The Myth of Conscious Control: Understanding Stress and the Autonomic Nervous System

The common belief is that we have a lot of conscious control over our automatic processes. We believe that we can understand stress, that we have agency over what happens to us, that we are in charge and in control, and that we can make plans and carry them out in our behavior. This gives us a sense of safety and control. However, when we really look at how our brains and bodies work, we find that more is controlled by automatic processes. Stress is something we typically think we can control with our minds, but this is not always the case.

Understanding Stress: How Your Emotions Affect Your Physical Health

Understanding Stress

One of the problems with trying to control stress with our minds is that the brain networks we are trying to recruit to help us feel better are shutting down every second we are in fight or flight. What dictates a fight or flight response is not our thoughts, as we have been told, but networks in our brain, including the salience network, which perceives any kind of sense before we even know what is going on. This is why if a fire alarm goes off, we all go into fight or flight without even knowing where it’s coming from or what the problem is.

Our cognition kicks in later, so these biological automatic mechanisms that set off our stress switch are where we want to intervene for swift and effective stress relief. This turns everything we have been taught on its head, but it is very good news. If we think about all the times we are stressed and don’t want to be, we can give a presentation or talk to someone who is saying something we don’t like, and we just can’t control ourselves, we’re in a fight, flight, or freeze, and we can’t pick whichever mode our body goes into. Then we can’t control ourselves, can’t control our stress, and we end up thinking that we lack self-control.

From Burnout to Balance: Understanding Stress Management Strategies

If we understand that this is not a self-control issue, that this is an autonomic nervous system issue, and we can hack into that very quickly with non-invasive technology or non-invasive methods, but that there’s a different strategy here, then it’s going to work. Our stress can go down, we don’t need to beat ourselves up, and ultimately we’re going to be better off.

Most of the time, strategies include trying to change our thoughts, but did you know that our thoughts will automatically shift when our stress is low? These thoughts are automatically generated based on the state our body is in and whatever memory networks and things like that are being triggered. Once again, we think that this is us having some kind of control, doing this ourselves, but that’s not the case. These thoughts are automatically generated. When they’re automatically generated in a negative state, they’re going to be negative, they’re going to be polarized, they’re going to filter out the good, and then trying to change those thoughts by thought is really difficult. 

Unlocking the Power of Neurofeedback: How the Brain Can Change Itself

But if we get our body into more of a healthy, low-stress state automatically, then the thoughts will almost magically and instantaneously transform, and we don’t have to do all that work. We have new ways of using neuroscience based on how the brain really works to put us in a better state, and we don’t have to beat ourselves up anymore for not being able to control our fight-or-flight mechanism. In fact, our body was designed so that we don’t have control over our fight or flight mechanism, as if we’re thinking while we’re in fight or flight, we risk not taking quick action. Therefore, we can be easy on ourselves and use methods that work to downplay some of the things that have been told to us since the 1980s that are now out of date based on what we know about neuroscience. By understanding how our brains and bodies work, we can effectively manage stress and improve our overall health.

Serin Center experts have been utilizing applied neuroscience to enhance the lives of children, adolescents, adults, families, and executives with effective and innovative therapy.

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