Imagine the following scenarios:
1. During a staff meeting that you led and thoroughly prepared for, your boss criticizes you for not completing a task that was someone else’s responsibility. All eyes are on you. You feel flushed, your heart starts racing, and you have you the urge to yell at your boss (even though you don’t).
2. You walk into class late and to find everyone putting their books away for an apparent test that you were not aware of, nor ready for. Your heart seems to stop, knees become weak, you begin to sweat, and you suddenly feel this intense urge to turn around and race out of the room before the teacher sees you.
In both scenarios, your body is responding to a perceived threat. This is called the stress response. The stress responses, fight, flight, or freeze, help us in situations where we perceive physical or mental threat. In the above situations, we see the physical symptoms of stress as well as thoughts that dictate the stress response of fighting or fleeing.
We perceive both a growling tiger and a snarky comment by a coworker as threatening. Although completely different types of threat (one possibly life-threatening, the other an annoyance) our bodies activate the same stress response.
Stress is an inevitable part of life, and good in small doses. But if you notice yourself frequently in a stressed state, it’s time to learn how to deactivate your stress response and save it for times of urgency.
Being in a state of stress too often or for prolonged periods of time takes a toll on us. When you are in a stress state, your body is preparing for urgent action, which requires your body to shut down activities used for long-term functioning: immune function, sex drive, reproduction, and growth.
Long-term stress also is linked to illnesses such as diabetes, obesity and anxiety. If that doesn’t throw you for a loop, stress has a multitude of short-term symptoms: headaches, nausea, chest pain, irregular heartbeat, dry mouth, shakiness, back pain, lack of appetite, sleep disturbances, panic, worry, trouble focusing, moodiness, sadness, and feeling overwhelmed. Stressed yet? This list goes on.
The good news? You can learn to disable your stress response. Below are a few proven ways to reduce stress responses in your life:
- Embrace imperfection. Striving for perfection always leads to stress. Negative, perfectionistic thoughts, such as “I’m not a good enough mom,” aren’t helpful. Less extreme thoughts, such as “my children need a mother who loves them, not one who’s perfect,” reduce your stress response. Practice replacing perfectionistic thinking with more acceptable, less extreme ones.
- Identify automatic thoughts. Automatic thoughts are our internal dialogue that occurs rapidly and repeatedly. In the midst of a stressful situation, you may notice yourself thinking: “I’m losing my mind! What’s wrong with me?” Uncover the meaning of these thoughts and you can begin to replace them with more appropriate thoughts.
- Become a neutral observer. Stop looking at the stressful situation through your emotion-filled lens. Imagine that your stressful thoughts are someone else’s. You will notice that you can see things more objectively this way.
- Practice breathing exercises. Focus your attention on your breath. Fill your lungs slowly and exhale slowly for a count of 10. Start over if you lose count. This exercise is meant to reduce your body’s response to stress.
- Accept and tolerate life events. So, you may actually be experiencing a stressful life event, such as a marriage, baby, moving, or a death. Acknowledge, endure, and accept what is happening in your life at the moment. Focus on the present and be mindful of your surroundings. Be deliberate about allowing this exact moment to be what it is, rather than what you wish or hope it to be.
You may find it difficult to take control of your stress response in the beginning. This is normal. Continue to practice these and other tools to manage how you respond to stress. Eventually you will find yourself better able to manage your life situations.