Thursday, January 22, 2009

Brain Rule #8: This is Your Brain on Stress

I'm reading Brain Rules by John Medina. Medina is a molecular biologist who's been looking at how the human brain works. So of course he spends a LOT of time telling us how much we really don't know about how the human brain works. Nevertheless, he has come up with a set of 12 heuristics that can still guide us to making more aware and smarter choices.

Rule #8 is that your brain learns differently while under stress. This has a few implications for your safety. Here I'll look at one in particular, because it relates to some of my recent posts: learned helplessness in domestic violence.

According to Rule #8, our brains evolved to deal with short-term stress. Like 30 seconds. Or less. Way back in prehistory our threats came primarily from 4 legged predators and accidents. OK, we've still got plenty of accidents, but our predators are bipedal, just like you and me. Some of those predators are those bipeds closest to you.

Domestic violence can create one of the most insidious and misunderstood forms of learned helplessness. When someone is under constant (or even unpredictably sporadic) pressure from another, when they would definitely rather the pressure was stopped, and most importantly feel they have no control over the source of stress, you have the makings of a problem-solving breakdown. Your brain on such stress just does not work well.

Many forms of stress are beneficial, and indeed necessary for personal growth and learning, but stress that seems to have no end and that is spiraling out of control leads to just the opposite. Women in abusive relationships are subject to that kind of unpredictable and controllable stress, and the end result is often an inability to take self-preserving action.

And if that's not enough, here's the kicker: most people outside the relationship who see the abuse wonder (often out loud) why she just doesn't leave. The abused ends up getting more harm in the guise of help; when well-meaning family and friends tell an abused woman that she needs to take a specific action, they further diminish her ability to make good decisions.

So in the spirit of Brain Rules, I have a positive suggestion for more aware and positive choices.

Recognize stress. Distinguish stressors that are growth challenges from those that are destructive (easier said than done, and to abuse another cliche, hindsight is 20-20). One idea on how to do this comes from Rule #4 on Attention. Your brain pays great attention to whether or not you've seen "it" (whatever "it" is) before. That does not mean you have to experience abuse in order to recognize it. Your big brain can learn from others' experiences. Learn the red flags that are screaming "abuse," and learn how to better aid your family and friends who may have become entrapped. There are lots of web and print resources (see my Resources and Readings pages for some), and if you ask around you'll probably be surprised how much experience is in your own backyard.

No comments:

Post a Comment