The hardest thing about writing about stress management is context. I have been working away on a stress management program for a while now and the recent increase in people seeking out ways to deal with stress has prompted me to finish it off. In this article I wanted to provide a bit of an outline to stress triggers and management.
I guess first of all, at the core of stress there is an automatic physiological response to an event. Now this may be a once off event, or as you start entering the trauma space it could be prolonged mild stress that eventually triggers responses in what would have normally been a pretty trivial event. In all cases, if you find yourself asking ‘why did I just fly off the handle at that’, or ‘why did I just start crying’, then you are likely not managing. From a physiological viewpoint the triggers for stress, regardless of the source, end up firing the amygdala in your limbic system. The good old fight-flight-freeze responses, and the body delivers cortisol and adrenaline to the system. The long term impacts of cortisol on the body are fairly well documented now; stress kills. In stressful situations you may notice the impacts of the amygdala firing – increased heart rate/breath, sweaty palms, feeling hot or even just more on edge.
There are a range of milder signs of stress as well including impacts to memory, tiredness, challenges managing emotions, depressed periods, and anxiety perhaps. Not all people react to stress in the same way or in a defined time. There are some patterned responses related to the fight-flight-freeze which you may be aware you are doing. In the following examples people can shift down from the healthy into stress responses and back within minutes or months/years:
- driven and engaging -> arrogance / inflexibility -> dissociation.
- creative and open -> insecurity/manipulation -> procrastination -> punishment.
- inclusive and collaborative -> victim mentality -> deceit -> inflexibility / controlling.
Orientations for people can shift as well:
- Spontaneous and generally driven people can end up being quite emotional and stuck.
- Information/research/analysis can become all consuming. Others call this over-thinking but there are a few ways of over thinking depending on who you are.
- Calm and considered big picture thinkers can end up becoming very erratic and aggressive.
There are a range of activities and steps you can take once you get to this space to shift your mind and body away from the limbic response, back up to your higher level thinking/processing. Different people tend to find different things work and it can also depend on the trigger or situation you are in. My personal go to is deep breathing or a quick walk. If you check out the ‘Vagus Nerve’ you will find a few more.
In order to prevent you from reaching this point, or to quickly manage your way out of it, then awareness that it is happening is key. Activities like mindfulness practice through to talk therapy will help you explore this first point of awareness.
To help you stay out of the limbic response, develop resilience and live with less stress I start at the following building blocks
- Sleep, Diet and Exercise: Body and mind connections these days strengthen the case for establishing healthy practices in these three areas.
- Balance/Distance: Practical basics like creating some space from things that trigger us. And focusing attention on things that reduce stress which I like to call passions. Under stress we often focus towards the stress and forget to focus on what is outside the stress.
- Self-awareness: This can be from physical, emotional or thinking perspectives. Learn how to spot stress so it can be managed. Understanding who you are as a person and previous experience will play a significant role in spotting triggers.
- Self-definition: Moving beyond self-awareness and into intention. And this is the gold if you’re willing to take the journey. It can fall out as shifting in thinking/responses or shifting in who you are and choices you are making in life. If you understand who you are and what it is important then what you see as stress can shift, and/or you decide to change your life to shift away from it.
The interesting thing about triggers is I tend to find the depth of explanation out there on what and why is pretty shallow. There are the obvious ‘threat to life’ type triggers like a car almost hitting you. And then there are the rest, all the triggers of living in a modern world that don’t really threaten our life but perhaps our view of ourselves, our needs/wants, or our worth as examples. So the information out there is perhaps shallow for valid reasons, this is where we enter the context of your life and an understanding is needed of you and your environment to really help work with stress. You can go and grab a range of stress management ideas and techniques from the web but I suspect they won’t do much until you really understand yourself and your triggers, then apply techniques that suit your life.
(now ignoring those living and working in known stressful environments like dangerous jobs)
I mentioned earlier that stress management starts with awareness. A lot of people seem to know they are stressed and most can identify the person/people/activity/environment that causes the stress but they still don’t really know why. It’s at this level of stress management that things get harder. Above I called out self-awareness and self-definition; these are closely related and bounce off each other because who we are, and who we think we are drives how we interact with the world. Firstly we are built from genes, upbringing and experience (who we are) and then we have a definition of self (who we think we are). Every behaviour, emotion and thought comes from these two, so hopefully you can see why understanding them inside and out is key to understanding stress. This level of awareness is more than just ‘stress is happening’ awareness, it is ‘stress is happening and I know why’ awareness.
And finally, knowing that you are stressed and managing it day to day is definitely useful, however ideally you would like to reduce or remove it from your life right? The source for that direction is also in your self-definition – why change and what way should I go. Self-awareness and self-definition is something people can rarely do on their own as it needs an objective and empathetic mirror to work with you on understanding. If you are interested in really reducing stress and shifting your life to a less stressful one then please reach out.