Is it okay if a threat is ‘all in your head’?

Next time you’re tempted to tell someone that a threat ‘is just something in your head’, consider the following:

Our brains and bodies go through the same ‘fight, flight or freeze’ routine whether the threat is imagined or real. The moment we think of ourselves as being at risk, we’re already triggering a chain reaction of physiological / hormonal adaptations to help ourselves take action to minimise that threat. If we’re feeling a psychological threat then our brain / body is operating as if we are in physical danger. The intensity may vary depending on the intensity of worry / risk, but it’s the same routine.

A stress response takes a big energetic toll on our body that needs to be repaid by ‘resting and digesting’. This is where we get to step away and recover our balance so we are able to deal with the next challenge. However, we can only do this once the sense of threat has passed.

Unfortunately, psychological threats often don’t have the same clear resolutions as physical threats. They are rarely ‘short, sharp shocks’ that are quickly resolved. They can hang around in the back of our minds, repeatedly triggering an emergency routine that wasn’t designed to cope with such a volume of requests. With time, the whole system shuts down and we end up in a chronic stress situation that seriously erodes both physical and mental health.

We are used to risk assessing our jobs to avoid RSI / back pain and lifting injuries. Shouldn’t we be risk assessing our psychological safety too?