Our NHS People

Understanding stress

What happens to our brain function when we are under pressure?

  1. Our cortex, which plays a key role in awareness, thought and language, switches off so we are left simply to ‘react’. This is our fight, flight, freeze type of responses
  2. We can lose our capacity to think and make reflective decisions

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman refers to this as: System 1 thinking, where we just react without thinking. The good news is there is also System 2 thinking, where we are able to be considered and reflective first, and then act.

The impact of stress in the workplace

The negative impact of working in a stressed state is often taken as part and parcel of working in healthcare. However, when it comes to sustained stress, we know that:

  • Sustained stress can damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain which is central to learning and memory
  • Operating in a ‘stressed’ mode means we function slower and are less effective
  • Looking at stress in the workplace, evidence shows links with lateness, absence, relationships difficulties, lack of motivation, feeling overwhelmed, reluctance to engage, difficulty decision-making, burnout and compassion fatigue

Being aware of the impact of stress helps us to be attuned to times where we need to give ourselves a little more space to let System 2 thinking step in.

So, how do you get to and stay in the good zone?

  • Recognising what activates your stress and the impact this has on your coping capacity
  • Understanding what is within your control to change
  • Understanding and paying attention to the 6 domains of resilience
  • Having the psychological space to think and take meaningful action to protect and retain your own resilience