Our shitty 3-step stress response

Photo by Miles Storey on Unsplash

We do stress a very particular way in the western culture. I love this concept because it comes up almost every single week. I’ve done videos about it.

I see it everywhere. Clients bring it up in our sessions ALL.. THE.. TIME!!

We’re dismantling it all the time and putting in what’s required to have an actual productive relationship with stress.

We humans have this 3 step process that we activate for result production. Not a great one, but a common one. We get really stressed, take a bunch of massive action and get a result.


Step 1: get really stressed

Step 2: take massive action

Step 3: get a result Step 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 and we practice this over and over and over and over again.

Do you guys know the story of Pavlov‘s dog? Pavlov was an awesome behavioural psychologist who discovered this thing about humans – we are machines for this thing called associative thinking.

We build connections all the time. We are just connection making superstars! See that and that?…They happen at the same time…they must be connected. We are always looking for patterns.

We’ve got all these different meta-strategies and we have preferences for the type of patterns that we like. Patterns of cause, patterns of effect, patterns of things being similar, patterns of things being different. But no matter what, we are all incredible pattern making machines and association making machines.

As kids we free-associate a lot, which is part of playing, and having great capacity for learning and flexibility. But as adults, we get narrower and narrower and we put our blinkers on like a racehorse.

We don’t associate much, we just practice our existing associations and use our existing neural networks. So it’s not surprising that we keep getting the same results.

We keep feeling the same way. We keep reinforcing the same neurological models. Back to Pavlov’s Dog. Pavlov did in a whole bunch of behavioural experiments with canines, who have a very similar brain structure to us except for the frontal lobe. He had a three step process and it was: 1. show dogs food 2. ring a bell 3. dogs would salivate. Show the dogs food, ring the bell, they salivate.

That’s a 3 step process. It doesn’t matter what order it was. It could be: ring the bell, show the food and then they salivate. It could be: show them the food, they salivate, then ring the bell. But it was always three steps.

Three parts of the formula. Three connections. Three factors. So eventually, with the dogs as with humans, once that neural network has been practised enough, a neural framework is established.

Interestingly, the association can also happen based a singular group of events. If several events with really strong emotional intensity, negative or positive, occur around the same time, can result in the creation of a neural framework. For Pavlov’s dogs it was food + salivate + bell. For humans, it is stress + action + results.

Now, what the dogs eventually did was hear the bell as they would salivate. This is because associative memory is about efficiency. With associative memory, Pavlov didn’t even need the food in the experiment. He would just ring the bell and the dogs, with no smell, no hint, no visual stimuli, completely removing that third factor, would salivate. Bell = salivate. You’re probably all guessing what I’m going to say…

We humans condition ourselves in exactly the same way. Instead of running with three distinct factors, we unconsciously through efficiency and ease, associate down to just two factors.

Massive stress = results. We remove the action element and condition ourselves to think; If I want to be a result maker, I have to have a massive amount of stress.

This came up in a coaching call this morning around someone who now has designed a business model that has periods where it has peak intensity and rest and reflection. It has a big variety of operating modes that he’s never had before. And now it’s like he’s going through withdrawals. He’s dealing with reactions to that difference and having to process the change. And all because now he’s not massively stressed.

He’s asking himself, if I’m not massively stressed, doesn’t that mean everything’s going to go massively wrong??? And doesn’t that mean there’s not gonna be any results??? If you’re continuing to operate from really strong conditioning patterns of stress, consider that you may have turned those three steps into two and done a little bit of efficiency with those associations and you may need to bring all three factors back and get back to an action focus.

In a perfect world, I would like us to recondition ourselves to it being: action – result -action – result, with only those two associated. All types of mental, physical and emotional states are available and appropriate for different environments and different results.

We want the behavioural flexibility and the awareness to be able to pick the right behaviour for the right result. Instead of just operating from this machine gun of.. I’m just gonna machine gun all the areas of my life with stress, thinking that’s what’s going to produce the best results.

OK, I love you all! Make sure you book in if you want to have a chat with me about this, how this affects your personal life, your professional life.

If you’re a company leader, or corporate leader, or leader in your community. ALL OF US MATTER! All these aspects of our leadership matter, people! Whether you’re leading your family, or yourself, it doesn’t matter the distinctions.


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