ABSTRACT THOUGHT

Cortisol is a stress hormone secreted by the adrenal glands. We need it to get moving, and its so important that without it we could not exist. But like many things, too much of it is not great for us.

So before we dive in, let’s consider something very important about this big old melon between our ears. Human beings have the amazing capacity for something called abstract thought.

BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN IN PRACTICE?

In the wild when a mammal is threatened by a predator cortisol is produced to help the body take action to avoid the threat. Once the threat is over cortisol stops being produced and the body moves back to homeostasis – otherwise known as balance.

BUT WHAT IF THE EVENT DOESN’T FINISH?

Abstract thought, in essence, is the ability to infer a connection between things without being directly taught that link. For example, if I told you B was bigger than A and C was bigger than B then you would infer that C was also bigger than A, although you’d never been taught that directly. A simple example but you get the idea. We take in pieces of information and we infer relations or outcomes on the basis of that information…

AND WE DO THIS WITH THOUGHTS ALL THE TIME.

I forgot to do X

Which has a possible outcome of Y

Which then may lead onto Z

AN OLD MECHANISM

Because most humans are negatively biased, which is an old mechanism to keep us safe, then scenario Z is rarely the optimal outcome – in fact usually it is the worst possible outcome. Whilst focus on the possible negative outcomes worked well in caveman days, its less effective in our modern first world existence where or most the basic needs for food, shelter and warmth are often taken care of.

With the basics catered for the mind does not simply lie back and say

“Everything’s great, I can relax”.

LOOKOUT FOR THREAT

What actually happens is that it is still on the lookout for threat and with our abstract thought capacity we can produce a significant stress response simply through thought alone. Just the prospect of outcome Z possibly happening will have the adrenal glands creating cortisol

But there may not be any action available to take!

Take for example someone who thinks they may have forgotten to lock their front door. It goes like this “did I lock the front door”, which is the initial thought. Followed by “someone might break in”, which is the outcome. Followed by “my computer will be stolen with all my important data”, which is the consequence.

FLOOD THE BODY WITH CORTISOL

The mind will want to take action to resolve this, so will flood the body with cortisol. BUT what if you are nowhere near home at the time and no ability to take action.

WELL, THIS IS WHERE PSYCHOLOGICAL FLEXIBILITY COMES IN.

In this moment there is a huge desire to exert some control – which is to check that the door is locked. System is flooded with cortisol to take action to do this, but there is no easy way to take action.

ACT TECHNIQUES

ACT techniques allow us to step back and look at the situation more objectively. Awareness, Acceptance and Cognitive Defusion are tools in the armoury to gently disengage from the fear and perceived consequences of not taking action. That is not to say that we never take action – not at all. Of course when there is a genuine issue that needs to be dealt with and we have the ability and capacity to deal with it in that moment, then we do.

However, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have forgotten to lock the house when I’ve gone out but I have had a thought that I may have forgotten to lock the house thousands of times. So the likelihood I left it unlocked is probably 0.01%. Further still what is the likelihood that someone will try to break in on the one occasion the place is unlocked…

Is it reasonable to expend so much energy on something that is so unlikely..? But this is the rub. Most people’s brains are not calculators working out possible odds. There is a thought which is a seen as a threat and we respond, and part of the response mechanism is the production of cortisol.

Further to this when we do respond to the ‘threat’, we are simply sending a signal to the brain that there is something to fear, so we are more likely to respond in a similar way to the same thought in the future – so more cortisol.

This means that many people are living in a situation where cortisol production is the norm, not the aberration and its terrible for our wellbeing, health and longevity.

There is a good reason why life insurance companies look at our history of stress when working out premiums. I guarantee you’ll pay significantly more if you have a history of chronic stress for which you received help from your GP.

The reality is that in the modern world we are fed so much information to be concerned about through the news and social media its no wonder that many of us are living in chronic stress. Too much cortisol at the wrong time of day can lead to poor sleep which then only exacerbates the situation, as a lot of cortisol in the system at bedtime is not conducive to good sleep.

MODERN WORLD REALITY

we are fed so much information to be concerned about through the news and social media its no wonder that many of us are living in chronic stress.

Too much cortisol at the wrong time of day can lead to poor sleep which then only exacerbates the situation, as a lot of cortisol in the system at bedtime is not conducive to good sleep.

ACT IS THE ANSWER

ACT is the answer. Learning ACT will help you to identify when you get caught up in the vicious spiral of thinking, emotions and actions which lead you away from what is important to you.

By practising these you become more able to let go of the thoughts and emotions which are constraining you. This sends a signal that these thoughts are not as important as the weight you have given to them and consequently occur with less frequency and lower ‘volume’. They probably won’t go away completely as there is no delete button in the brain, but they will fade more into the background.