In evolutionary terms, when we face a dangerous situation, our body reacts automatically to prepare us by releasing cortisol – a stress hormone. It is normal for our muscles to tense up, our pulse increase, and our breathing to get faster so that we have extra energy to protect us from danger to fight or run to survive.
Chronic stress is harmful as it suppresses our immune system making us more vulnerable to illnesses. It is essential to manage stress symptoms early to reduce their adverse effects on our health (Sapolsky, 2004).
In the modern world, for the most part, we are not in danger like our ancestors. However, we experience stress symptoms when we have more demands than resources. For example, when we feel we have a lot of work and feel exhausted, or when we do not have control or are unsure how to complete a task when worrying about possible adverse outcomes or having financial concerns.
We all experience stress sometimes – it is part of life. New research indicates that if we reframe how we view stress (in the short term) as something we can manage, we can change the way our mind and our body react.
We can view the physiological reaction as our body producing extra energy to deal with the challenge. However, it is essential to restore energy daily to maintain health and wellbeing (McGonigal, 2015).
How we view things can transform the effect events have on us. By looking for alternative ways of interpreting situations, and our inner world, we can identify ways of dealing with challenging situations.
Strategies to restore balance
Reframe how you view stress: When we view stress symptoms as our body protecting us, we can feel more in control and use the energy to manage the challenges we face. Then, make sure that we restore our energy during the day. For example, taking breaks and stepping away from screens. It is good to stretch and go for a walk (keeping warm during the winter months).Movement is the most effective antidote to managing and preventing the adverse effects of stress (Ratey & Hagerman, 2010).
Focus on what you can do: Identify what things or situations trigger tension and concern, and then turn your attention to those things you can start working on right away. When noticing worry thoughts, we can ask: “Is this thought helpful?” No, then let the thoughts go by, just like the clouds go by in the sky.
Develop healthy habits: our body functions best when we maintain a routine, eat well, and protect our sleep time. It helps to keep our immune system healthy (Macciochi, 2020). Sleep is essential to restore energy, so we feel well. It also supports our cognitive process so we can work well too (Walker, 2014).
Do something creative: when stressed, we tend to focus on negative thoughts that prevent us from relaxing our muscles and considering alternative perspectives. When doing something creative, it helps us to reconnect with the present moment. As we relax, we can start to explore options and consider possibilities.
Develop self-compassion: It acknowledges our humanity – that we get tired, frustrated, and feel vulnerable at times. As we become understanding of ourselves, it also allows us to empathise with others. We tend to be kind and understanding with our friends but can be more self-critical when we are unhappy with our work or something we think we have done wrong. By becoming our best friend, we can reduce tension, helping us to focus on what we can do to make progress (Gilbert, 2010).
Start journaling: Research shows that writing what we are thinking about can help process our thoughts and feelings, reducing tension. Take a few minutes to write down your thoughts freely (Pennebaker, 2014).
For more information check this blog post and this one.
Gilbert, P. (2010) The compassionate mind. London: Constable & Robinson, Ltd.
Macciochi, J. (2020) Immunity. The science of staying well. London: Thorsons.
McGonigal, K. (2015) The upside of stress. Why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it). London: Vermilion.
Pennebaker, J. (2014) Expressive writing: words that heal. Washington: Idyll Arbor, Inc.
Ratey, J. & Hagerman, E. (2010) Spark. How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. London: Quercus.
Sapolsky, R. (2004) Why zebras don’t get ulcers. The acclaimed guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping. Revised and updated. New York: Hold Paperbacks.
Walker, M. (2014) Why we sleep. London: Penguin, Random House.