally shift back into homeostasis after immobilization, but mammals can’t. Mammals’ sympathetic nervous system is our primary defensive mode.
In line with the Polyvagal Theory, the newer vagal nerve pathways take over when we feel safe and have no need to protect ourselves. These myelinated pathways facilitate recovery, growth, and social interaction. They can also keep older pathways from getting triggered.
People can get “stuck” in fight or flight mode when they are under repeated or chronic stress. This can lead to elevated stress hormone levels, high blood pressure, sleeplessness, anxiety, and a number of other issues.
Trauma can cause the nervous system to become immobilized, which reflects the most primitive defense mode. As people don’t have reptiles’ adaptability, we get stuck in this mode. Symptoms of this include avoidance, detachment, poor communication with others, and a host of other psychological problems. Chronic physiological issues can accompany them.
Making decisions in defensive mode
When we make decisions in one of the three defensive modes, we focus on short-term goals and risk values misalignment. We tend to be incapable of making rational, value-aligned decisions because the stress hormones block the prefrontal cortex. This is the most evolved part of the brain, which enables creative thinking, processes information, and helps us manage risk cognitively and deal with complicated decisions. In these modes, we make decisions quickly, but rarely good ones. That’s because our thought processes are fuelled by self-preservation. We are irritable, frustrated, and unable to focus.
The benefits of calmness
If we’re able to disconnect from a stressful situation, our objectivity and reasoning are restored. We can recognize that we’re too emotionally involved. This is constructive detachment, where objectivity enables a fresh perspective and a return to core values.
Meditation and mindfulness practices can help by providing a more relaxed and creative space to explore events that have shaped emotions and feelings and given rise to forms of maladaptive behaviour.
When you are calm, you can achieve clarity in decision-making. You take ownership of your values and beliefs. Self-control ousts fear, anxiety, and doubt.
How to secure your safety
We can’t control external stressors and risks, but we can try to control how we react to them. In other words, we can learn to stay calm in the face of adversity.
How? If you often feel compelled to make decisions quickly, it’s likely you’re overwhelmed. Taking short breaks between tasks can reset your energy levels and help you relax. Whenever you can, go for a 10-minute walk to grab some fresh air, ideally in a park or anywhere that’s not crowded. If you are in a crowded space, the walk will add to the stress.
Take some time out of your day to let your mind wander. This enables creative thinking and problem-solving. Work on shifting your attention away from your job, family, or whatever provokes stress. Use your break to talk to co-workers about light-hearted, work-unrelated topics. Silence your phone when you’re not using it. If you recognize you’re stuck in a defensive mode, reconsider any job where you’re expected to be available outside standard working hours.
A healthy lifestyle isn’t a cliché
If you can live healthily, it will eventually reduce stress and help you stay focused. If you’re habitually well-rested, you’ll have the energy to take on more rewarding tasks. Sticking to a healthy diet will give your body the energy it needs to complete these tasks. Exercise releases endorphins, which can provide pain relief, reduce stress, improve your sense of well-being, and promote positive feelings overall.
Process your emotions
When you feel stressed or overwhelmed, you must let yourself process it. Think about why you feel stressed instead of ignoring your emotions. Maybe you have too much work or too many responsibilities in general. You can come up with the best solution by reflecting on your feelings and on the situation you’re in.
If you feel overwhelmed at work, don’t be afraid to reach out for help from a co-worker or ask for a deadline extension. Finding a suitable solution can help you feel calmer and better prepared to get back to work.
Focus on the here and now
Focus on the present, one task at a time. Multitasking can limit your focus and ultimately waste time. Concentrate on what you are doing in the present instead of fretting over the next task on your to-do list. It’s important to remind yourself that you have to finish what you’re currently working on before you can move on to the next thing.
Set boundaries if you feel stressed out. If a manager or co-worker asks you to take on more work, tell them you’re actually quite busy right now, but you’d love to help out next time. You need to be in a good mind space when your schedule clears up. To achieve this, make it through your current to-do list before taking on new tasks. Being mindful of the present can help improve your focus and achieve more in less time.
Get your priorities straight
Do you struggle with a long to-do list in the morning? Split the tasks on it into high- and low-priority ones. Then, divide them further into complicated and easy ones. Start with the most complicated, high-priority ones and work your way down the list. You can eschew easy, low-priority ones if you feel tired.
Your workflow will be more manageable when you have a realistic view of your daily tasks. Organizing your priorities will let you see if you need help or if your timelines need adjusting.
This isn’t to preach toxic positivity, but focusing on the good things can improve your attitude toward your responsibilities when you’re under pressure.
Do you feel stressed out because of an upcoming presentation? Try to see it as an opportunity to improve your public speaking skills. Reframe challenges as growth opportunities. Your mindset will evolve as more positive over time.