Managing your mental state, has direct impact on your health and security.
The need to stay safe
Feeling safe is the second most basic need a human has: on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs it next in importance to being alive, breathing, eating, drinking etc. We all need to feel safe. When we feel safe we think clearly, respond to events appropriately and tend to make better decisions. When we feel unsafe or threatened, the brain’s alarm system floods our body with hormones, triggering feelings of stress and anxiety – it becomes very difficult to think clearly and we become ‘primed for action’ or ‘paralyzed by fear’ (both of which can have serious consequences).
Our “Evolutionary Security Officer”…
We all have evolutionary hardwiring dedicated to assessing risk and reacting to danger. It’s designed for our own protection, tasked with ensuring our security and survival – and prioritized to receive all of our sensory information first. This part of our brain (the amygdala) can be thought of as our ‘evolutionary security officer’.
When faced with danger, or a stressful situation, this ‘security officer’ tells us to fight, flight, or freeze. It wants us either running from, or confronting, an attacker – not working out logically the strategic risk of a successful attack.
Our ‘security officer’ constantly assesses everything we sense, checking for signs of danger. Anything it perceives as a threat – a broken lock, the shadow in the corner of the open room, the unexpected noise on patrol – can cause it to ramp up your responses. This response is chemical and primarily driven by three hormones (that have a massive impact on your body) Adrenaline, Norepinephrine and Cortisol.
Most people are aware of Adrenaline, our key ‘fight or flight’ hormone. Norepinephrine provides similar assistance – partnering with Adrenaline to make sure our muscles are ready for instant action. Cortisol supports them by adding a resource management system, it shuts down functions like reproduction and the immune system and redirects that energy to survival. Combined together these three hormones provide a boost of energy, focus and resources which – in a dangerous situation – can be life-saving.
When “Good” Hormones go “Bad”
These hormones are vital for our survival, but over time, persistent surges of stress hormones can damage your blood vessels, increase your blood pressure, and elevate your risk of heart attacks or stroke. Anxiety, weight gain, headaches, and insomnia are also all symptoms associated with longer-term elevated levels of stress.
Experiencing some stress is normal, however (over time or after extreme events) the fight or flight response can become over stimulated and ‘hyper-vigilant’. Hypervigilance – often found in anxiety disorders like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) – is when you become constantly alert for real or perceived threat, which can affect your judgement, interactions with others and appropriateness of response.
Regular everyday stresses can become magnified and we can react to them in disproportionate ways. We become more vulnerable to being overwhelmed which can lead to anxiety or panic attacks.
It’s important to reduce the likelihood of being overwhelmed by feelings of stress, but how? The ideal solution is to remove or reduce the security risk (fix the lock, have back-up etc.) but this isn’t always possible. We can however learn skills which help retrain our ‘inner security officer’ – allowing us to manage stress more effectively.
Retraining your ‘Security Officer’:
To help control stress, you’ll need to learn to manage and support your parasympathetic nervous system (also known as the “rest and digest” system). The ‘rest and digest’ response is the opposite of the ‘flight or fight’ response. It helps balance your energy, promotes healthy immunity and allows your body and mind to rest and repair itself.
What can I do that’s practical?
This varies from person to person – everyone has a different way to achieve a sense of stillness, inner calm, or peace. For some, Yoga or meditation can help – for others it’s something mindful yet physical, such as Tai Chi. For those who can’t sit still, many have found that walking in nature, swimming laps or running has been their key to de-stressing. Whether its mindfulness, prayer or talking things through with a friend (or professional) – rest and repair are essential to your health and safety.
One of the quickest and most accessible ways to achieve some measure of stress reduction is detailed below – and everyone can do it!
How to calm your security officer: Breathing
Have you noticed that our breathing often speeds up when preparing us for flight or fight and that our breathing slows when we’re relaxed? The good news is that we can take control of our breathing pattern to help us manage our stress response.
The ‘Calming Breath’ (also called 7-11 breathing)
7/11 breathing is a style of breathing used in meditation and yoga. It’s a powerful, ancient and well used relaxation technique that’s been used successfully all over the world…. Here’s how to do it:
1. Place your hands on your stomach and breathe in, filling your stomach up with air (this is how you breathe when doing deep ‘diaphragmatic breathing’).
2. Breathe out more slowly than when you were breathing in.
(It is the out-breath which stimulates the relaxation response).
N.B. If you can’t manage 7/11 breathing then adjust the numbers (as long as the out-breath is proportionately longer than the in-breath then you should still feel some calming effect).
As a security professional, others depend on you for protecting their livelihoods and even lives. Ensuring your own safety whilst doing so, is essential, and effective stress management can help keep your ‘inner security guard’ in peak condition! Reducing stress can help you: think clearly, make better decisions and respond to events more quickly and appropriately. Ultimately learning to manage stress may be a safety investment, that’s well worth making…
Nicola Whiting is Chief Strategy Officer at Titania Group.
She is an Amazon bestselling author, writer and advocate for diversity in all forms. In 2017 SC Magazine named her one of the top 20 most influential women working in cybersecurity.