Is Stress Hijacking Your Brain?

Steps to building resilience and gaining back control.

This article was written by a guest contributor, and the views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author.

Caregiving can be rewarding, but research demonstrates the impact it can have on a person’s physical and mental health.

Caregiver stress can be caused by any combination of emotional, mental, financial or physical elements and it is very common. In fact, one in three caregivers report feeling distressed.

The amount of stress experienced by a caregiver is directly related to the number of hours spent on caregiving activities: the more hours spent caregiving, the greater the amount of reported care-related stress.

What is the impact of stress on the health and well-being of caregivers?

Caregiver burden and strain has been associated with physical health issues (e.g., burnout, difficulty sleeping), psychological pain (e.g., anger, depression) and many other negative health outcomes such as an increased sense of hopelessness.

The damage that chronic (consistent) stress can have on the brain and body is substantial. Although stress is a part of life — and cannot be eliminated completely — we need to shift our focus to what we can control: building RESILIENCE.

Resilience is the ability to withstand and tolerate stressors of everyday life and to recover quickly when faced with difficulties by using mental, emotional and behavioural flexibility.

There are three key steps to cultivating resilience:

  • Step 1: Recognize when you are in survival mode.
  • Step 2: Get yourself out of survival mode as quickly as possible.
  • Step 3: Practice behaviours that are scientifically proven to enhance resilience.

Step 1: Recognize when you are in survival mode

When humans are in survival mode, the brain’s functionality gets hijacked. Specifically, the core structures in the brain (called the limbic system) get activated, and information cannot move through this area until the “stressor” has been resolved. As a result, higher level information processing from the frontal areas of the brain is restricted and impulse control, reasoning and problem-solving are compromised.

Start to get familiar with what it feels like when your survival mode is activated. Awaken your awareness by noticing the kinds of circumstances that typically activate your nervous system.

Photo courtesy of Canva.

Ask yourself:

  • What caregiving activities am I currently engaged in?
  • Who am I talking to?
  • Can I see any patterns?

Become aware of how you feel by asking:

  • What does stress and overwhelm feel like in my body?
  • Do I get an upset stomach?
  • Do I feel irritable or annoyed?
  • Do I feel warmth rise up through the chest or feel tension in the shoulders?

By creating this new awareness, you give yourself the ability to make different choices that help lower your stress and support your health & well-being.

Step 2: Get yourself out of survival mode

If a threat (real or imagined) is perceived, your stress response will mount, and your brain and body will get kicked into survival mode.

You cannot talk yourself out of being in survival mode.

By continuing to awaken your awareness, you can begin to feel yourself go into survival mode. But how do you ramp down your stress response once it has been activated?

When in “fight or flight,” your amygdala (the emotion processing centre in the limbic system) gets turned on, and this alters how your brain functions. Until the threat (real or perceived) is resolved, information cannot move through your limbic system to more frontal areas of the brain where higher level, rational and organized executive processing functions take place.

To get your entire brain back online, you need to learn how to communicate with your nervous system in a way that it understands.

Your limbic system, your survival mode, is an energetic system that responds to frequencies and vibrations. Two methods to try to communicate with your brain when in survival mode are tapping and deep breathing.


Tapping (or Emotional Freedom Techniques) is a technique that uses your fingertips to tap along specific points on the body (primarily on the head, face and torso) in a particular sequence. It is based on the principles of acupuncture and has even been referred to as psychological acupressure.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Tapping is a way of hacking the limbic system — the non-verbal part of the brain that controls your stress and fight or flight response.

Tapping works to disrupt your stress response by short circuiting your amygdala’s activation to the threat, thereby allowing information to pass through the limbic system and into the frontal lobes for more logical and rational processing.

Learn more about tapping by listening to a special episode of the Brain Shape podcast with expert Brad Yates.

Deep breathing

Deep breathing works to lower your stress response — and get you out of survival mode — by activating your parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for “resting and digesting” functions), which provides you with a sense of calm.

Practice the 4-7-8 breath:

  • Breathe in for a count of 4
  • Hold for a count of 7
  • Breathe out for a count of 8

Repeat this cycle 2-4 times with your eyes closed.

Step 3: Practice behaviours that are scientifically proven to enhance resilience

Research shows that exercise increases the brain's resilience to stress. This occurs through a brain protein called galanin, which has been demonstrated to increase resilience to stress by preserving plasticity within the frontal part of the brain, allowing you to flexibly adapt to your life’s circumstances. So, keep your body moving in whatever way you can!

Although you can’t control the activation of stress response, you can begin to build resilience to stress by changing your relationships with the people and events that cause you stress, implementing techniques that work to get you out of survival mode and moving your body on a daily basis.


Check out the BrainShape podcast hosted by Dr. Andrea Wilkinson.

Read more articles addressing emotional and spiritual health.


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