• Dr. Melanie O'Neill

The Struggle is Real--Twice



Our bodies get into habits when it comes to managing stress. Some of those habits are programmed into our DNA before we're even born. Luckily, it's still possible to change our response to stress.


When faced with stress, we take two hits. The first hit is the actual event, but the next hit follows where we reflect and analyze what happened (or could have happened) to us. We recognize the first hit as stress. The second one is sneakier.


Our brains are equipped with two distinct pathways and chemical responses where each of these hits take place. Think about the last time you had a close call. Perhaps the event only lasted the amount of time it took you to hit your brakes, or catch yourself before a fall. Fortunately, your immediate (primal) stress response is restricted to that finite window.


When we developed more advanced neuroanatomy, we gained the ability to anticipate and reflect. Being able to learn from past experiences as well as adjust course in anticipation of future consequences were both critical to our survival. If your ancestors weren't able to do either of those things, your odds for being here reading this? Not very high.


(Un)Fortunately, your ancestors were probably at least somewhat anxious--vigilant of their surroundings and aware of potential threats. Secondary (advanced) stress response pathways of reflection and anticipation likely grew stronger in each surviving generation.


One of the most important steps to strengthening your stress management is becoming wise about what is, and is not, in your control. You don't have to be along for the ride just because of the habits you inherited.


The first hit of stress is utterly unavoidable. The second hit, now that's where you can get some leverage. A wave of self-criticism is one of the most damaging reflexes of that second hit. It often takes the form of comparing yourself unfavorably to others.


Self-critical habits have a way of perpetuating themselves. Where that close call only lasted a matter of seconds, your secondary response can last hours, months...even years. It can take the form of ruminating on injustice or anxiously anticipating repeat events. It keeps your brain in a state of survival lock-down, long after the threat passed. It doesn't have to stay that way. Resilience can be learned!


One of the best things you can do for yourself is become more aware of what your specific stress response style feels like, and explore a wider range of strategies for managing it. This is where biofeedback and neurofeedback can be especially useful in clarifying what pathways may be fatigued, and which ones are strong. When your body can become more efficient at processing daily stress, every system within you benefits.

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Melanie R. O'Neill, PsyD, BCB

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© 2019 by Melanie R. O'Neill, PsyD, BCB