“Dear Dr. Neil, I’ve been so stressed out lately that I’m treating myself miserably, eating poorly, barely sleeping and I’m snapping at my husband and kids all the time. Help me. Janet”
Hang in there. Help is on its way.
I can tell from the signs you’re exhibiting that you are definitely a victim of what we call an “amygdala hijacking!”
The amygdala is that part of your limbic (emotional) brain that ignites the human stress response (“fight or flight response”) and it is triggered anytime you have to deal with situations or challenges that exceed your ability to cope.
Activation of your fight or flight response is helpful in the short term, because it makes you more alert, energetic and focused on managing the crisis at hand, but if the amygdala stays in charge too long, it eventually hijacks the blood supply away from your thinking, rational brain—and the result is predictable: you start to make really bad decisions, stupid mistakes and perceive everyone around you as the enemy!
So, just what can you do to disengage your amygdala and re-engage your rational brain?
I’ve got three powerful, science-based steps that can help, but before I give you those, let me take a quick moment to address one big misunderstanding when it comes to managing stress.
Most every patient I treat tends to see stress as something they just want to get rid of in their lives. The problem is—without stress—none of us would be challenged to grow, change or improve. Let me prove it to you.
The great author Tim Gallwey, in his classic book The Inner Game of Tennis, says to a crowd at his seminar, “I can teach every one of you how to never lose again at a game of tennis. Would anyone be interested in learning that?” All kinds of hands go up in excitement. Then Tim says, “Okay, are you ready to learn how to never lose again in a game of tennis?” “Yes, yes, we’re ready!” cries the crowd. “Okay,” says Tim, “Here it is. Here’s the tip: Never play anyone better than you!”
A disappointment spreads over the crowd! Tim asks, “Why are you disappointed? I just gave you a powerful tip on how to never lose again at a game of tennis.” “I’ll tell you why,” says Tim, “because life develops itself in and around our ability to overcome obstacles in life!”
The fact is: every difficulty, every stress, every challenge, every obstacle we face in life presents us with an opportunity for a breakdown or a breakthrough.
This philosophy is reflected in what I call the “Stress Mastery Mission Statement,” which says: