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  • Maureen K. McCarthy, Co-Founder

Worry vs Care: Is Stress a Warning or Message?

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

I had two very interesting Zoom calls this week. The first one was with a colleague who was overwhelmed by the uncertainty of how long physical distancing would last. He called because he couldn’t get me off his mind and was “sick with worry” over the possibility of me getting the virus. He cares at a deep level, which is what I appreciate most about him. His speech was clipped and rushed, he jumped from topic to topic, and spoke about how afraid he was for me.

The second call was two days later. It was a former colleague and friend who was checking in to see if she could go to the grocery store for me. She said she loved the idea of being able to do something that would delight me while helping me take care of myself in the process. We talked about how many kind things were happening around us and hatched a plan to surprise another friend with a week of handwritten cards. We talked about the importance of staying home, how to make Zoom calls more meaningful, and what meals we could make to help boost our immune systems.

Many people may not have been aware of the difference between the two calls. Both were made with love, yet each person applied a different lens. One was showing love through protection and the other through connection.

Engaging with Stress

I have a genetic lung disease that is rare, fatal and found only in women. With only about 10% lung capacity left, I have been on oxygen a third of my life. The simple description of the disease is that my lungs fill with tumors that eat away healthy lung tissue until, as my pulmonologist puts it, they strangle me to death. At times it is overwhelming, yet I am one of the happiest people you will ever meet. This state of happiness did not happen overnight. It is a muscle I needed to develop and strengthen over time. As my lungs became more compromised, stress became a luxury for me.

Along with the elephant that sits on my chest, there is a myriad of painful side effects that I experience in my body on a daily basis. Stress exacerbates them. When I am thinking a stressful thought, I have trouble lifting my hands over my head, getting dressed or taking a shower. The pain levels become intolerable. Early on I remained in bed for a whole year, disconnecting from my family and work, because I did not know how to engage with stress in a healthy way. I was put on hospice and told to get things in order. After too many lonely days of worrying, I woke up one morning and realized; if I could not change my body, I would set out to change my brain. If my brain is the moderator of my life, I was ready to change the lens, because worry was actually killing me.

Safety Brain and Connected Brain

Our brains metaphorically function like an enormous filing system, collecting experiences over the course of our lives. They file away everything from a scene in a movie to a friend’s laughter, in order to help us make meaning of the world. Our brains are meaning-making machines, they take in information through our senses and use the filing system to analyze and name what is in front of us. How does Mary's behavior at work make you feel? The files in your system determine that answer, and you are the one who gets to load the system. Nothing has meaning until you assign it meaning. Which is why two people can stand in front of the same thing and have two different experiences and opinions.

Our brains have two main functions that have emerged through millions of years of evolution—to connect us for growth, and to keep us safe. I call these two neural networks the Safety Brain and the Connected Brain. In any interaction, you sit somewhere on the continuum of Safety Brain to Connected Brain thinking and feeling. Our subconscious mind is continuously pulling files to determine whether it is better to lean in to connect, or lean back to disconnect from others.

Our Connected Brain’s main job is to do everything to help us thrive as we meet our needs for energy, emotional connection, and growth. The Connected Brain experiences being present and can embrace people and situations without needing to fix or change them. It allows us to be in flow with what we are doing and who we are with and can more easily access our ability to design and invent a more desirable present and future.

Creativity, compassion, and productivity increase when we are calm, alert and connected. When the Connected Brain is our primary mode of interaction, we have the ability to build trust and our collaborations are more impactful to ourselves and the whole.

The Safety Brain has one job, no matter what it takes, to keep us safe. Typically, it is the first lens we use to see and interpret the world. It is constantly comparing and analyzing what’s happening around us to everything we know from the past to determine if even the tiniest experience, such as a teenager rolling their eyes, is a threat to our equilibrium.

This perceived threat sets off the stress response system that increases heart rate and blood pressure, and turns off everything that is not essential to surviving, such as compassion and growth. This system is brilliant when we are in imminent physical danger, such as pulling your hand from a hot stove, but it is not made for constant long-term use. Our bodies and minds can’t sustain that level of stress.

In today’s complex social world where we constantly worry about money, pleasing the boss, or what other people think, we engage the stress system on a daily basis, but now it is for future-focused or non-life-threatening situations. Hyper-vigilance has become our new normal. We are applying the stress evaluation and response to more and more social situations, not immediate, physically dangerous ones. A short burst of adrenaline gives us motivation and energy for the challenges in life, but a steady stream of it depletes us, making us more susceptible to the triggers that create stress.

Stress as a Warning System

Stress says, “hey, pay attention, there’s a problem.” Engaged as a warning system, we take the tension in our body and mind as a signal to take action: typically described as fight, flight, or freeze, this could range from burying our head in the sand to igniting a blow up. When we relate to stress as a warning system, the first thing we do is disconnect. So even a minor event, such as someone saying something we do not like, has us energetically push them away when we judge them in our heads. Our Safety Brain neural circuitry turns on, and the stress response is what we use to protect ourselves. This is exactly what I was doing when I spent a year in bed and was put on hospice. My mind was overloading my body with stress.

It seems obvious to say that stress is a warning system, alerting us to the uneven balance of resources and needs. But what if the greater percentage of stress today is actually a messaging system, our subconscious mind’s attempt to get our attention about what matters most?

Stress as a Messaging System

When we shift to relating to stress as a messaging system, we pause to read the message, rather than jumping to the protective action of a warning. That pause can be the difference between chronic stress and moments of stress—being in the eye of the storm, or moving the storm two miles off the coast. Storms will happen, but our relationship to the storm can be dramatically rewired.

The challenge is not to avoid stress at all costs. Like nature, we need both chaos and order for growth. Using stress as a messaging system, rather than a warning system, shines a light on our filing system and helps us know the origin of the meaning we are making. If the files I have accumulated over the course of my life inform what I experience, then I want to know what is under the hood. What are the files that are informing me that I should feel stressed?

Pausing to name and notice your stress allows you to move those files from the subconscious auto-pilot mind to the working stage of the conscious mind. The working stage is where you can begin to rewire or upgrade your stressful thoughts to become calmer, more productive versions. Shifting how you experience stress begins with small upgrades to the files. This is not an overwhelming need to overhaul your whole filing system. It is a gradual journey of one file at a time, becoming aware of the messages that stress is using to alert you to what matters.

FILE 1 and FILE 2

Nothing happens in the world without our brain attempting to make meaning of the actions in front of us. Imagine you are in the middle of a staff meeting, and your colleague Mary gets a text and then walks out without saying a word. Instantly our brains begin to pull on past files to make meaning of what just happened. Based on past experiences, do you have files that tell you to worry and judge Mary as rude for not caring about your meeting? Or do your files encourage care, so that your first thought is to assume she had a good reason to leave, hope everything is OK, and decide to check up on her later.

If in that moment we worry, our Safety Brain warning system gets engaged. When we are triggered, we pull meaning and subsequent action from what I call FILE 1. FILE 1 says, “Stop, there’s a problem.” Typically we feel the noise in our system when a past experience tells us to be afraid and take action in order to fix the problem and calm the alert. But there is always a FILE 2 that is connected to FILE 1, and that is where connection resides.

But it is not as simple as pull FILE 1—engage worry; pull FILE 2—engage care. FILE 1 and FILE 2 are intimately intertwined.

FILE 2 is about what matters, what we value, what we love. FILE 1 is a Safety Brain expression (judging Mary at the meeting) that is calling out for what we value, FILE 2 (respect for other's time and energy.) There will never be a stressful FILE 1 in our brain without the connection to a joyful FILE 2. You can't be triggered by someone unless you perceive something you value is not being honored. It is why the trigger caught your attention in the first place. FILE 2 gives you access not only to caring and joy but to new possibilities. FILE 1 is what separates us, FILE 2 is what draws us together.

Take Action from FILE 2

We live in a society that teaches us to take action when we initially pull FILE 1, which leads us to distance or disconnect, even if only in our minds. Rather than relating to FILE 1 as a warning system, we have an opportunity to shift our orientation and engage it as a messaging system, pointing you to what matters most in FILE 2. The action you take from FILE 2 is more creative, connected and robust because your whole self is available to you. It is the place from which great collaboration is designed.

When we pause to listen to the message about what matters, which informs why we are triggered, we start to notice the patterns we have created, the ones that hijack us and run all on their own. From there we can begin to rewire the brain to pull more Connected Brain files, eventually making the switch to engage Connected Brain as our primary mode of interaction.

Worry versus Care

As I came out of my hospice year in bed, I began building a new relationship to stress. I realized that I did not want to use it as my default mode. So I began putting my stress on a timer. I set my phone timer for 15 minutes and let my stress have it’s say. Full force. When the timer goes off, I get to mindfully choose if I want to go for another 15 minutes. I could mindfully choose stress in 15-minute increments for the rest of my life if I want to. Mindfully choosing stress is very different than it running all on its own. The funny thing is that typically, after 15 minutes, I’m pretty bored with it. I prefer freedom from my stressful thinking. It doesn’t hurt so much and I can breathe far better!

Going back to my concerned friends, I reflected on their different expressions. I felt like I mattered to both of them. As we experience a worldwide pandemic, we can worry about all that is happening, or we can care about it.

When something matters to us, we can engage it with Safety or Connected Brain neural circuitry. Lean in or pull away. Worry is the Safety Brain version of expressing what matters, care is the Connected Brain version. Neither one is right or wrong, it is important that we build the neural circuitry of both to give ourselves options in any given moment. Worry and stress on auto-pilot is not sustainable.

I made a list of the two versions of me in relation to the Coronavirus; My Worry Self and My Care Self.

My Worry Self

  1. Read the news more often

  2. Pass along warning info to others

  3. Catastrophizing: project the worst

  4. Perceive things in the extreme

  5. Lack of control over even little things

  6. Believe things are broken; Try to fix things

  7. Tone of voice

  8. Shoulds, right and wrong

  9. Make others a victim

  10. Blame others for problems

My Care Self

  1. Stay informed with what is happening, but take regular breaks from the news

  2. Generous with my time and attention

  3. Listen to others more deeply, ask meaningful questions

  4. Gratitude on a daily basis

  5. Reach out to help people in my community

  6. Listen to self and say my truthful yes and no’s

  7. Have conversations asking What does this current landscape make possible?

  8. More playful, inviting others to my calm energy

  9. Notice old patterns and use the disruption to start something new

  10. More empathy for others and for myself

With these distinctions, I notice that I engage my Worry Self every now and then, but I do not live there. I am OK when it shows up, because I know I can pause to ask myself what FILE 2 is about. What do I care about that is connected to my worry? When I find FILE 2, I take action from there, which I know is healthy because my body relaxes and I breathe better.

My Care Self naturally invites others to meet me there. It is why people often tell me they feel calmer when I am around. They are feeling the impact of me taking the last many years to strengthen my FILE 2 system. I have created a strong neural network that leads me to FILE 2 as a default mode. That is the beauty of the brain. We will create patterns that run our lives, so why not create ones that engage Connected Brain care over Safety Brain worry.

An Invitation for You

I invite you to make your own list of what your Worry Self and your Care Self looks like. Take a moment to notice the difference. The more familiar you are with the Connected Brain version of yourself, the greater the chance of putting that behavior on auto-pilot.

Next create an awareness phase. The next time you are stressed, stop and name the stress of FILE 1, and then see if you can find your FILE 2. What is it that matters to you underneath the stress? Right now you do not have to stop the stress or take action from FILE 2, if you don’t want to. Awareness is an incredibly important phase to create new neural pathways. Be gentle with yourself. Just notice.

You can also invite others to join you. Ask a friend or family member to make the Worry and Care Self lists together. We can often see in others what we are too close to seeing in ourselves. Have a conversation about ways you can short circuit the worry, or turn up the volume on your Care Self way of being on a daily basis.

Forever on the Hunt for FILE 2

I have lived far longer than any of my doctors thought possible. One of them even says I am still alive because I laugh so much. That is high praise for me be because I still only have 10% lung capacity and a host of painful side effects throughout my body. I have changed my relationship to my health by changing my relationship to my mind. I am taking care of myself to ensure that I do not contract the virus, but I am not worried. I am continually working to strengthen my care files, so that worry is not my auto-pilot, and I will always be on the hunt for FILE 2.

Maureen K. McCarthy

Maureen K. McCarthy is the Co-Founder of the Center for Collaborative Awareness and Co-creator of The Blueprint of We, a collaboration design document used by organizations and communities in 100+ countries. As a social scientist, Maureen has worked with organizations from Dropbox to the World Relief Organization. She uses the neural circuitry of social connection to harness group stress and build trust in fast-paced environments.

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