Stress is an everyday part of all our lives. If you consider the amount of stress you go through on a regular morning – waking up to the sound of a screeching alarm clock, rushing to get ready for work and struggling through traffic to get there on time. No wonder you need that hot cup of coffee to “calm you down” and get you through that first long meeting. To some extent the stress we all experience is necessary and even positive in order to keep us motivated and energized to achieve the tasks we set ourselves. We all have strategies that we put in place in order to manage our stress. But what happens when stress becomes an overbearing part of our lives? When it affects your ability to love, work and play? When your relationships, health and sleep become disrupted? How do you manage stress so that you can feel your best?
In order to figure this out let’s get a handle on what stress is and what happens when it starts to manage you rather than you managing it. A negative stress response affects your body, mind and behavior.
Have you ever paused to notice your body’s response when you feel “stressed”? We physiologically respond to stress –any perceived threat- with a fight or flight response. So you might notice your heart racing, sweaty palms, an unsettled tummy and a generally heightened alertness and awareness. An alternative bodily attempt to manage stress is the freeze response where you feel that fight or flight is no longer an option – you become immobilized and you simply “freeze” like “a deer caught in the headlights.” The first step in managing your bodily response to stress is to start to notice it, develop an awareness of it and an acceptance of it as your body’s inbuilt biological attempt to help you “survive” a threatening situation.
While your primitive reptilian brain is attempting to respond to stress your pre-frontal cortex is also hard at work trying to make sense of and process the experience. Just as any stressful experience is accompanied by a bodily response it will also be accompanied by a flood of thoughts that play over in your head. These thoughts emerge automatically, are often learned and have their basis in the library of “stressful” experiences stored in your brain. When stress is managing you they are primarily negative, unhelpful and generalized thoughts such as “I can’t get anything right,” I am always late” and “I’ll never succeed.” Have you ever paused to notice the thoughts that go through your head when you are experiencing stress? The first step in managing your cognitive response to stress is to start to notice these thoughts. To start to become aware of the information you are feeding yourself when going through a stressful situation. To recognize without judgement that this is the “music feed” you are listening to and to perhaps consider whether this is helpful for you.
So now that you have a sense of your physical and cognitive response to stress it’s useful to notice what behaviors it generates – the ways of coping or managing stress that you typically use. When stress is managing you these behaviors aren’t always helpful or productive and aren’t necessarily the most effective ways of managing stress in the long term. For instance you may turn to substances such as coffee or alcohol, self-harming behavior such as aggressive outbursts and avoidant behaviors such as spending excessive amounts of time on social media. It’s useful to pause and ask yourself the question “What are my fallback behaviors for managing stress?” “Do I want these behaviors to manage me or can I gradually start to develop increased control over these behaviors?”
Developing an awareness of yourself as an observer of your bodily response, your thoughts and finally your behaviors without judgement, shame or guilt is the underpinning basis for moving from a space of your stress managing you to you managing your stress, so that you can start to feel your best!
Dr. Stacey Leibowitz-Levy is a highly experienced psychologist with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology (Cum Laude) and a PhD in the area of stress and its relation to goals and emotion. She works with adults, teens and children within her areas of expertise. Take a look at her LinkedIn profile