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Turn Down Your Stress Speed Dial

Don’t you hate when people tell you not to stress about something? It’s much easier said than done! And most of the time, it increases your stress level. At least, I know it does mine.

As humans, we’ve developed the stress response as a tool in our survival toolkit. It keeps us alert, motivated, and moving forward. When we become stressed, our body begins to respond in a protective way before our thoughts can catch up. Once the brain senses potential danger, it sends a message to the amygdala (part of our “emotional brain”) that immediately triggers the fight-flight-or-freeze response, releasing the hormones adrenaline and cortisol into the body. And you know what happens next – our heart rate and blood flow increase, our breathing becomes heavier and faster, we begin to sweat, and depending on the best “defense”, we punch, run, or stop. And when we’re in that situation, we can’t think. Literally – because our neocortex (the “cognitive brain”) is shut off in order to give our body the energy and focus it needs to fulfill the fight-flight-or-freeze response. It’s in those few moments or perhaps the moments just after that, that we can take control of our thoughts and make a choice as to our next response or action. What can determine how quickly we are able to think in those moments, is emotional intelligence – our ability to recognize and understand our emotions, and those of others, in the moment, and to use that information to determine the best strategy for the current situation.

We developed this stress response because it is be beneficial to us. But when it becomes more than a few moments, more than just based on the current situation or environment, it can become unhealthy. Our heart rate and blood pressure don’t automatically slow down to a normal pace. Our breathing becomes shallow to account for these increases, and our muscles tense up. This can create tension in our back, neck, jaw, anywhere we carry stress, even in our tongue. And over time, it can lead to life-threatening diseases.

And while our body is going through all this trauma, our emotions are often going through a trauma all their own. We find we are not able to cope with our environment. We can become depressed, irritable, angry, anxious, and easily overwhelmed. We act out in ways we may regret later, such as short-temperedness; we turn to unhealthy vices such as drugs or alcohol, and can become distracted in thoughts, fidgety, unable to focus, forgetful, and worrisome. This in turn can cause us more stress, which triggers a recurring loop. It feels we’re on a like a treadmill that we can’t stop. But stress, like a treadmill, does have a “speed dial”. It just takes awareness of where the dial is located to slow it down and get it back to a reasonable speed.

So where is the stress “speed dial”? It’s in the habits you develop and in the way you wire your brain. Thanks to neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to restructure itself to develop, adapt, and grow at any age), you can actually rewire your brain to cushion stressful moments and bring balance back in those stressful times. This ability is also a tool in your survival toolkit – but you must exercise it to strengthen it.

As with most things, stress is about balance. Some stress is healthy, but too much stress can be unhealthy. So, the obvious next steps are to locate your stress “speed dial” and master your stress management techniques.

I remember one time when I was incredibly busy at work, I was advised to attend a stress management seminar, but I was so busy that trying to find the time to go to the seminar stressed me out! Luckily, I now know that it doesn’t take hundreds of dollars and several hours to learn how to manage stress. It only takes finding a few good techniques that work for you, and practice, practice, practice.

Try these, for instance:

1. Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the state of focusing on the present moment. This can often be hard, as our minds are built to always watch for dangers, which may be fears of the future or worries of the past. However, through intention, attention, and attitude, mindfulness can be achieved. It calls for focusing on the present moment, and having an attitude of openness, acceptance, and non-judgment.

There are several ways you can develop mindfulness, such as meditating (practicing breathing techniques, body scans, etc.), taking a mindful walk (noticing your steps, your breathing, and what’s around you), being in nature, taking up a hobby, or listening to music, just to name a few. By doing one or more of these practices daily, even for a few minutes, you will begin to literally train your brain to better focus and be able to bring your attention to the present moment and what’s going on around you more quickly.

2. Manage your self-talk.

What you think is where you live. Your mindset will determine how you think of people and events from your past, in the present, and in your future.

We often talk to ourselves in ways that we would never speak to a friend. We expect more from ourselves, and we often place our own expectations and beliefs on others – judging them based on how we think they should be or judging ourselves based on what we think the others expect from us. But STOP! Everyone comes with their own emotional history and inner beliefs that no one else truly knows, so they are only reacting based on THEIR emotional history and inner beliefs. Their words and actions are about THEM, not you. And remember, speak kindly to yourself.

3. Be open to change.

Recognize change as a part of life and see it as a chance to grow. Nothing is permanent; as much as we sometimes would like things to stay the same, they don’t. Everything ends. But it’s a chance to learn something new, to see something differently, to experience something fresh. Think back on your life – it’s all been an opportunity to learn something new and grow as a person. As the saying goes, sometimes you win, and sometimes you learn.

4. Laugh.

This one needs no explanation.

So, remember, when you start to feel overwhelmed with stress: breathe, reset your expectations, and have a giggle! Therefore, I leave you with this: Enjoy!!

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