Your Unconscious Brain Deals with Stress

March 29, 2015 David A. Hanscom

Your unconscious brain processes data at an estimated one million times per second than your conscious brain and it evolved around avoiding anxiety. Every second of your body’s existence revolves around minimizing it regardless of what action is required. Lack of air, food, water, protection, and shelter all elicit a strong response, as well as many other lesser stresses. The chemical link is adrenaline and cortisol. They affect every one of the over 50 trillion cells in your body.

Unresolved Pain

If the problem remains unresolved (chronic pain) then you will become frustrated and angry, which causes the secretion of more stress hormones. Anger is your body’s attempt to bring in reinforcements to solve a given anxiety-producing situation. Your heart pounds, your blood supply to your muscles increases while less blood flows to your gut and frontal lobes of your brain. Additionally your senses are heightened, including pain.

Anxiety is the mental reflex, which links this sequence. Without this response you would be dead. Humans have the additional characteristic of their thoughts eliciting the same reaction whether the threat is real or perceived. As we don’t generally care much for these thoughts they are often suppressed – until they are not.

By the time your conscious brain is emerging around age four or five the unconscious brain is fully developed and protecting you with deep total bodily responses to real and perceived threats. You also are now entering the school system dealing with these sensations and the additional stress of entering an unfamiliar and competitive world. Additionally you also have no awareness or knowledge of how to process them.

Bull Riding

It is similar to riding a bull, which is actually impossible for more than five to ten seconds, even for skilled riders. I remember during my first year in orthopedic training I admitted a 22 year-old patient with a broken back. He had entered an amateur rodeo contest and had chosen to ride a bull without any prior exposure to any aspect of this world. He fractured his first lumbar vertebra and fortunately was not paralyzed. As you would expect he was also quite mentally traumatized. I still wonder who organized this event and why anyone thought this was a good idea.

At an early age we are on the defensive dealing with these incredibly strong survival responses. Consequently we act out in ineffective and dysfunctional ways. The combination of no training and the unconscious brain being so much more powerful than the rational mind is deadly.


From the first day of school what we call “socialization” is actually a huge power struggle. The antidote to anxiety is control and the more power results in more capacity for to control your environment. I never understood why a person would bully another person when at some level he or she would not want the same done to them. However, not only it is an antidote to anxiety there are measurable physical benefits. A recent study measured an inflammatory marker called C-reactive protein. Long-term elevation of this protein signals the body’s response to fight off infection and other foreign substances. The lower the level the better.

The researchers discovered that students who had been bullied consistently had a significant elevation of this protein compared to students who had not been bullied. What I found more disturbing is that the bullies had decreased levels. Bullying is not only powerful and addicting but is good for your health. It is no wonder that bullying is proving to be so difficult to eradicate.

Self Worth

Additionally you are placing your self-worth at the mercy of other’s approval and it gives your classmates more power to withhold approval and also keep you down. As everyone is in the same boat an endless series of rejections will occur.

Once behavioral patterns are established they are permanent – especially if you are not aware of what is occurring. The destructive ways they play out in adulthood are too numerous to mention but the consequences of this circular power struggle is costing our society trillions of dollars and needless suffering. With awareness and simple measures you can separate from and reprogram these circuits. It is not difficult.

Why not teach these basic skills beginning in preschool? Similar to smallpox and polio chronic pain could be eradicated? It would change the world.

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