Our bodies’ stress responses stem from our ancient ancestors, who were on a constant lookout for dangers, writes Michèle Lazarus.
The amygdala, the part of our unconscious brain which detects dangers, acts as an alarm system, alerting us that we should either beat a hasty retreat, engage in a fight, or occasionally, like a rabbit caught in the headlights, stay stock still while the brain decides the best way forward.
This survival mechanism is known as our fight, flight, freeze response and generates stress chemicals (adrenalin and cortisol) so we can deal with the threat. In ancient times these stress chemicals would soon abate once we were safe again.
Nowadays we’re unlikely to need this response to escape a hairy mammoth, but we can experience the same stress responses in a multitude of other ways related to everyday life: illness, moving house, financial issues, relationship difficulties, a presentation, boredom to mention a few. Over time, repeated small day-to-day stresses can build up adding to our stress levels and pushing us over the edge. The pandemic of course generally hasn’t helped, amplifying worries and distress.
Some stress can actually be a good thing helping to motivate us, leading to a sense of satisfaction when we’ve dealt with it and encouraging us to move on when we’re stuck. Too much, however, stemming from repeated acute or ongoing chronic stress can be harmful both physically and emotionally, causing our bodies to constantly flood with stress chemicals instead of discharging them, seriously affecting our capacity to enjoy life.
An interesting thing though is that one person’s ‘stress’ is another person’s ‘challenge’ or ‘pressure’. Our belief systems and the way we perceive situations play a crucial part in how we manage our stressors. Our thoughts are so powerful that we can construct stress in our imaginations, worrying needlessly over things that will probably never happen or if they do, won’t be nearly as bad as we think.
The first step is to recognise and acknowledge our stress. This might manifest physically e.g. increased blood pressure, heart rate, illnesses, infections, insomnia, digestive problems, psychologically e.g. indecisiveness, lack of concentration, memory loss, emotionally e.g. irritability, low mood, anxiety or through our behaviour e.g. addictions, crying, withdrawing, avoiding situations.
Once we’ve identified we’re suffering from too much stress we can begin to take charge by adopting some simple techniques:
- Pay attention to your breathing – take a few focused deep breaths, breathing out for longer than you breath in – this helps the body to calm.
- Identify where you hold stress physically – whether it’s your jaw, shoulders, fists, tummy – consciously breath into those areas of your body and allow the muscles to unwind
- Exercise – this helps to release tension and generate endorphins – after exercise, we normally feel better and more optimistic. Health warning though, don’t overdo it – too much extreme exercise can exacerbate stress – our bodies need rest and recovery as well as to be stretched
- Spend time in nature – green spaces, trees and water have soothing effects
- Write manageable to-do lists and plans of action. Work through them methodically – getting small tasks done, (especially anything you’ve been putting off), to give you a sense of achievement. Practice finishing one task before starting the next as trying to multi-task tends to increase stress
- Review your self-care – healthy eating, getting enough sleep, limiting alcohol, nicotine and caffeine or having a massage will benefit both body and mind
- Keep connections up with friends and family who can help you talk through problems or simply to forget your worries and have a laugh instead
- Engage in any activities that help distract you from worry and aid relaxation e.g. creative pursuits, sport, walking the dog, gardening, yoga, mindfulness – really anything you enjoy
- When you’re in a calm space ask yourself how can I think differently about this? Or how can I make a start towards solving this problem?
- Seek professional help if it all feels like too much – having an objective listening ear outside your social circle can help you find new perspectives and ways forward. Hypnotherapy, in particular, helps you to relax more and turn off your panic button.
- Michèle Lazarus became a Solution-Focused Hypnotherapist in 2013 after experiencing how hypnotherapy helped her make changes in her own life. Her past career was as a counsellor and management trainer in a variety of health and social wellbeing roles in the NHS and the not-for-profit sector.