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How and why we react to stress and how meditation changes the game

In a previous post about judging (you can read it here), our primitive brain came up.

Our primitive heritage explains a lot

Turns out the judging we all do isn’t our fault at all. It’s a throwback to the days when we needed to be part of the group to survive.  We had to compare and measure ourselves to make sure we could fit in. 

Fight, flight or freeze...

On a similar theme, apart from all that judging, we were often scanning the horizon for threats.  Always ready with our fight, flight, or freeze response should we detect danger.

Well, clearly we don’t face the same threats now. There’s (usually!) no wild animal looking to make you into lunch. But that doesn’t stop us from looking out for it. Our brains have no way of distinguishing between the threat of a tiger on the horizon and our boss looming or our kids losing it...all three (and sadly so many more scenarios in our high octane, high stress modern world)...have the capacity to trigger our nervous system into a state of red alert. 

Once that happens then things can go downhill for our wellbeing.  

There’s no doubt that SOME stress is good for us.  Energising us and making us ready for action. Blood pumping and heart racing can be part of the thrill of life.  The problem comes with chronic stress and pressure as the impact cumulatively builds in our bodies. 

What physically happens in our bodies 

The red alert centre for the brain is the amygdala, a small almond shaped area towards the bottom that functions kind of like an alarm bell.  When it’s triggered it’s like a stairgate - keeping you downstairs in the emotionally driven part of your brain (like leaving a toddler in charge). That amygdala also triggers a whole host of hormone responses: 


First up we have our old friend adrenaline, the fight or flight hormone.  

Instantly priming you ready for action, it’s function when you’re under threat is to provide the burst of energy and focus for instantaneous response.  

Helpful if there’s a tiger on the horizon, not so much if you just got triggered by your child talking to you badly or your boss telling you that you need to deliver a presentation.


Just behind that we have cortisol - this one is the big guns.

Designed to prepare your body for action it leads to a whole array of physiological actions:  for example your heart rate increases; ready to pump blood to your arms and legs to help you do battle or run for the hills.


What this emergency response suppresses is also important to know.  

If it isn’t going to help you survive against an imminent threat then its shutdown time:  if you were about to become someone else’s lunch then it wouldn’t be especially helpful to waste energy digesting your own. Likewise, no point fending off a cold if you need to fight for your life. That means for our digestion and our immune system, being under regular and

consistent stress is bad news.

The result?

When we are stuck down in our emotional brain, we are in a loop of reacting without much conscious choice in our responses.  

Something happens, we react. 

Almost without thinking and our whole body carries the impact of that.

What you can do about it?

Luckily for us, there are things we can do to get out of survival mode and back into thriving.  Finding the mental space to choose how to respond rather than reacting.  

To understand that we need to go further up in the brain to the prefrontal cortex

This is a relatively new area for us in evolutionary terms. It’s associated with:

Higher processes like decision making and planning; the strategic command centre.  

It regulates that limbic or emotional part of our brain - allowing us to want to scream abuse at the person who just cut us up in traffic but being able to choose not to.

I guess you probably know where I’m heading here! 

Meditation is the pause button

In fact, meditation has been shown to increase the thickness of the prefrontal cortex as well as increase the amount of activation in that part of the brain. (You can read an interesting article about how meditation changes the brain and more by clicking here).

 So that feeling of space you get from meditation? That's your brain changing! 

And even better, the research suggests that those changes last.  So you CAN become more in control of your impulses and choose how you want to behave.  

What’s more, meditation also calms and soothes that amygdala response. Reducing its size and how quickly it’s triggered - meaning we can choose to be upstairs in our thinking brain more often. 

A personal experience 

For me, that mental pause button has been one of the biggest gains of my meditation practice.  More often than I liked to admit to myself, I was reacting and behaving in ways that didn’t fit with how I wanted to be.

I wasn’t able to be the wife, mother, friend or even person that I wanted to be.   We all know that horrible feeling when you’ve lost your s**t at someone you care about - not because they’ve done anything to truly deserve it but because you reacted from that place of fear and emotion.  

How about you?

So maybe its time to grow that “muscle” for responding.  The more you practice meditation, the more that space exists in your life as a constant.  You can learn to ride the wave instead of being overcome by it.  

I'd love to know what you think...find out more interesting facts about meditation here.


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