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Stress triggers are personal and different for each of us.
Understanding what your body feels like when under stress and identifying your stressors is an important first step in increasing your ability to prevent and manage stress more effectively.
Physiologically we all have different areas of our body that will be susceptible to stress.
For some, it could be digestion issues, like heartburn or an irritable bowel, and for others headaches or skin problems. These issues can end up being chronic and a visit to the GP may find no easy answer.
These symptoms can reduce our quality of life and interfere with work and relationships. They are a result of the sympathetic fight or flight response system if it’s switched on and off too often or over a prolonged period. Often we don’t notice this in the moment, and it can lie undetected, just out of our conscious awareness.
Yet, we may be breathing a little faster and shallower, holding our body in tension, perhaps we will be going to the toilet more, or taking indigestion tablets. This is enough to eventually impact our body’s balance with continual disruptions to blood pressure and flow, digestion and muscle tension; all physical preparation in our body to escape a threat that isn’t physically there.
If not addressed, feelings of stress may turn into anxiety or panic when the stress response becomes acute and we certainly notice it as a disturbing collection of physical symptoms.
Anxiety and panic share some symptoms of a heightened fight or flight response such as rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness and sweating. Importantly, their onset is different and there are other symptoms that distinguish them from each other, as seen on the left.
The psychological symptoms of the stress response are difficult thoughts and emotions such as being worried, uncertain, scared, irritable, or angry. It is this state of discomfort, alongside the changed physiology, that we dislike and want rid of.
It is natural for our thoughts to become aligned with these feelings and think of worst-case scenarios to protect us as if we were in real danger; psychologists call these Negative Automatic Thoughts. We become cynical and cautious, filtering out the positives; for example, we think we know what others are thinking of us, we jump to conclusions, and engage in ‘all or nothing’ thinking. See here for a full list of unhelpful thinking habits.
Unfortunately, negative thinking can also make us irritable with others, or ourselves, especially when we become self-critical and personalise fault, thinking that we should/shouldn’t be like this, adding another uncomfortable dimension of shame to the mix.
Take some time to consider what tends to set stress off for you. Often it's to do with change or loss in our lives, and may fit into the following situations:
And it’s worth remembering that happy events such as marriage, moving home, promotion and having kids can also increase stress.
Step back and think whether your thoughts are fast streaming and a little disordered or negative? Are they emotionally influenced and not reflecting the facts of a situation?
This comes with the stress territory and generally demotivates us from taking positive action. Making an effort to become aware of unhelpful thoughts and challenging their validity can help break the stress cycle and is one of the aims of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).
Balancing thoughts into a more realistic perspective is not easy but has a positive impact on reducing stress. Developing compassion for yourself in your thinking has big benefits and is a growing area of research.
Practicing some form of mindfulness is another way to unhook from thoughts whilst attending to the present moment. It’s not about getting rid of thoughts but acknowledging and allowing them so that they take a back seat - we will all have moments when the environment takes our attention away from our troubles.
Nature is the most obvious place to get away from it all and soak up the scenery and wildlife. We can also practice it in our gardens and our houses by having an intention to come out of our thinking for a short while and simply focus on our daily actions or our hobbies. The 87% app is a great place to find short meditation exercises.
Always at the top of any stress management protocol is to understand and manage your breathing. One of the key pieces of information that our primitive emotional brain will use to understand that we are not under threat is when our rational mind, our prefrontal cortex, takes control and overrules the stress response when we choose to slow the breath down, effectively putting on the brakes.
Check out our 5 Helpful Breathing Techniques here.
When stressed, we may experience brain fog and our concentration, memory and reasoning skills feel limited.
Problem-solving is a useful way to return to some form of ordered thinking by giving our mind a framework to work with. Clarify what the specific problem is and brainstorm possible solutions. After listing the pros and cons of each option, choose one to put into action.
I know it’s repeated over and over but working out (in whatever way you fancy) gets your blood circulating and your breathing adapting to the need for oxygen, balancing the levels in your blood. It discharges tension in your muscles and helps the body unwind.
Exercise also includes stretching and flexibility, and Yoga is a fantastic way to release tension in the muscles by stretching. It also encourages a slowing and deepening of breath in ways that mediate the stress response.
Connection and engaging with other humans (and our pets) stimulates our resting social engagement system, our ventral vagus nerve, which signifies contentment, safety, cooperation, security and healthy relaxation.
This is the complete opposite to the stress response, and research shows that caring creates resilience. Plan time for this to make sure it happens.
To feel relaxed, our heart and breathing rate needs to switch down into a mode of calm and soothing slowness, when our mind will also be more settled.
Water helps some – perhaps a warm (but not hot) bath with relaxing bath oil to stimulate our sense of smell will soothe. Reading something you’re interested in also helps as it requires us to sit calmly and quietly, but make sure it’s not a thriller! And don’t forget music can be a great mood changer, so keep your favourite music playing.
Not always easy to do when busy and stressed, but these are the two non-negotiable fuels for your body if you want it to function well. These both provide a strong foundation that helps protect your physical and mental health.
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