IF YOUR body was like an alarm system, it would be flashing red and pushing the panic button if it saw “chronic stress” show up on its doorstep.
The disturbing thing is, people don’t usually identify stress as the highly destructive intruder that it is, or worse, they’re so used to seeing it show up, that they’ve become immune to its constant visits.
However, if you knew the blow-by-blow reactions it was setting off, would you be letting in such an unruly “tenant” with the power of turning everything upside down in its wake?
Yet, that’s exactly the action of the stress response, once it’s been triggered.
According to the Harvard Business Review, the “fight or flight” response sets off a chain reaction of more than 1,400 physiological and biochemical changes occurring in your body.
This could be anything from a 300% increase in blood flow to your digestion “shutting down” (which is why those suffering from chronic stress may have gastrointestinal disorders) to sugar being dumped into your bloodstream.
The harsh reality is that this response kicks in for real threats, even imagined ones in as little as 1/20th of a second, which is less than the amount of time between two beats of your heart.
Years ago, I was on a boat ride which stopped in the middle of the ocean for those who wanted to have a swim.
I remember being in the water, not far from the boat when one of my friends screamed at me to come back.
I assumed she had seen a shark, so in the blink of an eye, with my heart thumping in my chest, I swam faster than I had ever swum in my life, kicking my heels frantically while trying to get back to the boat as quickly and as safely possible.
It turned out the shadow she had seen was a dolphin. I was still shaking from the stress of it several minutes later, which reminded me that you do not even need a real threat for the stress response to kick in.
Once you’re in “fight or flight” mode, which is the body’s primitive, automatic, inborn survival response, it triggers off a riot within us.
But, what if you’re not being chased by tigers or swimming frantically away from imaginary sharks in the water?
In modern day life, you could be sitting in an air-conditioned office or being yelled at by your boss or your client, and if your hands start to shake or your mouth goes dry which is a tell-tale sign that the stress response has kicked in, then your body is already going through the turmoil.
It’s incredible to think we could be feeling so threatened, even as we sit at our shiny work desks, but our pulse rates say so.
Stress also makes sleeping quite a challenge because the brain releases neuropeptide S, which is a small protein that increases alertness and a sense of anxiety, which is why chronic stress also leads to insomnia.
It is important to tune in to your body because it’s like an emotional antenna.
Your body is “talking” to you all the time and giving you clues as to how you’re really feeling, if you just paid close attention to its subtle signs.
When the body is tense, the mind usually is, too. For instance, when we are feeling nervous, we tend to breathe more from our chest, drawing in shallow, shorter breaths in comparison to taking longer, deeper ones, which are more associated with relaxation.
Always pay attention to how your body feels when you’re making decisions, big and small.
I’ve noticed how when something feels right, it’s never a heavy feeling. It’s always “light” and easy to breathe.
By contrast, when a person feels burdened, they may literally experience a feeling of “heaviness”, which may even slow them down in terms of actual speed and general productivity.
It’s interesting to note how even small decisions can leave a physiological clue.
The moment we are asked to do something we really do not feel like doing, whether it’s attending a particular meeting or washing up the dishes, we may experience a slight tightening in the jaw muscles or a sudden, agitated intake of breath.
If you just tuned in to your breathing, it would make you more aware of how you’re feeling in your inner world and if your pulse rate is starting to rise because you’re feeling stressed, don’t let it escalate or spiral out of control.
When we are in calm control of our emotions, we can choose not to let stress take away our peace of mind.
If stress was a visitor, why not cut down those unpleasant visits to once in a blue moon, or once in a week, rather than a daily affair?
You can also deploy breathing techniques to help interrupt the “stress response”.
Try taking in a deep, long breath and holding it for as long as you comfortably can and then gently, very slowly exhale out through the nose, whenever you’re feeling stressed.
Jojo Struys can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org