When you face one crisis after the next, life can become a series of acute emergencies. After two surgeries this Fall, my season in life has been a bit…stressful. Come to think of it, this season has been on repeat a lot lately.
As in the past three years.
When it feels like the world is descending into a tailspin, you don’t have to. Stress can be optional.
Sound crazy? I thought so too. But the more I learn about the way God has wired me to survive, the better I understand the tools He’s given me to relieve the pressure when my body revs up.
The Stress-Brain Connection
Though we feel stressed, stress is a physiological response to a perceived threat. Every time you feel threatened, your brain has a built-in panic button.
In emergency mode, the emotional part of your brain (amygdala) overrides the logical part of your brain (frontal lobe). Because when faced with a bear, you don’t have time to think, plan, or consider good judgment. You need to fight or flee immediately.
But here’s the problem. Your brain functions this way regardless of the threat.
Be it a bear…or your boss. A fight with your spouse…or a Doberman. Whether it’s WW3 or a traffic jam, your stress response is the same.
If this is how the body responds to one stressor, imagine what happens when you are bombarded multiple times a day? For months on end? Without a break?
Living in survival mode for too long can put you on edge, increase anxiety, deteriorate health, or cause you to misread cues and overact in relationships. When my brain views society, the stock market, or family drama as a threat, my body keeps sounding the alarm.
But it doesn’t have to.
Living with PTSD has taught me a few tricks when it comes to managing stress. I was surprised to discover that I could interrupt this fight-or-flight process while it was happening. I didn’t have to ride the roller coaster every time my body kicked it into high gear.
Here are 5 ways I’ve learned to hijack my body’s stress response:
1. Notice Your Reaction
It’s hard to change what you don’t know. I lived in survival mode for so long that stress felt normal. I was so focused on managing external circumstances that I became blind to my internal distress. It wasn’t until I was at max capacity that I noticed my sore muscles, tightening stomach, and racing mind. It was only after I defended my position at all costs that I realized my fight-or-flight instincts were calling the shots.
Self-awareness is essential to lowering stress. Start paying attention to how you internally react to people, situations, and environments. What is going on in your mind, emotions, or body in that moment? Are you feeling angry, anxious, or like you want to run away? Is your heart pounding or your body temperature rising? Or does your body shut down, feel like lead, or go numb?
These cues can serve as red flags that you’re feeling threatened and entering survival mode. The first step is being able to recognize your body’s stress signals.
2. Take a Breath
Taking slow, deep breaths for 60 seconds activates your parasympathetic nervous system and interrupts the stress response. This is why many relaxation techniques focus on breathing. Activating this “rest and digest” mode will help return your body to a calming, relaxed state.
3. Walk it Off
Mental and emotional stress has a way of becoming trapped in your body. You may notice that the more you’re stressed, the more your muscles or jaw ache from being clenched.
When your body encounters a threat, it is primed for action. Bilateral movement is a natural release for pent up stress and energy. When both sides of your body are performing the same movement pattern, it engages both sides of the brain leading to better emotional processing and a decrease in overall stress. Walking, swimming, running, hiking – even jumping jacks can help.
4. Time Out
Once your stress response becomes activated, it takes 20 minutes for your body to calm down. That’s after you take a break. When you’re feeling tense, give yourself permission to take a break – from work, the news, or the kids. A quiet moment serves as a mental health check-in and gives you the chance to become aware of your inner world and bring your logical brain back online.
5. Consider Your Perspective
Since stress is the body’s response to a perceived threat, then perception is the key. How you view an event (and your ability to handle it) influences your fight-or-flight response.
When you feel tense, take inventory of your present circumstances and surroundings. Are you in immediate danger? If not, reflect on what feels threatening and why. Think about what is within your control and the steps you can take to remedy the situation.
It’s easy to feel out of control in a chaotic world. That’s why it helps to remember the One who holds the world in His hands. When I turn my worries into a conversation with God, it renews my perspective. It reminds me of His love, goodness, and that He has every resource at His disposal (Phil 4:6-7).
Our experience in life is in part what happens to us and mostly how we respond to it.
This week, pay attention to what is causing you stress. Recognize your triggers and when the tension begins to build. Notice when your situation is not life-threatening and practice returning your body to a calm state.
Whatever this next season brings, remember that God can handle it. He is never stressed. He will provide the perspective, wisdom, and tools you need to manage whatever you face.
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