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Managing stress - The Goldilocks Effect

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Where is the "just right" point between too little stimulation and too much stress?

I recently took a fascinating course on Neuroscience and Coaching, looking at the brain’s plasticity how it can grow and change throughout our lifetime, and how coaching can be a catalyst to this process. I learned about the latest brain research into how we think, feel, and change, and explored what actually works to create real, lasting transformation. There used to be a school of thought that it is difficult for the brain to change, once it's moved past the teenage years, but neuroscience proves that the brain continues to change given the right environmental factors. The old saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is simply not true.

One of the topics we covered in the course was stress, not only looking at the brain in relation to having too much stress but also what happens when we have too little engagement. Have you ever been in a job where you’ve been under-stimulated OR have you been in a job where you feel you’re never on top of anything?

In my recruitment days, I worked on-site for a particularly demanding client group. I was putting in long hours and bringing work home at weekends because I couldn’t keep up with the pace. The result was I made lots of mistakes, e-mailing people the wrong information, there were lots of tears and I wasn’t able to think clearly. On the flip side, I’ve also worked in a recruitment role where I was under-stimulated and had similar feelings of not being able to think clearly because I felt bored and underutilised.

In this course, I learned about the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), the part of the brain that is responsible for our levels of stress. The PCF plays a role in many important executive functions or high-level thinking such as:

  • goal direction

  • abstract concepts

  • memory encoding and retrieval

  • decision-making

  • understanding what others are thinking

  • delaying gratification

What’s so interesting is that when the pre-frontal cortex has too little stimulation OR too much stimulation/stress the outcome is the same. Both lead to functional impairment such as foggy thinking, poor impulse control, poor decision-making, poor memory, and lack of empathy.

In other words, too little engagement and too much stress both take us to the same ineffective place. We can think of this in relation to the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: when Goldilocks tastes the porridge, one is too cold, one is too hot and one is just right. In order to be at our best, we need to be in balance in that just right place.

So how do we get to this just right place?

Awareness of where you are on the curve is the starting point and from there you can start to think about how you can move along the curve. Working with a coach can help you see options you might not have seen because you've become tired and your thinking foggy. You may feel powerless to manage stress in a workplace when there is constant movement to do more with less. However, you can make small changes that will improve your mental well-being.

One organisation I really like is Mindapples, they promote the simple concept of 5 a day for the mind, just like we’re encouraged to eat our 5-a-day for our body. Mindapples can be things like walking in nature, yoga, knitting, surfing, and meeting a friend. What is your 5 a day?

Another organisation Action for Happiness has devised 10 Keys To Happier Living which are: Giving, Relating, Exercising, Appreciating, Trying Out, Direction, Resilience, Emotion, Acceptance, and Meaning.

What do you do to manage stress? Contact me for more information on coaching and stress management.


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