“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.” ~Viktor Frankl
These days we can’t seem to get away from stress. We all feel it, and we all hate it. Even my sister’s two dogs are on a special diet for their stress-induced digestive issues, and I’m pretty sure they hate stress too.
Recently it hit me: Our relationship with stress is dysfunctional. No wonder we’re stuck in an anxiety-ridden existence!
Stress is Love
Stress has gotten a bad rep, but it serves an important function—it keeps us safe from danger. Closely linked to our ability to feel fear, stress enables us to be alert and respond to perceived threats in our environment.
When we perceive a threat, the amygdala in our brain sends a distress signal to our hypothalamus, which activates our sympathetic nervous system. This switches our body into “fight or flight” mode, triggering a series of physiological responses to help us get away from whatever is threatening us.
Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released, and our heart rate and blood pressure increase. Our blood sugar levels rise to give us more energy, and our breath quickens. This sharpens our senses and gives us a temporary boost in energy, strength, and reaction times.
All of this happens in the name of increasing our chances of survival and keeping us alive. We wouldn’t be here as a species if we were not able to feel stress and react accordingly in dangerous situations.
Bottom line? Stress loves us and wants to keep us safe. We owe stress a big fat thank you wrapped up in an apology for bad-mouthing it all the time.
This realization was a tough pill to swallow. A few years ago burnout brought me down to my knees physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I blamed stress and hadn’t quite forgiven it for all the suffering it caused me.
The truth? Stress wasn’t to blame. If I had properly acknowledged it, seen the red flags, and reacted sooner then maybe I never would have burned out in the first place.
This was hard to accept, but it was also incredibly empowering.
The Timing Problem
Historically, being able to pick up on external stressors such as predators and fighting, hiding, or running away was a matter of life and death. The problem is that what stresses most of us these days is very different from what used to stress our ancestors, yet our bodies respond to these stressors similarly.
In other words, our bodies overreact to stressors that aren’t life-threatening. This includes internal stressors like negative thoughts and external stressors like deadlines or, in my case, toddler tantrums.
It’s a timing issue. We live in a modern time where we experience stress 24/7, but we’re armed with a primitive stress response with which to cope. This stress response is activated so frequently that our bodily functions and stress hormones rarely have a chance to return to normal levels.
If fighting or sprinting away from deadlines, relatives, bills, responsibilities, toddlers, and traffic police was a socially acceptable way to deal with our daily stressors then we’d be all set. In most cases though, running away, hiding, or fighting makes matters worse.
And so we get stuck—bombarded by stressors and experiencing the physiological symptoms of stress that we’re biologically programmed to experience, yet unable to cope by responding how we’ve historically responded.
It is this prolonged stress that has a negative effect on our health and our life. Long-term effects can include disrupted sleep, a compromised immune system, poor digestive function, increased abdominal fat, blood pressure changes, brain fog, low mood, sugar cravings, inflammation, and chronic pain to name a few.
I’ve experienced most of these and they aren’t pretty. The hardest part was clawing my way out of bed every morning because I was so wiped out and exhausted down to my core.
No wonder I hated stress!
Reset Your Relationship With Stress
When it finally hit me that stress comes from a place of love and protection, I decided once and for all to mend my dysfunctional relationship with stress.
I’m now convinced that our relationship to stress is one relationship we can’t afford not to heal. Our health, happiness, and sanity are riding on it.
Here are three steps you can take to reset your toxic relationship with stress and restore its rightful place as your ally.
1. Shift your stress mindset.
Stop badmouthing stress and blaming it for ruining in your life. It’s not an external evil force out to get you, so show it a little bit of respect. To get it on your side, you need to first believe that it is on your side and that you are in control.
Believing that stress has my best interests in mind, I now ask myself: What is my experience of stress right now trying to tell me?
For me, it is often a signal that I have taken on too many things at once and need to slow down. Or, that I have been prioritizing everyone else and haven’t been taking good enough care of myself.
2. Mend your relationship to stress.
Instead of judging stress, start making more of an effort to get to know your stress response. Like any supportive relationship that is based on trust and mutual respect, the first step is to listen. Pay attention and get curious:
- How does your unique experience of stress feel?
- What are your triggers?
- Where does stress show up in your life?
I experience stress as back, neck, and shoulder pain, coupled with a tightening sensation in my stomach that is often accompanied by digestive issues.
Some of my triggers include work deadlines, the travel hustle (scrambling to get a million things done before a trip), sleep deprivation, the deadly combination of gluten and dairy, my email inbox, feeling rushed, and having to get my son into his car seat.
3. Change how you engage with stress.
Learn how to de-escalate your stress response. Most of us don’t know how because we weren’t taught. It’s as simple as learning a few new skills to put to use when you feel stress getting the best of you, and committing to actually using them.
Mother nature wouldn’t have given us a highly sensitive stress response if we didn’t need it. She also wouldn’t have done so without equipping us with simple ways to switch it off. Breathing, laughter, meditation, and changing our internal dialogue are a few examples of this.
We’ve become so busy in our lives that we’ve lost touch with this and turned stress into the enemy. This is disempowering because we’re actually in control of our mind and body, so we’re in control of our experience of stress.
I use different techniques to switch off my stress response depending on the stress trigger I’m facing, how desperate I am, and where I am. Some are more conducive to being done in public than others. I recently did an eleven-minute kundalini meditation with my arms up in the air on an airplane, but many would find that awkward!
When it’s a person causing me to get flustered—like my toddler when he is in tantrum mode—I’ve found that it’s important to stay present, connected, and “be cool.” In these instances I choose techniques that don’t involve closing my eyes or doing anything outwardly visible or obvious with my body.
For example, I’m currently loving silently repeating the phrase “all is well” in my head when I feel my stress levels escalating, and combining this with belly breathing.
First, I bring awareness to my breath. Breathing from my nose, I consciously start to slow down and deepen my breath, making sure that my abdomen is also expanding out (on the inhale) and contracting in (on the exhale) with every breath. Placing my hand on my belly helps.
Then, I begin to repeat the phrase “all is well” in my head as I inhale, and repeat it again as I exhale. As I do this, I retain my awareness on my breath and on the movement of my abdomen. I keep repeating this phrase and breathing pattern for a minute, or longer if necessary.
Slowing down my breath connects me with the present moment and automatically turns off my body’s stress response. Repeating “all is well” reshapes my thoughts and signals to my mind that I am safe, also switching my body out of “fight or flight” mode.
Basically, I’m assuring myself that there is no predator in the room, so it’s okay to relax!
Do you have any go-to techniques you use to regulate your stress response? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.
Stress image via Shutterstock