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Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash

Imagine you are about to give an important presentation. You enter the podium, put down your notes and want to start. Then you realise: You have packed the wrong notes. This one or similar situations most people are probably familiar, and they are an excellent example of how stress arises.  

But what exactly is stress?

Stress can be understood as a person’s general physical activation reaction to perceived stressors, such as threats and demands. A distinction must be made between physical stressors such as noise, heat, or cold; psychological stressors such as excessive demands, external determination, loss of control or lack of time; and social stressors such as conflicts, or isolation. A complex interaction of various factors determines whether a stressor results in an actual stress reaction or not. These factors include duration and intensity of the stressor, as well as the person’s subjective assessment of available coping strategies. When a person reacts with a stress response, several physiological consequences are triggered. Cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine are released, which prepare the body to cope with the stressor in an optimal way. Subsequently, the immune system gets activated. If stress becomes chronic, however, reactions are adjusted: the immune system is suppressed, and numerous psychological and somatic complaints can result. Stress factors play a decisive role in the development and maintenance of psychological disorders and somatic reactions.


What is the role of stress in connection with traumatic events?

If a person has experienced a traumatic event and possibly even developed a so called „Post Traumatic Stress Disorder“ results, he or she suffers from an extraordinarily high stress reaction that often lasts to become chronic. In the trauma-therapeutic model according to Hantke and Görges, the illustrative components of “Bunny and Thinker” are used to explain the complex processes of how different brain regions are involved in the experience of stress or trauma in an easy-to-understand manner. The Thinker represents the cerebral cortex with its comprehensive processing and reflection capabilities. Visual impressions, feelings and thoughts can be perceived, reflected, and expressed linguistically. The Thinker is a smart guy, who can look at things with perspective. The Bunny, on the other hand, represents the processes within the limbic system and our “older” brain functions, which largely correspond to the those within the animal world. The amygdala, which can be understood as the body’s alarm system, the locomotor system, and the body’s basic functions such as breathing, and heartbeat are situated within this region.

Only when the bunny and the thinker cooperate well optimal human functioning can be ensured. The area in which the two components can cooperate with is also called the “Resource Area”. This term encompasses everything a person can accomplish when he or she has optimal access to all the capabilities of body and mind. Bunny and Thinker illustrate how the different functions of brain and body work together, depending on how a person is doing: The more balanced the body is, the better the different regions of the brain can cooperate. In the case of a mild stress event, such as the one outlined in the beginning – big presentation, forgotten notes, and so on – the Thinker can help the Bunny to compensate for the stress. The person is likely still able to act, knows what he/she is doing and where he/she is located at that moment. The Bunny may be scared, but the might say: “Take a deep breath, you have stored everything necessary in your brain and will be able to retrieve it”.

In the case of extreme stress events, however, where an intense threat is perceived (as in case of traumatisation), the Thinker and the Bunny “separate” and act independently. This is generally a useful process, as the Thinker would take far too long to react appropriately. A person in such a situation, however, may no longer able to act and the tension may increase more and more.

The Bunny then falls back on very old patterns from evolution when stress gets out of hand:

fight, flight, or freeze. Either of these reactions can run completely automatically without voluntary control or deliberate thought (so without the Thinker’s involvement!). After this so-called “emergency program”, the Bunny and the Thinker would usually reconnect, but due to this separation memory may be missing as processing during the event was impossible. The Bunny cannot think reflectively, and the Thinker cannot feel. Such intense stress reactions can occur more easily in connection with previous traumatisation. When different pictures, smells or situations, which remind a person of such an intense situation, the Bunny may “reactivate” the same program. The person may then, again, be exposed to an intense stress situation, denying him/her the possibility to stay anchored in the here and now.


How can anchoring in the „here and now“ reduce (traumatic) stress?

The most important first step can be to calm the Bunny, and to ensure a stable “here and now”-experience afterwards. To counteract the “intense-stress-program” Bunny and Thinker as a team can be trained to be more stable in their competencies, and to remain secure and anchored in the present situation. Several methods exist within the therapeutic field to do so, and to keep the body (the Bunny) calm. Among these, mindfulness-based intervention programs for stress management, especially MBSR (Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction) and MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy) are well known and been scientifically proven to be successful. The practice of mindfulness involves consciously directing attention to the experience of the present moment, which strengthens specifically the previously addressed important resource of “staying in the here and now.”

During the exercises, which usually take place in group settings across several weeks, the attention is directed to various physical processes such as breathing, sounds or body-sensations. As the practice progresses, the practitioner learns to experience the coming and going as well as the transience of various experiences, including stress. This can lead to improved emotion regulation, deep relaxation, and a reduction in the intensity and frequency of stress experiences.

In case of the introductory example, a person trained to stay present might be able to calm down the body and focus on the only thing relevant in that very moment: to continue the presentation – with, or without notes.

Authors: Nina Strasser, BSc., Mag. Cornelia Kastner


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