The Stress Response and How to Stop It
Reading Time: 6 minutes
By: Sarah Grace Powers – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.
Stress is a buzzword these days, and you probably already know that too much of it can wreak havoc with your health, and in some cases even be a deadly killer. And you’ve probably read about several different techniques to reduce stress which you may or may not actually use in your own life.
But, do you know why excess stress gets such a bad rap? It has to do with a physiological response in the body that has been hardwired into our brains since we humans showed up on the planet.
You may have heard of it: It’s called the Fight or Flight Response. (Sometimes now referred to as the Fight, Flight or Freeze response.)
So, what exactly is it?
It’s a primitive and automatic physiological response to perceived threats or danger.
See, way back when we were huddling over fires in caves, we faced life-threatening danger on the daily. If we were out gathering berries or tracking our dinner we had to be on the constant lookout for predators such as the clichéd saber-toothed tiger.
When danger was imminent our brains immediately kicked into gear with the Fight or Flight response. This sends “stress” hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol coursing through the body so you will have the power and energy to run from that tiger. It prepares your limbs to run or fight.
This means that blood flow is directed away from your vital organs and into your limbs. If you’re running away from the tiger, who cares about your immune system, your digestive system, or anything else? Your brain is solely focused on reflexive action and is not thinking creatively.
All this is great if there is an actual tiger or any serious emergency. The wisdom of the body allows us to have superhuman strength in these situations. Hence the stories of heroism you sometimes read in the news, like a Mom being able to lift a car off of her child.
The problem is the part of the brain that induces Fight or Flight response is preverbal and can’t tell the difference between the building catching fire and someone yelling at you. Minor stressors such as traffic jams, a dirty look from a friend, or even internal anxiety kick of this response and sends these ‘emergency’ hormones through your body.
Modern day life is full of these minor incidents and the sad result is that most of us walk around in an almost constant state of fight or flight. It activates the part of our nervous system known as the ‘sympathetic’ nervous system, and the other systems in the body suffer as a result. To make things worse, once this response is activated it generates MORE fear, more stress, more anxiety, which of course activates more stress hormones.
The purpose of this response is to allow us to physically fight or flee – and yet with most modern-day stressors (angry boss, traffic jam, argument), we can’t do either. We’re forced to just sit there. So, all that adrenaline gets trapped in the body causing minor uncomfortable symptoms at first, and for some of us eventually showing up as a chronic disease.
To make it worse, being in a near-constant state of stress response sure doesn’t help us to focus on positive or loving thoughts. We might understand that tuning into feelings like appreciation, love and compassion can help us to create more fulfilling lives for ourselves and our loved ones, but it’s almost impossible to access that state of mind when you’re in Fight or Flight.
When stress hormones are flowing due to Fight or Flight, then the adrenals are not able to produce another body-repairing hormone called DHEA. This is the growth hormone necessary for building new cells and repairing old worn out ones. DHEA declines naturally with age, and if you’re spending the majority of time in Fight or Flight, you can be pretty much assured that those old worn out cells are not getting the optimum repair. And… hello chronic disease and unpleasant symptoms!
So – what the heck can we do about this?
After all, your body in its infinite wisdom has preserved the fight or flight response so that you are able to respond quickly in bona fide emergencies. How can you reduce the frequency of it, and possibly prevent it from taking hold during non-emergency somewhat stressful situations?
Is there any way to promote a more calm reaction, and to stay in our parasympathetic nervous system (sometimes called the ‘rest and digest system) while living in this crazy, stressful world?
This takes us back to those ubiquitous ‘beat stress’ tips. Many of them are extremely affective at reducing or eliminating this physiological stress response. Here are my top choices, all of them have made a huge difference in my own life:
- Take Three Deep Breaths
Okay, maybe take 5-10 deep breaths. This is the simplest and most easy to use tool, and a good one for when you are confronted with the stressful situation.
I remember when my daughter was a child and would be totally out of control in an angry Aries freak out. It was time for deep breaths. I would stare into her eyes and breathe deeply with her to calm her down. Back then I didn’t know there was some actual science behind this.
It turns out that if we are breathing deeply all the way down into our bellies, we are signaling the body that we can’t possibly be in immediate danger. If you’ve got a tiger leaping out at you, you’re definitely not slowing down enough to take a deep breath. It’s an instant switch over from sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous system!
2. EFT Tapping
Becoming more and more popular as an easy-to-learn tool to reduce anxiety and stress, EFT (meridian tapping) also signals the body that it can’t possibly be in a life-threatening emergency at this moment.
Tapping on specific acupressure points with your fingers tells the amygdala (the part of your brain responsible for keeping you safe and that triggers Fight or Flight) that whatever you’re focusing on is no longer a threat. Since the amygdala is not verbal the rhythmic tapping gives it a clear communication that all is well.
Tapping is an energy healing modality that is easy to learn to do on your own, and again you can do it in the moment of a stressful situation, or—better yet—use it regularly to help you process thoughts, feelings and stressors that show up in life. You can also work with a practitioner to dissolve and eliminate long-standing stressful beliefs.
Over time, you might find yourself feeling less reactive to things that really sent you spinning in the past!
Everyone knows that meditation helps with stress, and many of us have a hard time getting ourselves to sit down and do it. And yet, the effort to let go of mind chatter – even for a short period every day goes a long way to calming your nervous system and reducing its proclivity to go into fight or flight.
The common wisdom recommends at least 10 minutes a day, but if you are resisting it (like I did for decades), you might try the strategy that finally got me doing it. Set a timer for just 2 minutes. Everyone has 2 damn minutes! Sit comfortably and allow yourself to just be quiet for those 2 minutes. Maybe with some deeper than usual breathing. When the timer goes off you can decide if you want to go longer. Eventually, you can up this to 3, 5, and then at least 10 minutes.
4. Physical Exercise
To head off the stress response all you need is about 5 minutes of some vigorous exercise – maybe less. So, this isn’t one of those ‘join the gym’ or ‘start jogging’ recommendations.
Working up a light sweat or at least getting your heart rate going allows your body to do its thing and release those stress hormones. If you are able, step outside and take a brisk walk around the block. That’s not always possible for me, so one of my favorites is to put on a fun song and boogey around the room a little.
Sometimes I just do some squats, boxing moves, running up and down stairs—anything really works. Remember five minutes is enough to metabolize off and prevent the buildup of excessive stress hormones.
Just that much exercise is also enough to increase your natural endorphins, which can help you think more clearly and have better access to your own positive beliefs.
5. Yoga Practice
I do most of my yoga at home, either on my own or with video instruction. I find that even a half hour of gently stretching my body, and being mindful of my breathing and posture, brings me to an amazingly happy head space.
You can find yoga videos that focus on, or include, specific breathing techniques which—when practice regularly—will keep you in a more mindful and calm state of mind as you go through your day.
Feeling stressed out simply isn’t a fun way to live. And, since it can also literally shave years off your life and cause all sorts of crummy physical symptoms, why not treat your body to the relaxation response with one of these techniques today?
More by Sarah:
Sarah Grace Powers is a certified life coach and EFT Practitioner. She is a ‘dream resuscitator’, helping clients rediscover their passions and reinvent themselves no matter what their age or circumstance. In her previous career, she owned and operated an herb shop and has practiced holistic living for over three decades. Find her at sarahgracecoach.com
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