How Stress Affects Our Communication

You finally have that one job interview for that dream job you’ve been looking forward to for months. You feel the excitement and jitters in your stomach as you walk into the waiting room. As you take your seat in the chair, you feel the nerves coursing through you. The conversation begins and you notice that your breathing is a little faster and your mind completely races. You try to calm yourself down and organize your thoughts, but it seems like your words take on a life of their own. You also notice that you begin to have trouble following the interviewer’s words. You feel the pressure mounting as you search for the right way to present yourself. You know this is your chance to make an impression. It just doesn’t go quite the way you would have liked…. This is a great example of how stress affects our communication.

Even in my coaching practice, I see daily how communication plays a crucial role in my clients’ lives. Whether expressing emotions, navigating difficult conversations at work, or finding work-life balance, clear communication is the key to successful relationships and personal growth. But what actually happens in our brain when we communicate, especially in situations that evoke emotions? Let’s look at how stress affects our communication and what we can do.

The Amygdala: The Emotional Center

Imagine a situation where you are high on emotion. Perhaps you feel anxious, angry or sad. These emotions are activated by a small, almond-shaped organ deep in your brain called the amygdala, also known as the emotional center of your brain.

The amygdala acts as a kind of watchdog, constantly looking for potential threats in your environment. When it interprets a situation as threatening, it activates an emotional response, such as the feeling of fear or anger. This reaction is often associated with a “fight-or-flight” response, where your body prepares to respond to the perceived threat. Example: During a team meeting, Mark suddenly felt anxious when his boss called his name, which activated his amygdala and caused his heart rate to speed up.

The Thalamus: The Traffic Agent

The thalamus, located in the center of your brain, acts as a kind of traffic agent for information. It receives incoming sensory stimuli, such as what you see, hear and feel, and transmits them to the appropriate parts of your brain for further processing.

In a situation that feels threatening to you, such as a confrontation with an angry colleague, the thalamus will transmit signals to the amygdala to trigger an emotional response. At the same time, it also sends signals to other parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, for further processing of the situation. Example: During a stressful presentation, Sarah’s thalamus received sudden sounds from the conference room – the sound of a loud discussion between two colleagues and the sound of a phone ringing – and quickly transmitted them to her amygdala, amplifying her emotions of discomfort.

The Hippocampus: The Archivist

The hippocampus plays a crucial role in memory and learning. It helps store and retrieve memories, enabling you to use past experiences to understand and respond to current situations.

For example, if you have previously experienced similar situations where you were frustrated during a conversation, the hippocampus will activate these memories and bring them forward. This can influence your reactions and cause you to react to the current situation in a certain way based on your past experiences. Here’s an example of how that can play out in a positive way: When Lisa had to make a difficult decision at work, her hippocampus reminded her of a similar situation in which she had been successful, giving her confidence to make the right choice.

The Prefrontal Cortex: The Strategist

The prefrontal cortex, located at the front of your brain, is known as the part responsible for higher cognitive functions, such as planning, reasoning and decision-making. It helps you analyze situations and formulate thoughtful responses, even in the midst of emotions.

When under stress, the connection between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex can become disrupted, making it more difficult to communicate clearly. This is because the amygdala can take over and your reactions are driven by emotions rather than rational thought.

Understanding how these different parts of your brain work together during communication and emotional situations can help you become aware of your reactions and develop more effective communication skills. With practice and awareness, you can learn to communicate more clearly, reduce conflict and create more connection in your relationships.

How can you apply this?

The first step is to become aware that there is an emotional center in your head (or in the other person’s head). As soon as you notice that your amygdala is in emotion mode, it is wise to opt for a break. By taking a moment to go to the bathroom, drink a glass of water or breathe in and out, you can calm yourself and thus give your amygdala a chance to unwind. When you are calmer again, you manage to communicate clearly and put things into perspective much better.

And remember, practice makes perfect! It takes time to master these techniques, so be patient with yourself. Also, stay curious and experiment with different strategies to discover what works best for you. With consistent practice, you will find that your communication skills improve and that you are better able to deal with emotional situations. So, the next time you find yourself overwhelmed by emotions, try these simple tricks to calm yourself down and improve your communication. And remember, small changes can make a big difference in how you feel and interact with others. Good luck!

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