The Strange Things We Do Under Stress

16 Mar 2018
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How mindless habits are formed

Some of you might be familiar with Prof. Steve Peter’s book ‘The Chimp Paradox’, in which he explains that we have within our brains 2 different entities: the chimp and the human. The Chimp is always on the look out for our security and it makes highly emotional decisions without proper assessment of the situation, and often not even in our best interests. And it is up to the human mind to learn to manage the chimp within, not to struggle against it or try to overcome it as this sets us up for failure.

Under my training as a solution focused hypnotherapist, we illustrate our understanding of the brain with a similar metaphor but instead of the chimp mind we call it the primitive mind, and instead of the human mind we call it the intellectual mind. Similar to the chimp concept, the primitive part of the brain is concerned primarily with our safety, it’s trying to get you through today so you survive into the next day. It has a very narrow view of life and it can only work on past patterns of behaviour rather than being innovative – if what you did yesterday ensured your survival, then you’re encouraged to do the same again.
And this is how patterns of behaviour, or habits, can be created. For example, say you get home feeling quite stressed, you head straight for the fridge and pour a glass of wine and within a few minutes you feel a lot better. It’s not just the alcohol hitting your system, it’s the act of getting home, releasing tension, getting away from the stressors (and the alcohol may help a bit!), but to your primitive mind the act of opening the fridge and getting the drink forms part of the stress relief – and it helped you survive today, so your primitive mind will encourage you to do it again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after… each time strengthening the connections between the feeling of relief from stress and the act of getting and consuming the glass of wine.
And as the connection strengthens, you might be encouraged to get another glass of wine because, hey, it made you feel good so surely having more will make you feel even better?
It also affects the way we think – normally when we’re operating from the intellectual part of the brain, the ‘human’ part, we make considered decisions. We look at the situation, we assess it and we make rational decisions as to what best action to take, which are generally very positive and for our benefit.
However when we’re under stress, we have that chimp overtake, the primitive mind jumping in. It becomes an emotional decision, reactive and not proactive. This is when we do strange things, because we are not in a ‘thinking’ mode: we put the keys in the fridge, or we can’t see something that is right in front of us, or we pour orange juice over our cereal instead of milk, or we file a document in an odd place, or we send emails to the wrong people… it’s a very mindless state to be in, and quite the opposite to being ‘mindful’.
And this affects all areas of our lives, especially the workplace. When we suffer from stress at work we make decisions that are not wholly rational, when we look back we think ‘what on earth was I thinking, why did I put that figure down in that quote?’ or ‘why did I write that email like that, with so many mistakes?’. All these things that are really very straight forward, logical things we do every day suddenly become problems.
Our thinking has become clouded, in fact we’re hardly thinking at all, but running on our emotional reactions, unconsciously and without thought. And that’s the difference stress makes in our lives, when we’re under stress we make decisions based on emotion rather than rational thought, they are not considered or positive, they tend to be reactive and mindless.
So if you do one thing today, try to get into that ‘human’ mind, the intellectual part of your brain. Start thinking in a mindful way, being in the moment rather than multitasking and thinking ahead to the next thing on your list. By doing this simple change, focusing on the now rather than the past or future you’ll find that you make better decisions and have more clarity of thought which is a better and more productive way to be – and you might find that you no longer need that glass of wine when you get home in the evening!
If you would like to discuss how we can help, drop us an email so a no obligation chat about how hypnotherapy can help you manage your chimp

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