a resource, my insights, and news

Managing your stress response - think like a zebra
Feb 10, 2014

Managing your stress response - think like a zebra

The greatest weapon we have against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another

 - William Jones

Human beings have come to accept that stress is a part of everyday life.  Over time prolonged stress can lead to serious health problems.  So if we can't reduce the amount of stress in our lives we had better learn to manage our response to stress.  And this is where thinking like a zebra comes into play.

Zebras spend most of their time wandering around, eating, drinking at waterholes, mating and sleeping. Most of their lives are spent being pretty relaxed.

But every now and then, for about 1-2 minutes they experience sheer terror.  A lion appears and picks out a potential meal from the herd and the chase is on.  The response of the zebras is an automatic one.  Their brains sense danger. They run.  As fast as they can.  Their hearts are racing and limbs pounding –their bodies are automatically responding to the threat.  They are either eaten, or they survive.

But if they survive, they go back to what they were doing before.  The immediate danger is over, and their bodies, and brains return to their normal relaxed state. 

Zebras would be astounded to know that human beings experience the stress response as frequently as we do.

There is an excellent short documentary explaining the stress response by Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University.  He has spent over three decades studying the stress response in humans and animals, and he has also written a book called 'Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers'.  Interestingly baboons have very high levels of stress in the animal kingdom, having nine hours a day to torment each other after eating and sleeping.  The similarities to modern workplaces should not be dismissed.

So what is the stress response?

In humans, our immediate stress response is similar to that of the animal world, and our brains and bodies are hard wired to react to threats and perceived threats. I use the word ‘perceived’ because over time our learned responses to certain stressful situations become embedded in our neural pathways and part and parcel of everyday life.   They are memories that become activated by that particular stressful situation. We have taught our brains to find stress in the unlikeliest of places, and react accordingly. Over and over again.  For some people it is like Groundhog Day.

When we are facing stress, our bodies respond automatically by activating the nervous system and releasing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.  These hormones cause physical changes which help us react quickly -  the ‘flight or fight’ (and sometimes 'freeze' response. 

Our heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, metabolic rate and muscle tension all increase.  Glucose that has been stored in the liver is released, and the immune system is suppressed.   This is the body’s way of protecting us, by stopping things it doesn’t need to do right in that moment, and increasing activity that will help - help us deal with something that could kill us, not a performance review for example.

For example if a car cuts in front of us in the traffic, we put the foot on the brake without even consciously thinking about it.  We should  then resume normal transmission and go back to our relaxed state

But then sometimes we yell and scream and shake our fists and flip the bird when there is no need to… 


There are some simple tricks to use to manage your own stress response.

Recognise the triggers

First of all, recognise what the triggers are for you – is it public speaking, multiple deadlines, over commitment, negative responses, negative feedback, traffic, public transport, fear of failure?  Imagine if it is all of these things and they happen on the same day?  Find out what you respond to and and decide to teach your brain to respond differently. 

Try and identify THREE things that cause you to become stressed and respond inappropriately.

Mary, for example, felt her stress response activated when her supervisor Martin became inappropriately angry when something at work went wrong.  She would immediately become angry herself, assuming he was finding fault with her.  Her heart rate would go up, she would feel a bit light headed.  The two of them would argue, he would talk over the top of her, she became defensive and more angry until they were shouting.  Mary had to learn to completely change the way she thought  about and responded to this situation,  take a deep breath when blamed, and respond calmly, and quietly.  In doing so, she not only managed her stress response, she helped Martin manage his as well.

Practice acceptance for things you can’t control

When we are stressed, little things often set us off because we already have cortisol and adrenaline coursing through our systems.  There are many stressful things that happen in the day over which  we have no control – for example,  planes being late, traffic hold ups, milk being spilled (literally).  There is no point reacting to those things we can’t change.  We need to practice saying ‘it is what it is’, deal with it and move on.   So for example you are on your way to an important meeting and there is a traffic accident and you are being held up.  can you change the fact that the lanes are blocked ahead?  No.  Is having a racing heart and sweaty palms an appropriate response?  No.  Call ahead, explain the situation, and sit back and breathe deeply.  It may be the best way to utilise that 10 minutes rather than shouting and banging your fists on the dashboard.

One important thing about things you can't control -  you can’t control other people’s reactions but you can control your own.


I am not talking about  cardio exercise here.  If your heart rate is up just move to  match what is happening in your body.  Remember that adrenaline is running through your body – so for example  just before a presentation, an exam or any event you know is causing you stress and your heart rate to increase  – move around, walk up the stairs.   This will send the message to your brain that you are heeding its warning, and in turn your brain will stop or at least reduce the stress response.

Self talk

Listen to how you talk to yourself.  Are you telling yourself you’re a failure, this always happens, anticipating the worst  etc?

Ask  yourself what is the worst that can happen?   If you can handle that unlikely event then anything less than that is manageable.  Once you've asked yourself about the worst, ask the question you really need to ask yourself - what is the BEST thing that could happen?  I

f you are telling yourself ‘I am such a failure',  reframe your thoughts.  Turn the negative thoughts around into something less negative even if it can’t be positive.

For example, ‘this is going to be terrible’ becomes not ‘this is going to be great’ but ‘this is going to be tough, but I know I can get through it’.

Remember the quote above - the greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.


Next time you are feeling stressed and anxious try smiling.  Take a deep breath and smile.  Just smiling again sends a message to your brain that you are not freaking out, and the brain will respond accordingly.

Recognise fear of failure - and get over it

For our ancestors,  failure could mean the difference between life and death, so failure was a threat. Our brains function the same way today.  Failure and success are drummed into us from the time we start school, sometimes earlier.  We go from a fairly carefree life of writing and drawing how we want and meandering around to having to draw between the lines and walk in lines.  We grow up looking first for stamps and stickers, then for other signs of our success, and anyone else's success diminishes our own.

I recently read  'Wired for Life' by Martina Sheehan and Susan Pearse and it is an eye opening book.  In it the authors look at many different fears we have and have this to say about fear of failure:

The shape of the threats that face you in the modern world are very different. Failing at a job can be processed as a threat to status. ..and the threat response does not wait to see if this materialises, the threat response is activated as soon as your mind starts visualising them

If you live with fear of failure, your brain is constantly on the lookout for ways in which that might happen and responds accordingly.  So fear of failure, in whatever form, activates the stress response.  Remind yourself of your many successes, take the risk you need to take, and celebrate a job well done when it is over - even if it is just facing something you were afraid of.

A wise person once told me that ‘failure is an event not a person’


There are whole books written on mindfulness so I won’t go into it in any detail  here but it works.  Really. It works. It is about teaching our brains to focus on the here and now, to be in the present.   It allows us to focus on what our senses are telling us, and to calm our minds.


Pausing is, for me, mini mindfulness. and is  very effective for dealing with day to day stress.  I first learned about the concept of 'The Pause' at a seminar run by The Mind Gardeners and if you ever get a chance to go to one of their workshops I can highly recommend it.  The Pause involves pausing, taking a breath before moving from one task to another.  It allows you to bring your attention to the next task and to leave any stress from your previous task behind.

So for example moving from studying one task  to another, moving from one client to another, hang up the phone or put down your pen, pause, take a deep breath and then move on to the next thing.

If you do this 10 times during the course of the day it will take approximately 1 minute, which is a worthwhile investment in order to manage your stress response.


You may have noticed a common theme in all of these tips - and that is breathing.

Of all the things that occur automatically when the stress response is activated( increased heart beat, blood flow, blood pressure, breathing) there is only one that we can control -  our breathing

By slowing down our breathing, we can change the messages the body is sending to the brain and thereby change the way we respond.

So if you slow your breathing down, by deliberately taking long slow deep (i.e. through the diaphragm) breaths, your heart rate will slow down and your brain gets the message that the threat is decreasing.

Inhale.  Exhale. Repeat.

The most important aspect of managing our stress response is that in teaching yourselves a new way to respond you will be teaching others, unconsciously, by modelling, to manage their stress response as well.