Stress is a normal part of our everyday existence.
It’s the physical and mental wear-and-tear we all have as we are challenged by the daily obstacles in our lives, whether at work, at school, at home, or wherever.
The truth is life isn’t completely easy for anyone. We all have things we have to deal with that we don’t really want to – and that’s where most of our stress comes from.
Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky is one of the leading researchers on stress.He says that biologically stress is an adaptive response of our nervous system, fueled by two hormones – epinephrine (“adrenaline”) and norepinephrine – which are evolutionarily designed to be released in our bodies whenever we perceive something in our environment as a potential threat.
The release of these hormones creates a behavioral response known as the “fight or flight or freeze” response. It’s a heightened state of arousal that makes us super energized and focused.
For example, if an animal is feeling threatened by a predator, it may engage in one of three main responses related to stress:
- Fight – Attack the predator
- Flight – Run away from the predator
- Freeze – Stop moving or play dead
Today we still respond to our stress in similar ways; however, now the threat isn’t usually a predator, but a deadline to meet at work, or an argument with a friend, or a class we’re doing poorly in.
The stress in our lives can often be a good thing, but if it becomes too excessive it can have very negative effects on both our physical and mental health.
This article will describe more about how stress works in our lives and what we can do to manage our daily stress more effectively, no matter what the source of our stress may be.
How to reframe the “fight or flight or freeze” response
The first step in becoming smarter about your stress is reframing the “fight or flight or freeze” response as something that can be positive, and not just see stress as solely a negative thing.
This requires that we:
1. Recognize when stress is actually a useful signal to guide our lives.
2. Learn how to appropriately respond to stress in certain situations.
Remember, in the right doses stress can be helpful. We’ve evolved to have the “fight or flight or freeze” response for practical reasons, and in many ways those reasons still apply to today’s world, just in a different form.
Today’s stress is not usually caused by things that are directly “life threatening,” but they do often direct our focus toward relevant problems in our lives that may need some extra attention.
How to reframe stress in this way:
- Reframing “Fight” – Stress can motivate you to focus on your problems and take active measures to face them and fix them. For example, feeling stressed out about an exam can motivate you to study harder so you make sure you do well.
- Reframing “Flight” – Stress can help you identify things in your life that cause you unnecessary or excessive stress, giving you an idea of some things in life you may want to cut out. For example, if a certain person at work stresses you out, you may try your best to minimize the time you spend talking to them.
- Reframing “Freeze” – Stress can cause you to take a step back and re-evaluate a situation before going back to it. For example, if you’re feeling stressed out about a job, you may want to reflect on how much the job really means to you and whether it’s worth it to stay.
General Adaptation Syndrome
Stress can be caused by any stimulus (real or imagined) that we perceive as a threat. This then triggers a physical response in our bodies known as “general adaptation syndrome” which has 3 main stages.
These common physical stages of stress are:
- Alarm – Our bodies go in a heightened state of arousal where we become alert and focused.
- Resistance – We respond to our situation in a way to relieve the stressful stimulus until it is no longer bothering us.
- Exhaustion – Our bodies become tired and need to take a break to relax and re-energize.
The “alarm” stage make us aware of the stress, the “resist” stage motivates us to take action, and the “exhaustion” stage is what we experience after depleting our physical and mental resources.
Here’s a diagram of how our ability to cope with stress relates to these three stages:
As you can see, by the “exhaustion” stage our ability to manage stress falls dramatically. And research shows that long-term exposure to this “exhaustion” stage can weaken our immune system, making us easily sick and depressed.
Balancing Stress with Relaxation
Stress can be good in small doses, but really toxic in large doses.
It’s important to balance stress with relaxation throughout your day to keep your body and mind sharp and refreshed. This means taking healthy and frequent breaks from your work whenever it’s necessary.
Often we can only stay fully concentrated on a task for 45-90 minutes. After that, we become tired and fatigued, our focus gets more blurry, and our thinking becomes less sharp.
When you reach that point in your day, it’s probably time to walk away from your work, get a breath of fresh air, or have a friendly chat with someone – anything that gives your body and mind a break from what you’re doing.
Simple guidelines for relaxation:
- Take note of the times of the day you feel the most tired. Often our days have a particular “flow” to them – the weak points are the times when you need a break to reboot.
- Find what type of breaks work best to re-energize you. Often this depends on the type of work you do: someone who works in construction all day may take a break by sitting down and reading a book, but someone who works in an office all day may take a break by getting some exercise.
- Use both short breaks and long breaks. Sometimes just getting up for 5-10 minutes is all you need to re-focus, while other times you may need a much longer break before you can get yourself back in the groove, like a 2 week vacation.
- Stop thinking of relaxation as laziness. The smartest and hardest workers in our society are also the ones who know how to take a break when it really counts.
If you want to master the stress in your life, know when it’s time to embrace stressful and challenging activities, and know when it’s time to take a step back and just relax for a little bit.
The balancing point is going to be different for every individual, but when you discover where the fulcrum point is for you, you’ll maximize both your productivity and happiness.
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