Stress is a normal response to events that make us feel threatened or upset our balance in some way. These events can occur outside of our bodies within our environments, or even within our bodies caused by illness, or depressive or anxiety symptoms. These ‘events’ can be thought of as ‘stressors’ and we all have different ways of responding to and managing these stressors. Physiologically, when we are faced with a stressor our body releases its stress response. This is our body’s way of protecting us and when it works properly it helps us stay focused, energetic, and alert. The stress response helps us rise to meet challenges, but when we are continually stressed, our body can get ‘stuck’ in this stress response and it stops being helpful and can start causing damage to our health, mood, productivity, relationships, and quality of life.
Stress affects the mind, body, and behavior in many ways and everyone experiences stress differently. We can react to stress with a ‘fight’ response by being overly emotional, with a ‘flight’ response by shutting down or pulling away, or with a ‘freeze’ response by becoming paralyzed, which can be thought of as a combination of fight and flight at the same time. Actually, although these are typical stress responses, none of these are particularly adaptive. Because these typical stress responses are not that helpful ‘stress overload’ can occur bringing symptoms such as memory problems, an inability to concentrate, poor judgment, anxious or racing thoughts, worrying, aches and pains, stomach issues, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, and even frequent colds. In addition, moodiness, irritability, agitation, and a change in eating and sleeping habits may indicate stress overload. Some of us might use cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs to try and ‘relax’ and manage our stress.
If the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ responses are all not that helpful, what are more helpful ways of managing stress? First, if we can decrease the stressors, that is always the first step we could take. Reassess our expectations, prioritize, and determine if we can eliminate or modify some of our external environmental stressors. Sometimes, however, eliminating external or internal stressors is not always possible. So, what do we do then? Well, we can change our relationship to our stress.
The fight, flight, and freeze responses all tend to be reactive responses. They are reactive because we tend to behave as if we are on automatic pilot without pausing to take the time to access the thinking parts of our brain. Viktor Frankl, wrote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”. When we slow down, pause, feel the stress response, think about how we want to respond, and then respond, we are accessing the thinking part of our brain and we are behaving in a mindful fashion. Bringing a pause in between our stressor and our response allows us to more carefully consider our behavioral options and it can leave us feeling more in control.
It is also important to generally take care of ourselves by eating healthfully, exercising regularly, and making time for rest, relaxation, and fun. Developing a strong network of supportive friends and family can be a buffer against life’s stressors as well. In addition, research indicates that integrating yoga and meditation into our lives can help increase our capacity to cope with stress. Developing healthy habits of daily living will give our bodies the ground support to better manage life’s stressors.
Stress is a normal part of living for all of us, and the stress response can be adaptive when working properly. But, beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing damage. Instead of responding in a fight, flight, or freeze kind of way, we have the option of changing our relationship to stress. We can acknowledge the space between our stressor and our response, respond in a mindful fashion, observing and allowing our feelings while carefully considering our response. We can also choose to develop healthy habits of daily living and nurture supportive relationships to bolster our reserves in preparation for the inevitable stress that will surely follow.
Marcia Kaufman, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
*Portions of this blog were taken from the website, http://www.helpguide.org/mental/stress_signs
*At Family First we offer an 8- week course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). If you are interested in learning more about this course, please contact Dr. Marcia Kaufman at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 703-938-9090 ext. 8. The next course will begin on Thursday, January 26, 2017.