Understanding your brain - The science behind the stress - 782x504

Understanding your brain: The science behind the stress

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Understanding your brain - The science behind the stress

Anyone who’s shrugged off stress by saying it’s ‘all in the mind’ is half right, but probably not for the reason they think. Stress is real – but it’s more about the brain, argues Marcus Shah. Understand your brain, and you’ll be better able to understand (and reduce) your stress levels too:

It’s a fact of life that everyone, at some juncture in their life, will experience the uncomfortable feeling of acute stress. For some it’s a physically crippling sensation – when our body’s Neanderthal defense mechanisms kick in – causing adrenalin to surge through our veins, preparing us for the ‘freeze, flight or fight’ responses we’ve all heard about. Some may have heard about it being described as our tussle with our ‘inner chimp’ – the conflict we’re having between what’s rational and irrational (to find out more just Google Professor Steve Peters, the psychiatrist accredited with Team GB’s cycling success in the 2012 Olympics).

The point about both observations though, is while the response to stress might well be a physical one, it’s very much triggered by the brain, and that makes it all about science (and it’s an emerging one at that).

The fact is our amygdala (the bit of our brain always questing for danger), conflicts with our pre-frontal cortex – the part of our brains that makes sense of stuff, encouraging empathy, and give us the freedom to create new ideas. But if we re-contextualise stress as simply a product of how our brain reacts to the outside world, common sense suggests there must surely be an ability to change this. Well, it’s not just common sense. Scientists are proving it right now.

A recent study in Molecular Psychiatry found chronic stress causes long-term changes in brains – it causes more myelin-producing cells (good for transmitting electrical impulses), but fewer neurons than normal. The result of this disruption is an excess of myelin in certain areas of the brain, which actually interferes with the timing and balance of communication.

The good news is that latest thinking also suggests our brains are much more malleable than we might have first thought, and that by concentrating on creating new habits in response to stressful situations (including new desirable behaviours), we actually have the power to redirect our brains’ typical chemical, hormonal, and physical responses, to create brand new neurological pathways. In other words, our brains have the ability to ‘learn’ new coping mechanisms, and just by doing this, gives us the ability to regulate our emotions, and even to think more creatively. It’s not to suggest that stress can simply melt away, and it’s not to belittle those who feel stress, but it does at least indicate we have an ability to suffer less stress by having better mindset mastery.

So what’s all this got to do with Eton Bridge Partners? Well actually quite a lot. In our work sourcing CFOs, we’re increasingly finding clients expect CFOs to be super-human, stress-retardant individuals. But I would argue unless we truly understand the science of our brains, and the science behind stress, this is likely to be a tall order.

Of course, employers rightly want people who can come in, and straight away ‘hit the ground running’; they want people that won’t waiver when challenged; and they want those who can handle anything life throws at them. But while we accept businesses need stellar talent which is rock-solid in times of change, to expect that stress never rears its head would be folly. Indeed, in a recent roundtable we held with a number of CFOs (with guest speakers from leadership coaching consultancy, 3GHR), everyone could cite examples of when they felt out of control. But my message is this: given that the world isn’t going to slow down, or get any less stressful, rather than cave into it, we all need a toolkit to be able to deal with it.

Understanding emerging brain science could be the answer we’ve been searching for. Psychologist Daniela Kaufer, for example, finds not all stress impacts our brains or our neural networks in quite the same way, arguing there is such thing as ‘good stress’ – because it helps wire the brain in a positive way, leading to stronger networks and greater resilience. ‘Bad stress’ on the other hand actually changes the composition of the very white and grey matter in the brain – which can lead to lasting changes in the brain’s structure.

Employers and executive search consultants must be alert to the fact this might not always be the case. I actually find the most successful CFOs recognise their own stress levels and are then able to share pressure effectively within a trusting team, as working together can minimise stress for all and elevate overall performance. Far too often, there is an untold expectation on them to shoulder the pressure (often ever increasing), and there is a lack of appreciation that they are, in fact, human.

As the function of the CFO broadens from steward and operator to also include strategist and catalyst, with personal culpability now an extra pressure, the need for CFOs to better deal with stress will only grow. CFOs can have all the business acumen in the world, but they can be ineffectual if they begin to crumble under pressure. But perhaps by thinking about stress as a scientific process – and one that can be impacted by creating new response habits – perhaps the notion that stress is inevitable and uncontrollable could soon be challenged.