Our current season of life can be summed up in one word. Stressful. We barely meet ourselves coming and going. Come to think of it, this season has been on repeat a lot lately. As in the past four years.
When words like “exhaustion” and “burnout” become part of your normal vocabulary, there’s a problem. “When we are overwhelmed with excessive stress, our life becomes a series of short-term emergencies.” We live from one crisis to the next. We lose our ability to be present and enjoy the moment. Go at full speed for too long and the crazy train is sure to derail.
The good news? You don’t have to live this way.
Stress is a choice. It’s optional.
Sound crazy? I thought so too. Until I did a little research and was shocked by what I discovered.
The Stress-Brain Connection
Though we tend to feel stressed, stress is actually a physiological response to a perceived threat. Sound strange? Just wait, it gets better.
Your brain has a built-in panic button and action plan in case of emergencies. Your body is poised and ready in the event you are attacked by a tiger. Naturally.
Ok, sure. I definitely want this fight-or-flight response in case I ever face off with a tiger.
But here’s the problem.
Your brain still functions this way regardless of the threat. Be it a tiger…or your boss. An encounter with your spouse…or a Doberman. Whether it’s WW3 or a traffic jam, your stress response is the same.
Perfect example: I went to the doctor’s office a month ago. During the appointment, the nurse surprised me with an examination I had no idea was coming. Immediately my heart began to pound. My pupils dilated. A huge lump formed in my throat. My breathing accelerated. I went into the bathroom to discover I was breaking out into hives. My emotions were going haywire. Warning sirens blaring in my head. What was happening to me??
In a split second, my body had kicked it into high gear. I was experiencing my fight-or-flight response. Now the only logical question was, do I duke it out with the nurse or flee the room in my opened-back gown??
What should have been seen as an ordinary situation, my brain perceived as a tiger. A threat. The logical part of my brain had been bypassed and my reaction was literally irrational. (Because honestly, who needs to think things through when you’re being chased by a tiger?) The stress and response I felt was my body’s survival instincts at work.
But I didn’t need them.
The nurse was not threatening me. This was not a life or death situation. I was not being held against my will. Yet I was jolted into a stress response because my brain had made a misdiagnosis.
Stress is a Choice
If that’s just the body’s response to one stressor, imagine what’s going on inside when you are bombarded multiple times a day? For months on end? Without a break?
When you’re in a season of excessive chronic stress, your body is constantly living in this fight-or-flight state. You are physically living in survival mode.
“When our fight or flight system is activated, we tend to perceive everything in our environment as a possible threat to our survival. By its very nature, the fight or flight system bypasses our rational mind—where our more well thought out beliefs exist—and moves us into “attack” mode.”
Living in survival mode for too long takes its toll. It puts you on edge. It makes you hypervigilant. It increases your anxiety level. It deteriorates your health (don’t get me started on the gut-brain-stress connection). Being in attack mode affects your relationships. Your body’s stress response may be helpful on rare occasions but not always necessary in the day to day.
But here’s the good news. While your body will shift into automatic gear every time there’s perceived danger, you don’t have to ride the roller coaster of stress. There are ways to consciously override your body’s stress response. You can actually interrupt the fight-or-flight response.
1. Change Your Perspective
One of the biggest ways to reduce stress in our lives is changing our perception of events and our emotional response to them. Remember, our stress response is due to a perceived threat. Perception is the key word here! Many things we stress about are not actually life-threatening. Most of the time our situation poses no real danger.
Recognize that there is a difference between actual events and the way you perceive them. This is why certain events trigger more stress for some and not for others. When you start to feel tension and stress, take inventory of your circumstances. Are you in any real danger? If not, reflect on why you are feeling threatened. Perhaps an emotional trigger tied to a past event has created a natural stress response. Sometimes just recognizing the emotional trigger can have a calming effect.
2. Take a Breath
Literally. Your parasympathetic nervous system is now your new best friend. Contrary to your sympathetic nervous system (the one responsible for fight-or-flight), your parasympathetic system activates a “rest and digest” response. Its role is to return your body to a state of rest. Taking slow, deep breaths for 60 seconds will activate your parasympathetic system and hijack the stress response. This is why many relaxation techniques, like yoga, focus on breathing.
3. Make Room for your Head (and Heart)
Take a moment to debrief. Give yourself space to process your thoughts and feelings. Rushing from one thing to the next doesn’t give you any time to process events or experiences. Taking a quiet moment to reflect is one way to let your body know you’re safe and that it can chill out. Self-reflection also gives control back to your logical command center, helping you to see clearly, make good decisions, and assess consequences.
4. Walk it Off
Our stress response revs us up to rush into battle. So when you’ve had a stressful day, release that pent up tension by doing something active. Your body is charged to face a tiger, remember? Burning off some steam is the natural release. Go for a walk. Even better, run. When you run, your brain is less likely to think about your stress because it’s too busy focusing on keeping your heart rate up. Not your thing? Try bending over so your head is lower than your heart and you’ll automatically lower your blood pressure.
It’s inevitable that you will experience stress. Instead of binging on donuts or frantically biting your nails, come up with a list of healthy go-to’s when you’re feeling frazzled! After all, who takes on tigers without the proper survival gear?
Don’t live in a chronic state of stress. For your own sanity and anxiety level, take inventory of your “threats” and change your perspective. Recognize when your tension starts to build. Understand your triggers and do what you can to hijack your body’s fight-or-flight response!
Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% the way you respond to it. Choose to respond to stress in a healthy way so you can enjoy your life and cherish the little moments!