Your body reacts and your mind starts to race, often making it difficult to retain your composure. People react in different ways, and this can be influenced by both your genetics and by personal life experiences.
What happens to your body when you’re stressed?
When we lived in caves, we faced danger from predators and competitors for food and shelter. We developed the 'fight or flight' response to make us as alert and athletic as possible.
Our bodies react in the same way today. Your brain sends a message to your organs to prepare a response. These organs include your adrenal glands, which produce the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones act together to make you more alert and vigilant, and ready to defend yourself – fight – or remove yourself – flight. Your blood pressure rises, your heart rate and metabolic rate increase, your pupils dilate, and you breathe deeper and faster.
These days, we don't have many encounters with fierce animals, but we are faced with difficult and even life-threatening situations – such as tight deadlines, demanding projects, serious illnesses, and bullying. And our body continues to react to these stress triggers, potentially causing long-term health problems, including depression, anxiety, and heart disease.
Recognising your individual signs of stress
Understanding what happens to your body can help you identify signs of stress and make it easier for you to react. Does your stomach clench, do you find your neck stiffens, or do your palms begin to sweat? These are all normal reactions; and are your body’s way of telling you that what you’re doing is important to you.
Responding in the moment
When you feel stressed, it’s common to think negative thoughts, doubt yourself, or panic.
Once you have recognised the signals that you are feeling stressed, uncomfortable, anxious, or distressed, you will be able to respond to them more quickly, efficiently, and positively.
Try practising the following:
Take three deep breaths. Your breathing is affected by stress; it becomes shorter, shallower, and more irregular. Stop, take three big, deep breaths that expand your stomach. Why? Doing this activates your parasympathetic nervous system, designed to create a relaxation response. It also focuses your mind on breathing, rather than the stressful situation at hand.
Create an internal dialogue designed to reassure and calm yourself. Talk down the negative voice inside you that is creating panic and uncertainty. Remind yourself that you are capable, calm, competent, and that you have probably dealt with similar or worse situations in the past.
Share your thoughts and feelings. It is important to have a strong support network of people who are there to listen when you are going through stress or anxiety. Talking things over can help you put the situation into perspective, discuss solutions, and feel better in general.
Write a list. Sometimes we have so much to do and so much to remember that it becomes overwhelming. Stop, grab a piece of paper and a pen, and write a to-do list. Make it as vague or as detailed as you want; the important thing is to get everything on paper, to take the pressure of yourself to remember everything. Ticking things off as you get them done can also give you a feeling of achievement.
Looking after yourself
Feeling fit and healthy can help you face stressful situations head on. Prioritise eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, sleeping well, and spending time looking after both your physical and your mental health. This can help you feel better prepared to overcome stressful situations.
Spending time on self-care is important during times of stress. Prioritise yourself, and take some time out for activities you enjoy and can help you disconnect and relax. Go for a walk, spend time with a friend, have a bath, watch a film, write a letter, meditate, or do some exercise.
Staying calm when faced with a stressful situation is not easy. But recognising personal stress triggers, looking after yourself, and practising mechanisms for responding well to stress can help build your resilience under pressure.
Did You Know?
Our personal response to stress can be influenced by both genetics and personal life experiences.
- Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Mayo Clinic. Visited 4 October 2019. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037 (https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037)
- Stress. Mental Health Foundation. Visited 4 October 2019. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/s/stress (https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/s/stress)
- How to handle stress in the moment. Harvard Business Review. Visited 4 October 2019. https://hbr.org/2014/11/how-to-handle-stress-in-the-moment (https://hbr.org/2014/11/how-to-handlestress-in-the-moment).
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