“Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency.” Natalie Goldberg, Wild Mind
In this day and age, people are rarely naïve to the impact of stress. The word stress conjures up images of people ripping their hair out, or keeling over having heart attacks. But stress, when broken down, a flood of cortisol (hormone) throughout the body, actually serves a purpose, it’s when we don’t allow the time to come back to baseline after a stressful incident that we get into trouble.
You may have heard of the phrase “fight, flight or freeze.”
In 1932, Walter Cannon published “The Wisdom of the Body,” which documented his findings on the concepts of fight or flight response. This refers to the bodies biologically programmed way of handling fear, for the purpose of human survival. It’s important to know that this is an automatic response.
In its most basic form, without explaining the complicated and intricate workings of the amygdala and hypothalamus, and the entire parasympathetic nervous system, fight or flight looks like this:
- Stimulus is introduced (stressor, threat)
- Nervous system begins to respond for the purpose of survival which results in some of the following symptoms:
Increased Heart Rate
Decrease in Digestive Activity (lack of appetite)
Liver Releases Glucose for Energy
Some perceived threats are misconstrued from our prior life experiences, and tend throw us into a fight or flight response unnecessarily.
An example of this may be as you go to return an item at a store. The clerk may ask a simple question such as, “Do you have a receipt?” And you immediately notice changes in mood. Perhaps the last time you went to return something without a receipt it turned into a big hassle, and perhaps the store didn’t even accept the return. Now your body is on a high alert based upon its programmed memory of a prior experience.
The good news is, while our fight or flight response is automatic, and autonomous, we do have the ability to recognize certain symptoms in order to change our outwardly conscious response.
But perhaps more important than how we respond in the moment, is taking the time to return to homeostasis.
Coming back to baseline requires a conscious effort to get up and leave the exposure (perhaps it’s a task at work that is overwhelming you, a person with whom you are disagreeing or simply working all day without taking a break, as small business owners often do).
What results is we stay in an elevated state of fight or flight. Over time, this leads to frequent angry outbursts, in ability to deal with minor changes or events that occur. We go home in this elevated state and respond to our spouses, children and friends with what is often called a “short fuse.” Our body isn’t able to decipher between a major and minor stimulus and responds in a maximum threat way to everything. (see diagram)
Step 1 – Practice opportunities to respond calmly to stressful events
- Using a journal, identify frequent life activators for stress
EX: A few things it might contain would be: traffic, demands from my boss, grumpy husband lead to fighting, paying bills, kids not helping with after dinner chores.
- Set your intention to respond differently than you have in the past: It may be saying out loud, “I need a minute to think about this,” it may be walking away when you start to feel your heart rate begin to rise.
- Work on leading into a conversation using I feel statements, which reduce the likeliness of the other person becoming defensive.
- Consider shifting stressful activities (like paying bills) to another time of the day or week where you have more time to decompress before or after.
- Try a reward system with yourself: Give yourself mini rewards for getting through stressful events calmly (like a pedicure, massage, special dessert)
Step 2 – Take time to return to baseline after stressful events
- Take a walk: it can be around the parking lot, or down the driveway, nothing long, just remove yourself from the triggers.
- 4-7-8 Breath: Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds, breathe out through your nose for 8 seconds.
- Repeat a mantra: “I can work through this,” “With a calm mind I can solve this,” or whatever fits for you
- Use sensory stimulus: Change your nerve receptors by using an anxiety cube, worry stone, or even a beanie bag.
- Release tension: Tense all your muscles in your face, shoulders, arms, legs, hold tight, then release. Pull on your ear lobes, pinch your fingernails.
The reality is, we will not be able to completely remove stress from our modern lives, but we can learn how to respond to it differently.