Quick fixes for turning stress response into challenge response

Hi all,

Continuing our journey on application of neurophysiology for success.

When faced with a challenging situation we can either feel stressed and incapable of dealing with the situation or we may feel challenged, which energizes and activates different parts of the brain.

Stress reaction in brain

Stress reaction in the brain

Fight or flight or stress response is reserved for survival. When we tell our brain that our life is threatened, frontal lobe (thinking, CEO in picture) shuts itself down and we just act to survive. We all have those experiences. This is not useful in most modern day survival situations where you need to get the job done and that requires our frontal lobe i.e. thinking ability.

For those who are interested, stress comes in from the sensory cortex, prefrontal cortex (CEO) shuts itself down and amygdala activates stress response.

Response in brain to challenge

Response in brain to challenge

The better option over “getting stressed” is to get challenged. In this situation, we interpret a situation in a way that it’s under control, leaving CEO (pre-frontal lobe) available for thinking and rest of the brain is also ready and active to solve the problem at hand.

We make a decision in our pre-frontal lobe that it’s not an overwhelming situation. We activate the entire brain through brain stem to respond to the challenge with alertness.

Triad for peak state: Focus, Language and Physiology

Triad for peak state: Focus, Language and Physiology


There are three core things that influence how we feel and choose challenge response over stress response:

1. Focus – If we focus on problems, that will bring us stress response. If we focus on results, that will make us feel energized. See what your belief system makes you to focus on and change them toward something creative.


Posture is everything!

2. Physiology – chemistry and functioning of the parts of brain can be influenced by exercise, good food (like omega oils). Simplest quick fix is to fix your posture and breath deep. This alone will make you feel less stressed and more able to meet the challenge. If you know me, I’m a big advocate of good posture. 🙂

3. Language – What goes on in our head has a lot to do with how we feel. If you feel stressed, ask yourself what are you telling yourself. Maybe you are using words like I must, have to. And reality is that maybe you have bills to pay or laundry to finish. However, when you use the “must” and “have to”, fight or flight i.e. stress response kicks in and you are in survival mode. Your laundry is important, but if you don’t do it, it’s not going to kill you (at least for a while). Thus it’s unnecessary to trigger fight or flight response. We can simply challenge ourselves.

To continue on the language,  you can argue that if you don’t pay the bills, your survival is at stake, thus stress reaction is justified. Justified or not, it’s not useful. Thus taking an angle on the situation is important. First, change the “must” and “have to” words in your head, and start using “want to”, “like”, “prefer”, “enjoy”. If you think “I enjoy paying bills”, do you feel different from “I must pay bills”.

Final tip today is to structure your challenge into bite-size chunks. If your goal is unattainable, it can trigger stress response. If your each task is doable within 3 hours, the entire task seems much more doable and it brings ease of mind and releases resources for doing those tasks.

I have had good success in coaching people under stress to look at the current situation of finances, health or relationships. From there create an action plan that is actionable. In some cases steps are not clear, but the next step is clearly “research” or brainstorm for creative ideas”. Create your plan as detailed as you can. Have the first step, if that’s the only thing you can think of and start there.

By having attainable steps and tasks, you activate pleasure circuits at every step, gaining more energy to continue toward the goal.

Drop me a comment on how you implement these ideas.



Ps. Thanks to my professor Fred Travis for challenge and stress response pictures!

2 Responses to “Quick fixes for turning stress response into challenge response

  • Jacinta
    2 years ago

    Is there any way that you could give the sources that you used for this article? This information might be very helpful for a project I’m working on, and it would be great if I could have your sources.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *