What if stress was a choice?
In this day and age, I would argue that for most of us stress is a choice most of the time. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying it is a choice that is easy to make. Nor will many of us even know that and how they could choose differently. Stress, after all, is an automatic response of our body. Let me explain what I mean.
What is stress?
Stress is a physiological response of your body to react to a life or death situation. It is also often and very descriptively referred to as the “fight or flight” response.
Let’s say you are in a situation where your life is in imminent danger – a sabre-toothed tiger looking for a meal. What will happen is that your sympathetic nervous system kicks into action brewing up a biochemical cocktail to let your body know to get ready to either fight or flee. Your heart beat speeds up, your breathing becomes fast and shallow, and oxygen is being pumped into the muscles to get you ready. Other physical functions (digestion or repair) are not needed to get you out of that situation and so your body slows those functions down or stops them altogether. You don’t want to waste resources while your life needs saving.
What has stress got to do with burnout?
If a stressor is persistent, meaning the same thing, person or circumstance causes you stress on an ongoing basis, your body has to try and adapt to it. As you can imagine, the fight or flight response is a real energy guzzler, sucking up your physical resources in no time. And it makes sense if your life is in danger. Better to deplete yourself but be alive, right?
However, even trying to adapt to the stress, your body’s resources will eventually be depleted and your body will be unable to maintain normal function. Think about this: during stressful episodes you are burning through your resources more quickly but not digesting properly. So you are not absorbing the nutrients of your food and become ever more depleted. Hello vicious cycle!
So apart from being exhausted from the high energy expenditure, over long periods of time your immune system also becomes run down and this gives way to a host of illnesses, both mental and physical.
So you see, unless someone holds a gun to your head or threatens you, physiologically, there is no need to fire off a full blown stress response.
So what are the alternatives?
Now that we see eye to eye that a stress response is not always necessary, we can look at what you can do about it. We have all heard how eating well, exercising, and generally keeping healthy can help us deal with stress. And yes, you will be more resilient and better able to cope with stress the healthier and stronger you are. But how can you train yourself to not “choose” stress to begin with?
- Reality check. Pay attention to the signs of stress. Is your heart beating faster? Stop yourself right there and think for a second. Is your life actually in danger? Just being consciously aware that no, you will not die right now, can do wonders.
- Exhale and focus on your breathing. By taking deep breaths in, all the way into your belly, and exhaling slowly, you are activating your parasympathetic nervous system – the “rest and digest” response. This will overwrite the fight or flight. Practice deep breathing regularly (even when not stressed) and you’ll be better able to activate your relaxation response at will.
- Propose your view of things. Speak up for yourself. Studies have shown that feelings of helplessness deplete our adrenal system more quickly in stressful situations than if we feel that we stand a “fighting chance”.
- Openness can also help. Let the other person know how you are feeling in this situation. Chances are they don’t want you to feel bad or stressed. They might just change their tone and have a more compassionate conversation with you.
- Surrender to what you cannot change and pick your battles. Sometimes just letting it go can save you a lot of energy.
- Engage with frequent stressors on your own. Keep a stress diary and record the situations that have caused you stress. Write down the outcome (i.e. YOU DID NOT DIE!).
Keeping a stress diary can help you train your brain. Martial artists will practice a move over and over and over again until it becomes second nature. You can do the same with your stress response. Let’s say you have a difficult boss and have been late handing in that report, visualise that conversation with them and imagine yourself being calm. Your brain cannot distinguish between what is real and what is not and so will learn that similar situations can be dealt with without the need of activating the fight or flight response.
So next time you notice yourself getting into a huff, remember to REPOSE.
Sarah is a qualified Personal Transformation Coach and Burnout & Fatigue Expert. She helps busy professionals to get their “BOOM!” back by working with them to be more productive, having better health and higher energy levels.
Originally from a fast paced corporate background, Sarah now works with people from all walks of life who want to be healthier, more energetic and more productive at work and in life. She regularly speaks about the impact of lifestyle and stress related illnesses. She shares her own story of adversity and is using her journey from bedridden to bodybuilding to raise money and awareness for charity and to inspire others to take their health into their own hands and prioritise their needs.
Sarah works with both private and corporate clients to inspire a healthier life and working environment and to educate and demonstrate how this can be achieved through sustainable techniques that help you to run your body more efficiently, sleep better, do more and fire on all cylinders so you can enjoy life to the full.
Connect with Sarah if you want to get your “BOOM!” back, too.