A stressful situation — whether in the form of a work deadline, a toxic relationship, or a persistent worry about finances — can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce changes in our physiology.
When you feel stressed, you might feel your heart beating faster or you notice your breathing increasing and your muscles tensing up. When we enter this ’fight or flight“ state there is a cascade of hormonal changes and physiological responses that are designed to help us fight the threat off or flee to safety. Stress is a perfectly normal reaction to external events and a very intelligent survival technique. Healthy stress is meant to protect us!
Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as heavy traffic, work demands, and a busy family life. Imagine a bear is chasing you. You want your legs moving and, for that, you need cortisol and adrenaline which are released as part of our fight or flight response which is signaled by the sympathetic nervous system.
Now, imagine a bear was chasing you for a whole week, just imagine the havoc this would wreak in your body. Because your body cannot distinguish between a bear or a work deadline, the same cortisol and adrenaline hormones will be released in these instances.
Your body is constantly trying to get to a state of balance – however, if the stress reactions are either too strong or triggered too often, your body will remain on high alert and this will build up resistance and tolerance to coexist with continuous stressors. Some of the adverse effects this extended release of stress hormones can have on your body are:
The good news is that, once we understand how stress affects our bodies as well as our minds, we can learn techniques to counter the stress response and complete the stress cycle. This can be done through:
Exercise is ’your first line of attack in the battle against burnout. Taking a brisk walk shortly, not only deepens breathing but also helps relieve muscle tension. Movement therapies such as yoga, tai chi, and qi gong combine fluid movements with deep breathing and mental focus, all of which can induce calm. Ideally, we would move for 20 to 60 minutes each day and not only when we feel stressed.
Breathing is a very effective way of activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Deep, slow breaths down regulate the stress response—especially when the exhalation is long and slow. There are so many different breathing exercises in the membership so I’d encourage you to experiment with them but a simple, practical exercise is to breathe into a slow count of five, hold that breath for five, then exhale for a slow count of ten, and pause for another count of five. Do that three times—just one minute and fifteen seconds of breathing— and see how you feel.
It’s suggested that people who enjoy close relationships with family and friends receive emotional support that indirectly helps to sustain them at times of chronic stress and crisis. even if you don’t have anyone close you can rely on at the moment, casual but friendly social interaction is the first external sign that the world is a safe place. So wish your barista a nice day after getting your coffee, offer a smile or a compliment to someone and this will send similar signs of safety to your brain.
Laughing or crying are very effective ways of closing the stress cycle. Genuine laughter with friends is good for the souls and also helps strengthen relationships. Crying can be a very cathartic and relieving experience and not something we should apologize for or avoid (unless you feel you’re not in a safe space to express yourself)
Do something creative, that gives you joy or you find meaning in it. Engaging in creative activities today leads to more energy, excitement, and enthusiasm tomorrow. Spending time on things we love to do creates a context that tolerates and encourages big emotions. Feeling fulfilled and finding meaning in our lives also supports our resilience and shows us that there is more to life than those things that stress us.
Remember, try to practice these steps routinely, not just when you are feeling stressed, to help you navigate those feelings more proactively in the future.
Vera Powles is a biomedical scientist and founder of Mana Living, an online platform designed to help people take back control of their health, develop positive habits, and create a maintainable, healthy lifestyle.
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