Stress is often considered an inevitability of our hectic modern lives. Something we accept we’ve got to live with. But although life is always going to throw us stressors, there are practical techniques you can use to control your reactions to those stressors to avoid chronic stress.
Worth a try, since long-term stress can impact almost every aspect of your health, from messing with your happiness and your sleep, to making you more susceptible to disease, and even impeding the results you can achieve from exercise and eating well.
Our practical tips help you stop stress in its tracks whenever you feel it hit. But first, in order to control stress, it helps to understand what’s happening in your body in response to a trigger.
Stress is not an emotion
If you were asked to describe how you feel when you experience stress, what would you say? Frustrated? Anxious? Overwhelmed? Irritable?
The word “stress” has become a blanket term to describe many negative feelings, but stress isn’t an emotion, it’s a response – a generic set of biological mechanisms hardwired into all of us. Mechanisms that can be unintentionally and intentionally turned on and off.
A stressor is anything that triggers the stress response; the stress response is a chain reaction that begins in the brain and triggers the release of specific hormones, hormones that then determine how energy gets distributed.
Stressors can be physiological or psychological, real or perceived, in our minds or in our environment. Regardless of whether you’re injured, insulted or stood on the edge of a cliff, the response is the same, your body is signalled for action.
Your body’s stress response
When something triggers you, your brain releases the hormone epinephrine, which is the same as adrenaline except that it’s produced by your brain instead of rather than your adrenal glands. This triggers receptors that make energy instantly available in your bloodstream.
Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, and your breathing quickens, in order for oxygen and nutrients to be transported to large muscle groups.
This is accompanied by a sense of agitation, a strong desire to do or say something, so it makes sense that this system is known as “Fight or Flight”. In medical terms, it’s your “sympathetic nervous system” (SNS).
When the SNS is triggered, in order to quickly activate certain systems, like the ones that allow for swift movement, it suppresses others: digestion, reproduction and tissue repair are all stalled because the body doesn’t see them as immediately important. Even your immune system is subdued in order to direct resources to deal with the immediate threat.
Thankfully, we also have a system that alleviates stress – the “parasympathetic nervous system” (PNS).
The PNS lowers heart rate, reduces blood pressure and encourages the function of those systems suppressed by the SNS. It promotes digestion, stimulates sexual arousal and directs resources that allow your body to repair itself. Known as “Rest and Digest”, the PNS is the ying to the SNS’s yang.
Beneficial stress vs unhealthy stress
Stress is a natural reaction – it’s an inevitable and necessary part of life, so it’s not inherently good or bad.
Short-term stress that lasts from minutes to a few hours delivers benefits that allow us to do things such as protect ourselves, cope with injury and infection, and perform physically and mentally.
But chronic stress, hanging around for hours, days or months on end impedes important bodily systems such as your digestion, reproduction, immunity and tissue repair.
This is why long-term stress is closely linked with a whole range of issues and diseases, including hypertension, heart disease, immunity issues and, of course, anxiety disorders.
A useful technique for reducing stress
One of the best ways you can reduce the intensity and frequency of your stress response is by using a practice called “reappraisal” when you’re triggered by a stressor (such as running late, or receiving negative feedback from your boss).
This practice is a specialty of Stanford University Professor Dr James Gross, who is an expert in “emotion regulation”.
Dr Gross describes four ways in which we can reappraise a situation. Simply put, reappraisal is about finding a more positive way to think about a stressful situation. It’s not about taking stress away altogether, or repressing it – it’s about finding a way, in the moment, to be able to cope so that you can bring your best “thinking self”, as opposed to your “fight or flight self”, to the situation.
4 possible ways to reappraise a situation:
REINTERPRET: This is about finding a way to take the threat out of a situation. For example, when someone’s late to a meeting, rather than getting your back up, assuming disrespect, instead assume that something outside their control has come up and they are doing all they can to be there as close to on time as possible.
NORMALISE: This means acknowledging that it’s OK to feel anxious or frustrated, that it’s a normal response. Unfortunately feeling stressed makes us more stressed, in part because we consider stress to be weakness, which may bring shame, guilt, anxiety, frustration. Instead, acknowledge that stress is a natural biological response – agitation is as normal as becoming out of breath when running.
REORDER: Understand the value you’re putting on the situation and adjust as needed. When a comment triggers a psychological stressor – perhaps your partner says something about not washing the dishes – ask yourself if the importance of your relationship with that person outweighs the comment. Or if someone on the opposite end of a business deal insults you, ask yourself if the outcome of the meeting outweighs the insult.
REPOSITION: Look at the situation from another point of view. Being able to shift perspective is a powerful way of lessening the stress response. If someone is causing you stress, can you try seeing what’s happening from their point of view? What about the point of view that someone you respect might take? Or how you might view this issue a year from now? In Dr Daniel Goleman’s renowned book Emotional Intelligence, he describes experiments where changing perspective has been shown to reduce the circulation of “adrenocorticoids”, hormones that are designed to, literally, keep us on edge.
So, stress is a response – and although life can certainly be stress-inducing, we can also get into the habit of having our stress response triggered, and there are practical things you can do to try to curb the frequency and intensity of this response.