When you think about stress, what does it look like to you? Better yet, what does it feel like to you? Do you hold it in your neck and shoulders, feeling the stiffness as you rock your head side to side? Do you clench your jaw, feeling soreness in your molars, or your jaw pop when you open your mouth? Maybe your stomach continues to take a beating right before a stressful situation. In this blog post, we are going to tackle the science behind stress, how stress affects the mind and the body, strategies you can start right away to combat stress so you can avoid fight or flight mode.
Maybe you don’t notice it throughout the day, but your back is knotted up like crazy when you return home. Or that constant headache you get after work has returned. If you are someone who feels stressed out a lot, you might be well aware of the signs.
You might feel your heartbeat quicken, pounding heavily in your chest, and your breath might come faster and more shallow than usual. Your body might tense up or start to tremble like you are at the starting blocks for the 100-meter sprint against Usain Bolt, considered by many to be the greatest sprinter of all time.
The first step in this process is to rid your body of these feelings and get back to a place of calmness, relaxation and, dare I say, peace. And to tackle this beast, we need to understand how it thinks and operates if we want to put it back in its cage. Most of us feel stress now and again, sometimes over something as mundane as the dreaded rush hour traffic jam, and sometimes over something much more profound, something that changes the course of our lives.
But we can equip our stress-relief arsenal with tools and use them in response to situations that arise and catch us off guard and still emerge feeling grounded and stable. Almost every behavior the human body exhibits can be traced back to our caveman roots.
Why do we stress? You might have heard of the “Fight or Flight” response, which comes from high-stress situations. It is our body preparing itself to either put up a fight or get the heck out of there.
These days most Americans do not typically find themselves in dire situations daily. Although our bodies run on fight or flight instincts, this is also where the magic happens and where we find the secret to mitigating stress. Before your thinking mind realizes what’s going on, your brain frantically communicates messages to your body to prepare it for a response. The amygdala, which is the “emotional” part of the brain responsible for sensing fear and threats, acts as the guard on stand-by to sense danger and signal ahead to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus acts as the commander who alerts the rest of the brain to prepare battle stations via the autonomic nervous system, which serves as the message center. The message center has two parts (or teams): the sympathetic nervous system (the guys on treadmills who are revving up and energizing the body for its fight or flight); and the parasympathetic nervous system, the damage-control guys who are there in the aftermath, when the danger is gone, to soothe and console the team. And this is where the magic comes in. Our brains have a damage control mechanism on speed dial, ready to keep stress at bay on our behalf.
After Team Treadmill gets the body up to speed, the commander activates the second part of the stress-response team — the HPA axis (aka ground team), which is a “network” comprised of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal gland. It relies on hormonal signals to keep the stress response going.
The ground team is the body’s second wind to maintain this high alert energy.
**A person with chronic stress lives every day in this state.
There are consequences for a body & mind on stress, but the good news about stress mode is that when it shows up and is working correctly, you are more likely to cope with the stressful situation afterward. It even helps you perform better during stressful situations, at high-risk jobs like firefighting, or during mentally taxing jobs like crisis counseling, first responders, and soldiers on active duty. On the flip side, if your stress mode is constantly on, and those treadmill runners are constantly on speed 10, it can have detrimental effects on the body.
High levels of stress, which are linked to an increased appetite, can lead to unhealthy levels of fat and overly-clogged arteries that cause weight gain and increased blood pressure, resulting in heart attacks or strokes. While our stress response has its purpose, it is crucial to give Team Treadmill a break and let damage control come in and soothe us back to a state of calm and stability.
Strategies for reigning in stress. You might not always have time for a massage, but there are strategies you can implement every day when needed, and it doesn’t require 57 candles or a bubble bath.
On-Cue Passive Release Coping Strategies. At a moment’s notice, you can shift into a state of Zen and ease by focusing on relaxation:
Take deep, abdominal breaths (or belly breaths): if you’re not used to breathing through your gut, place your hands on your stomach so you can see and feel the extension, as well as the collapsing of your stomach. As you breathe in, allow your stomach to balloon out, and as you exhale, let your stomach naturally deflate back to neutral.
Visualize a tranquil location: Maybe it’s a beach or a quiet beach, but wherever it is, visualize your peaceful place and incorporate all of your senses to find serenity in this spot.
Choose a mantra, a prayer, or any soothing words that fit the situation to repeat to yourself. First, slowly breathe in and simultaneously recite your mantra. Next, exhale with the same mantra to synchronize the breath. In some situations, a complete sentence might be more appropriate than a simple mantra. Some examples could be: “This is just a moment, not the rest of my life” or “I feel like crap, but I have been through worse and can handle momentary discomfort.”
Active Release Strategies. The physical body’s methodical and intentional movement can be a pivotal connection to letting go of stress and returning to a natural state of calm. You can tailor the activity depending on your time constraints, but they work more effectively if you plan on a minimum 5-minute window:
Take a brisk walk: Focus on taking every step with intention. Let your body walk naturally, but rather than strolling, pick up the pace a bit so that your mind focuses on your surroundings, and you take every step with intention. Breath in through your nose and out through your mouth until your breath becomes more rhythmic.
Incorporate a mindfulness body scan: Start by sitting or lying down in a comfortable position and closing your eyes. Beginning with the head and neck, focus on that spot and breathe deeply and slowly for a minute or two. Continue to the shoulders, arms, wrist, and hands, then move to the back, abdominals, hips, etc. Circle back around and slowly release your focus until your awareness comes back to your surroundings.
Try a movement practice: YouTube offers millions of free yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, and other practices that will help you connect your breath with movement and mindfulness in a way that forces stress out of the body and keeps it out.
Lifeline Strategies. Two critical tools in an effective stress-relief arsenal are:
A support system we can turn to when you need it. It can include close friends, relatives, co-workers, a coach, a mentor, a therapist, or a counselor; just make sure it is someone who knows you well enough, who can empathize with your stress, and listen intently without interrupting. You can have scheduled times to look forward to or use this technique sporadically.
Try writing your thoughts down or even talking to yourself in the mirror. It might feel weird the first couple of times you do it but putting the stress on paper or out in the universe is a great way to open yourself up to a calmer state of being.
The only way this will work is if you pick a strategy and DO IT. Which approach will you try? I encourage you to practice at least once a day and do it not just when you are stressed out but also when you’re already in a relaxed state, so when the stress returns and you feel your body entering fight or flight mode, you can implement one of the tools above and kiss your stress goodbye.
Jenna Romano Board Certified Coach, , LCSW, LCADC, is an NASM Certified Personal Trainer, Resiliency Program Creator for First Responders, and Educator on Stress and Burnout Prevention. You can find her at www.coachingwithjennarose.com.