Fear, worry, anxiety, stress – our bodies aren’t built for this long term

7 September 2020

Our fight or flight response is designed to get us out of immediate danger. Long term stressors can cause significant damage to our nervous system as outlined in this article Stress Effects on the Body by the American Psychological Association. 

2020 has kept many people in a constant state of stress, fear, worry and anxiety. We’ve had fires, floods, injustices and a virus that has shut down the world. This is on top of the regular stressors of daily life like work, family, business or health concerns. 

Did you know that physical and social (emotional) threats are the same to the brain?

This means that some words are treated the same as fists to the brain, which explains why we may react to some words or phrases the same as if we felt physical violence.

With a career in work health and safety, I’ve always understood the importance of mental health and how actions like bullying can negatively impact an individual and an organisation’s culture. However the neuroscience behind it and how our nervous system responds is really eye opening. 

I was lucky enough to hear a couple of sessions of the Brain Power series from Shelley Laslett at Vitae through the Sydney Startup Hub. Shelley explained neuroscience in an easy to understand way and provided tools to improve performance, leadership, culture and teamwork. 

In the session on the Neuroscience of Culture, Shelley shared the theory and explained that in the absence of safe, social interactions and conversations, the body generates a threat response. People respond or react based on how safe they feel. 

If we feel unsafe, we may fight, flee or freeze. We could feel hopeless, depressed, frustrated, angry or panicked. Living under constant threat has serious health consequences as outlined in this University of Minnesota article. It has negative impacts on our memory, brain processing and reactivity, and our physical and mental health. 

It also impacts our:

  • digestion
  • immune response
  • blood pressure
  • heart rate and 
  • breathing among many other body functions.

We can’t perform at our best when we feel unsafe, and I understand this from personal experience. I was working 10-12 hours a day in a stressful environment with no self care or downtime, always worrying about doing the right thing and getting projects done for people with serious injuries and disabilities. I’ve seen and experienced bullying in the workplace, which caused me to break out in an anxiety rash in certain situations. I stopped eating at work for over 12 months. I don’t know how my body did it, but I never felt hungry and always had a sick feeling in my stomach… 

The neurobiology of being human

This chart from Ruby Jo Walker provides an excellent visual on how our nervous system responds to different physiological states.

As humans, we have 3 states: social engagement, fight/flight, and freeze. These 3 states are elicited by our perception of threat and are biological and nervous system responses to our neuroception. 

Ruby Jo Walker

These states impact how we feel and behave. If we feel safe, we are aware and responsive and therefore respond rather than react to situations. This puts our body in a state of health, growth and restoration and is the foundation for healthy relationship skills. 

“A sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.

It is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.

It describes a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

As leaders, we have a responsibility to ensure the workplace is a physiologically safe environment, which according to Dr Amy Edmonson is:

I would extend this further to not only us as leaders in the workplace, but as parents, partners, friends, and leaders within local communities. 

How can we reduce stress and anxiety?

Here are my top tips that help me reduce fear, worry, stress and anxiety:

  • spend time with positive people I love – have a tribe that lifts the vibe
  • unfollow negativity, whether that be social media accounts or disconnecting from negative people
  • limit my media intake – I don’t watch the news or listen to radio. I prefer to listen to upbeat music and podcasts
  • watch funny and inspirational movies and documentaries
  • read a good book – I’m currently reading Earth Healing and Medical Medium… Wow
  • get outside – I go for a walk to get exercise, fresh air and vitamin D
  • regularly practice yin yoga – this helps release tension and calms my mind
  • get a good night sleep. I listen to a guided meditation that helps stop my mind from racing and I drift off to sleep in under 20 minutes 
  • spread joy. I find ways to pay it forward and do random acts of kindness 
What if work is the reason for the stress and anxiety? 

Work can be stressful, even more so during this time of uncertainty. I recently wrote an article about leading in a digital world which may provide some helpful tips to improve connection during a disconnected time. 

Here’s a few more suggestions:

  • take regular breaks
  • finish work on time
  • create positive change. You don’t need to be a leader to create positive change. Having a positive mindset, sharing ideas, being a great listener and going the extra mile in your work are all ways you can improve the culture for yourself and your team. 
  • sometimes workplaces are toxic and you need an exit strategy. 

Talking to someone is also helpful. Whether it’s a trusted colleague, your boss, a family member or a professional. Did you know that you can access Medicare funded psychology services? Take a look at the Australian Psychological Society website for more information. 

What do you do to reduce stress and anxiety?

Visit my LinkedIn article to comment.