Getting to work in the morning is a stressful time for Sarah. There are always a thousand things on her mind. Take this morning for example: As is often the case, Sarah was running late for work. She rushed out of the house leaving her husband Bill to ferry the kids off to school. The last thing she saw as she shut the door behind her was the frustrated look on Bill’s face as he broke into an argument with their 10-year-old daughter. As she ran to the car, Sarah glanced at her watch and shook her head. The car false started a few times before finally kicking over.
Sarah reversed out of the driveway and into the sea of oncoming traffic. The pressure was on and she knew that it wouldn’t let up all day. Ahead of her was important appointments and deadlines to meet. Her mind was so clouded that she didn’t even notice the beautiful blue-sky day.
Frustration and worry seemed to ebb away at Sarah as she thought about the crazy morning behind her and the busy workday in front of her. To add to her pressure was the tension building in her relationship with Bill over the refinancing of their home. Suddenly a car cut her off in traffic. She reacted before she had time to think, cursing the other driver. A second later she felt slightly foolish but justified all the same because the other car was in the wrong.
As she arrived at work and parked her car, she sat for a moment in the silence and noticed that her heart was racing. Her brow was creased with tension and there was an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
If left unchecked, the tension people feel in relation to the daily grind, financial pressure or relationship problems, have a way of impacting a person’s mental health. Without even being aware, Sarah’s internal mental dialogue has an impact upon her emotional wellbeing. Whatever Sarah feels emotionally has a direct impact on what happens in her brain (neurologically) and body (biologically). Depending on which brain-chemicals and body-hormones are being impacted will help to influence the choices Sarah makes, how well she performs at work, and how she relates to others (both at work and home). Sarah’s behaviour, in turn, will influence what she thinks – and the cycle begins again.
When Sarah is worried or under stress, a small part in her brain called the amygdala releases a protein messenger (neural peptide) instructing her adrenal gland to secrete the stress hormone glucocorticoids (commonly referred to as cortisol). Cortisol works to break down fatty acids, giving Sarah the energy to respond to her rushed morning at home and her busy day at work. As the stress dissipates, this hormonal reaction naturally subsides.
However, if Sarah remains in a state of angst throughout the day, additional cortisol will be released into her body to maintain a chronic state of arousal. Over time, Sarah’s excessive levels of cortisol will increases the amount of free fatty acids in her body, which in turn, contribute to the clogging of her arteries; forcing Sarah’s heart to work harder. Sarah’s white blood cells will start breaking down, and ultimately weaken her immune system. A negative psycho-physiological cycle has been set in motion with potential mental health consequences.
If not burned up through exercise, Sarah excessive cortisol will be converted into a special type of fat that acts like poison (leading over time to weight gain, ageing, and degenerative disease). Excessive cortisol will also to disrupt important wellbeing chemicals (neurotransmitters) in Sarah’s brain. Without healthy production and function of these neurochemicals, Sarah will struggle to maintain her mental health and emotional wellbeing.
Feeling stressed is not just a state of mind; it’s also a state of body. The sympathetic nervous system accelerates Sarah’s heart rate, constricts her blood vessels, and raises her blood pressure. To relieve this uncomfortable state, Sarah may be inclined to reach for paracetamol, sleeping tablets or a glass of wine to encourage the parasympathetic nervous system help calm her body calm down. However, all that does is create a biological tug-of-war. Using medication and alcohol to calm down when stressed is like pressing your other foot firmly on the brake and the other on the accelerator at the same time. Sarah’s engine is REVVING but she’s not going anywhere. If not returned to an idle, her engine over time may burn out, resulting in mental illness.
Everyone, from time to time, is impacted by the adverse pressures associated with life. Even great heroes from the Bible wrestled with mental anguish and even hopelessness. Elijah is a great example of how quickly mental despair can surface. After having witnessed one of the greatest miracles of all time, and performing one of the most heroic feats recorded in scripture, Elijah finds out in the wilderness taking sheltering under a Juniper Tree. Feeling completely exhausted and sorry for himself, he declares that he doesn’t know how to go on with his life.
God, however, intervenes. Not in the form of counselling or medication, but by giving him rests and nutrition to restore his physical energy. Interestingly, in Matthew 11:28, Jesus says something similar; “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”.
Having rested and been restored physically, Elijah continued on to Mt Horeb to get a check-up from the neck up with God himself. Worrisome and depressive thoughts that result in despair and hopelessness often stem from a particular thinking style that traps or paralyses the individual. Negative thoughts that are rehearsed create neural loops in the brain, resulting in disillusionment (not knowing how to go on).
When God asked Elijah what he was doing there at Mt Horeb (why he had come to speak to the Lord), he responded with a self-righteous complaint, blame, excuses, and self-pity. In other words, Elijah displaced evidence of a victim mindset that lead to his emotional discontent and mental instability. God brought correction to his thinking (a renewing of his mind) before sending him back into the fray.
Whenever we feel persecuted, burned out, hurt/offended, hard done by, discontent or disillusioned, just like Elijah, we too run the risk of getting trapped by negative thought cycles. However, becoming aware of which specific thought styles tend to trap us, thoughts can be arrested (2 Corinthians 10:5), challenged and refocused (Philippians 4:4-8), and ultimately renewed (Romans 12:2), leading to transformation.
Consider some of the thought traps below and see if you too might need a check-up from the neck up:
An obsessive thought style where one idea, memory, or problem won’t go away (usually based on a negative past experience). These automatic negative thoughts can be triggered by the smallest reminders and are pervasive in nature. For example, seeing a story on the evening news that triggers a memory of a past event. For the rest of the evening, the sticky thought can’t be shaken.
A self-centred thought style that sets hard like concrete is rather inflexible. Thoughts are typically ‘all or nothing’ in their orientation (eg, it is OR it isn’t; I want it OR I don’t want it; it’s always OR it’s never; it’s good OR it’s bad; it’s my way OR the highway – there is very little middle ground). This style of thinking is naturally experienced by children, which is why it’s also referred to as an immature mindset.
Grey Lens Perspective:
In the tradition of ‘rose-coloured glasses’, this particular though style comes about by looking at the world through lenses that colour everything grey (negative). The positives are quite simply unseen, or ‘re-coloured’, thereby allowing a person to maintain their negative outlook on life despite evidence to the contrary.
An exaggerated thought style that typically blows things out of proportion. Everyday challenging incidences become major catastrophes. For example, people who appear unfriendly are perceived to be villains will ill intent; If something doesn’t go quite the way it’s planned, it’s deemed to be a total disaster; If an argument takes place with one person, it’s perceived that “everyone is against me.”
Anticipating negative outcomes. Trying anything new is a foregone concluded failure. For example, a ‘dooms day’ approach to meeting new people, starting a new job, or completing a test. This thought style often results in giving up before starting.
A thought style that holds one’s self personally responsible for negative events, irrespective of causal factors. This thought style not only catches the blame others would like to throw their way, but they also reach out and take the blame even when it’s not being thrown. For example, a driver is pulled over for speeding. However, the passenger concludes he is responsible because he was talking to (and therefore distracting) the driver.
To effectively manage stress, Sarah needs to learn how to reverse the process. This is achieved by (a) Make a choice to change her behaviour, which will (b) positively impact her brain and body processes, which will (c) help her feel more emotionally stable, which will (d) allow Sarah to think more clear, positive and constructive thoughts, which in turn will (e) help her make wiser choices about work-life balance.
There are much more effective ways for you to return your emotional-engine to an idling state.
Dr Robi Sonderegger is a Clinical Psychologist renowned for taking psychology from the frontline to the home front.
Dr Robi is best known for combining the best of science and scripture in his messages that are actively designed to equip and empower participants.
Every year, countless thousands around the world attend his live presentations, and tens of thousands have graduated from his trauma rehabilitation, mental/emotional health, new-habit-formation, and parenting programs.
Dr Robi is also a founder of Psychology Cafe, a World First mental health service offering effective psychology assessment and therapeutic intervention in a café-style private setting.
To learn more about Dr Robi, head to – www.drrobi.com