Stress has become so normalized in our everyday lives. With our fast paced and high pressure focused lives, many of us have become stuck in a constant “flight, fight, or freeze response”. This is when our Sympathetic Nervous System is activated, which occurs in high-stress situations. This shift enables us to handle acute situations but when it becomes a chronic state our natural self-healing mechanisms are switched off.
According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) 77% of Americans felt physical symptoms of stress and 73% felt mental symptoms of stress in the past month. Overall, 48% of people believed that their stress levels had increased over the last 5 years.
Stress and anxiety can manifest in many ways that we may not even realize:
- Digestive issues or IBS
- Sleep problems
- Concentration issues
- Chest pain/ pressure
- Heart racing
- Shortness of breath
- Irritability/ quickly changing moods
- Muscle tension or pain
- Hair loss
- Amenorrhea (loss of periods)
- Breakouts along the chin
- Teeth grinding/ tightness in jaw
These symptoms are your body’s way of telling you that you’re overwhelmed. It’s important to note that stress can be tied back to trauma you have experienced in the past. You may need extra support from a trauma specialist to help you evaluate what might be affecting you on a subconscious level.
However, there are powerful approaches that you can take yourself to manage stress that are completely free. By focusing on your mindset and tuning into yourself and your emotions throughout the day, you can take some sense of control over your stress and turn on the Parasympathetic response, often called the “rest and digest”, or relaxed state.
Three techniques that you can use to manage stress are to modify stressors, change your perception of stressors, and turn on the relaxation response.
One technique you can use is to modify your stressors. You can do this a variety of ways.
Prioritize your tasks
One powerful technique to manage stress due to an overwhelming amount of tasks is to take a step back and really prioritize what is most important. This tool is used in the Alexander technique. By separating the few tasks that are most important from the tasks that are not as important, you can set realistic goals for yourself.
A good way to do this is to organize your tasks on importance and whether they are time sensitive. Here is an example of what that might look like:
By doing this, you can determine what to pay attention to and what you can put aside. Focus first on the tasks that are most important and most time sensitive.
Organize your thoughts
Another way to modify your stressors is to organize your thoughts.
One way to do this is to get a daily planner. This may sound simple but writing down what you want to accomplish in the day can be a huge weight off your chest and allow you to set realistic goals. Instead of having 10 things on your to-do list, write down the most important and time sensitive tasks for today, and spread your other goals throughout the week. This will allow you to manage your goals in a manageable way.
Change your perception of your stressors and of stress itself
There are some stressors in life that are simply out of your control. But how you react to those situations is in your control. Learning to understand that you don’t have control over everything around you is critical to your mental health. Mindfulness is something anyone can practice to accept uncertainties. By tuning into the thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and the wonders of our environment in the present moment our attention to worries about the future wanes. Cognitive behavioral therapy can also be extremely helpful to understand how to respond to stressors in a healthy way.
It turns out that changing our perception of stress itself may be just as valuable. “The perception that stress affects one’s health is conceptually distinct from the amount of stress an individual experiences; indeed, one could report experiencing very little stress but still believe it to have a great impact on their health”. If you focus on the negatives of the stressors in your life and constantly think about the way that stress is impacting your health, it will affect you more. In fact, research suggests that the majority of the ill effects of stress on our health have to do with our perception of stress and its ability to harm us. Since our perceptions are under our control, this means we can have a big impact on our health just by viewing stress as helpful rather than harmful. Try thinking about potential stressors, especially in your professional life, as more of a challenge and motivation than a harmful thing you are encountering. Even in the face of very intense life events we can look for opportunities to learn and grow.
Turning on the relaxation response
Lastly, finding ways to turn on the relaxation response, or your Parasympathetic state, is extremely important in controlling how you react to stressful situations. In this state our body becomes flooded with healing neurotransmitters and hormones.
We often talk about how to take care of your physical health by eating nutritious foods, exercising, and getting sleep. However, there isn’t as much dialogue about how to take care of your mental health on a daily basis. That’s why so many people are overwhelmed and don’t know how to manage stress properly because we were never taught that we are supposed to take care of our mental health, even when we feel we are in a great place in our lives.
Everyone has different ways of feeling relaxed so it’s important to pay attention to how you feel when you are doing different activities throughout your day.
When do you lose sense of time? When do you feel genuinely happy? When do you feel calm? It is a skill to be able to tune into that feeling.
Some things to try out that may be helpful in turning on that relaxation response:
- Breathing techniques
- Relaxing with a good book
- Watching a movie with friends or family
- Going for a walk or spending time in nature
There are countless other techniques that have been proven to trigger the Parasympathetic nervous response. By tuning in to explore what works for you, you can start to manage stressors in your life and simply take more time to take care of your mental health.
Houser, Lauren. “Fight or Flight: A Look into the Autonomic Nervous System Part-1.” Philadelphia Integrative Medicine, Philadelphia Integrative Medicine, 18 Nov. 2016, philly-im.com/blog/fight-or-flight-a-look-into-the-autonomic-nervous-system-part-1.
Tackett, Kate. “A Naturopath’s Guide to Treating Anxiety: Pharmaca.” Flourish, Pharmaca, 28 May 2019, www.pharmaca.com/projectwellness/a-naturopaths-guide-to-treating-anxiety/.