Having a stress response to challenging circumstances serves an important function for survival. When a threat is perceived from the environment it is advantageous to go into high alert and arousal to give a narrow highly focused attention on that threat to survival. That is when the body reacts with fight/flight/freeze stress responses. But all too often that narrow focus of attention and survival reaction continues as chronic sources of ongoing stress long after the threat is over.
Stress is not something that can be avoided completely. As we all know “stuff” happens despite our best efforts to predict and prevent stressful events from occurring. All too frequently the situation can be beyond our control to stop or change. So “reducing or getting rid of stress” is not really an obtainable objective. The true task is to learn about how we deal with those situations that can actually “invite” more ongoing stressful responses. Instead learn how to create a different relationship with those stressful occurrences. What we think and feel (based on past experiences) creates the stress responses that can lead to more damaging consequences than the actual stressor. Managing thoughts, beliefs, feelings and even behaviors are something that can be done to reduce the stress responses. Even though we cannot necessarily change the stressful circumstances.
Most stress responses are due to the perception of being out of control of the environment. This means being unable to predict and create the desired outcome or predict and prevent undesirable circumstances. This is the common threat that is often experienced as stressful. When the threat is removed or addressed then there should be relaxation and return to a normalized state of being. When this does not happen that is when the complications from chronic stress responses and even traumas can occur over time. According to Childre and Rozman “letting negative thoughts and emotions run rampant generates stress hormones which keep circulating in your system and reinforces depressed mood and anxiety” (p.92)*. The stress inducing habit of repetitive negative thoughts and limiting beliefs, fear, resentments and blame (perpetuating a victim pattern that activates more insecurities) releases stress hormones that will continue beyond the external circumstanes that triggered them, a downward spiral.
Symptoms of Stress
The 5F’s of Stress responses are:
- Fight. Most people do not actually physically “fight” a perceived threat. Although some “road rage” incidents have escalated to physical confrontations that can be life threatening. Most stressors do not actually threaten someone’s life. Instead the fight usually manifests as an internal conflict about the stressful situation. Such as “I don’t want to deal with this”, I don’t know how to deal with this”, “I have too much to deal with and can’t handle more”, “I’m overwhelmed and exhausted.” And yet the stressful event is present demanding to be dealt with. The fight is often expressed in being argumentative, angry, hostile, aggressive, agitation, frustrated or just plain irritable and edgy with family, friends, and co-workers.
- Flight. Fleeing from managing a stressful situation is often by denial, procrastination, avoidance, disconnection or dissociation, suppression or repression of feelings, using distractions like TV, the internet, cell phones, drugs and alcohol.
- Freeze– This is the proverbial “deer in front of the headlights”. Danger is coming and there is fear. Fear shows up as numbness, being literally frozen or being immobilized and unable to take any action or make appropriate decisions.
- Fret– Thinking changes with a very narrow focus of atttention on the stressful event. There is often constant worry, frenetic thinking, rumination, preoccupation, complaining, and hyper-vigilance for the next stressful event. Frequently there is an inability to concentrate or think rationally about the situation in order to more effectively deal with it.
- Frazzled– Energy changes as a result of all of these stress reactions resulting in fatigue or complete exhaustion, feeling overcome and overwhelmed byt the situation, sleeplessness and even insomnia which causes more tiredness.
Five Solutions to Managing Stress
- Friends– Connecting with friends is a very powerful way to effectively manage a stressful situation. It can be helpful to talk about the stress with a sympathetic listener. However, that should not be repeated over and over again which would generate more stressful responses.
- Focus– The narrow focus of attention is a limited field of information to the exclusion of everything else. This restricts awareness of other experiences and information that may be helpful to the situation. Examples are just focusing on the stressful event, internal self talk, or repetitive thoughts and limiting beliefs. A more helpful way to cope with stress is to have an open focus of attention. This is a more expanded and inclusive way to attend. Research has shown that even including the simple awareness of physical sensations related to sress can make a big difference. Or attending to space or objects in the envrionment, other senses (smell, taste, sound, touch, visual) or focusing on a broad range of internal and external stimuli overall. This form of attention has been shown to reduce physical and psychological stresses and enhances creativity which can be helpful for problem solving.
- Fun-Laughter! If you are laughing you can’t think or worry. Laughter transforms fixed, counterproductive, negative thinking that accompanies trauma and stress. It is a form of nonverbal communication that conveys empathy and is highly contagious. Laughter promotes health by increasing endorphins, lowering blood pressure, decreases stress hormones, boosts the immune system and beneficially activates the cardiovascular system. Overall laughing will lead to feeling more relaxed, energized and being present with a better perspective on the current stress.
- Flow and Flexibility– Various emotions are appropriate at different times. Learning how to manage the flow of emotions is very helpful in stress management. This requires a flexibility to shift to high or low levels of arousal as needed. Having an awareness of the feelings that includes the location of the feeling in the body, the sensations of that feeling and naming the feeling itself is a first step in emotional management. Using meditation, yoga, or some other physical activity is helpful in discharging or shifting some of the emotional energy. Being emotionallly fit is being able to return to a baseline of emotional balance regardless of external circumstances.
- Finding Coherence-Coherence is greater order and synchronization in the systems within the body. Stressful reactions cause incoherence and chaos in the body especially over time. This can contribute to a variety of physical symptoms and health issues. The easiest way to achieve coherence is bring the heart into coherence with a breathing technique. Through establishing and sustaining coherence hormone ratios can change, moods and perceptions can improve, energy increases, stressful reactions reduce and resilience against future stressors increases.
Coherence Technique: Eyes closed. Focus on your heart and imagine your breath flowing in and out of your heart breathing deeper and slower. Imagine or experience a feeling of love, joy, appreciation, gratitude in your heart as your breathe. The more you do this the easier it will be to use in a stressful situation.
*Childre, D., Rozman, D. (2005). Transforming Stress the Heartmath Solution for Relieving Worry, Fatigue, and Tension.