By: Patricia Hudak, RN and Chelsea Cassidy, LCSW
Most individuals can relate to the feelings of stress even if they are not able to relate to the specific circumstance you may be experiencing. There are different responses to feelings of stress, depending on your own coping techniques and how you address the stressor in your own life. Stress depends on the duration of the stressor, intensity of the stressor and capacity of the individual to withstand the stress.
What is Stress?
Stress is primarily a physical response. When stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action. This causes several reactions, from blood being diverted to muscles to shutting down unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion.
The challenge is when our body goes into a state of stress in inappropriate situations. When blood flow is going only to the most important muscles needed to fight or flee, brain function is minimized. This can lead to an inability to ‘think straight’; a state that is a great hindrance in both our work and home lives. If we are kept in a state of stress for long periods, it can be detrimental to our health. The results of having elevated cortisol levels can be an increase in sugar and blood pressure levels, and a decrease in libido.
FIGHT: When your body goes into a state of stress, we may feel agitated and aggressive towards others; this can be due to our bodies’ natural reaction being “fight”. This can be a helpful reaction to ward off predators, but in unnecessary situations, it can negatively affect relationships and ruin reputations.
FLIGHT: Some of us avoid our stressors, removing ourselves from the situation instead of tackling it. This can be a sign of the “flight” survival instinct; a function that can save our lives if we find ourselves in dangerous surroundings. However, in everyday life, this instinct can lead to a stressful situation escalating and increase our stress levels when we realize that the stressor is not going away and we need to face it.
FREEZE: Unknown by many, there is a third mode that stress can cause; freeze. For some people, becoming stressed sets the stage for ‘dysregulation’. The energy mobilized by the perceived threat gets “locked” into the nervous system and we ‘freeze’. This response sometimes reveals itself when we breathe. Holding our breath and shallow breathing are both forms of freeze. The occasional deep sigh is the nervous system catching up on its oxygen intake.
Mindfulness is a great practice to implement when under stress. Mindfulness is about being present with what is happening without judgement. Often our stress will raise when we allow our thoughts to take us to the past and re-experience the event over and over (ruminate) or place our thoughts in the future. We create a larger space mentally for the stress by giving energy to the past and future. The purpose of mindfulness is to stay in the present with your feelings and emotions. We then can react from a place of intelligence and kindness. (NPR)
RAIN is an acronym that can remind you how to practice mindfulness:
Sense the feeling that you are having in the moment
Pause. Give space for the feelings. It is okay to not be okay.
Take a screening of your body internally and externally. Can you identify places of pain or discomfort? What has your attention? What are you believing right now? What thought patterns can you track? What do you need in this moment?
Be kind to yourself. Give grace to yourself. Place a hand on your heart and make a positive affirmation statement.
The goal of RAIN is to practice mindfulness by being present with yourself which can create a shift in the way you feel.
Breathing technique: 4-7-8
Breathing techniques are great to have in your stress management tool kit. They can be done any place without others even noticing. This provides quick interventions during high moments of stress. The 4-7-8 breathing technique is designed to reduce anxiety, help people fall asleep, manage cravings, and reduce anger (Medical News Today).
To start, get yourself into a comfortable sitting position and place the tip of the tongue on the tissue right behind the top front teeth.
- Empty your lungs of air (exhale)
- Breathe quietly through your nose for four seconds
- Hold your breath for a count of seven seconds
- Exhale with force through your mouth, pursing your lips and making a “whoosh” sound, for eight seconds
- Repeat breathing exercise up to four times
As with anything, including mindfulness and breathing techniques, the more you practice it, the easier it becomes. One will also see the positive effects of mindfulness and breathing techniques over time. A good starting point is to practice these techniques twice a day – morning, and evening. Giving your first thoughts and last thoughts to yourself. Emily Ley has recently stated in her podcast “be where your feet are”. Take the challenge to be fully present in body, mind, and spirit where your feet are and watch the stress dissolve.