The last issue was about resting well after a lot of work. That’s what I did the last week. But what can you do when you are stressed while working? Or before an important event? That’s where you need to learn how to manage your stress response.
In this issue:
- Why and how do we get stressed
- How to control your stress response
- How to limit worrying
Photo by Keenan Constance from Pexels
There are two basic ways of how human beings live:
- Relaxed mode
- Action mode
Relaxed mode focuses on our long-term survival. Normally, we just want to rest and digest. This is what the relaxed mode of being is. It is controlled by the Parasympathetic nervous system. This part of the nervous system controls our saliva-producing glands, nerves in the stomach, nerves in the bladder among other things. It controls our normal way of being.
Action mode focuses on surviving a danger right now. This is the fight or flight mechanism that our brain when it is in an adverse situation. The response is driven by the sympathetic nervous system. It drives up your heart rate, raises blood pressure, dilates your pupil among other things.
If you look at the stress response of our body, which includes dilated pupils, higher heart rate, blood flow restricted to our digestive system, higher perspiration, dry mouth, you will realize how it is a switch from parasympathetic to sympathetic nervous system. Our long-term survival does not matter at that instant, it is more important to survive this moment of danger. Our body does not need to eat and digest right now so our brain tells the body to stop producing saliva for a while and focus on the thing at hand.
If you look at it, fear hijacks your mind at this point. Telling your mind that it is not an issue is not really going to help you.
If you think that it is problematic, then it is not entirely correct. This response is not a bug, but rather a feature. Your thinking brain makes better objective decisions but it is slow. In front of an approaching tiger, you are not going to sit and calculate its velocity and direction of motion to decide the best possible time to run. You just need to run. This is where this stress response is useful. It makes you more focused and lets you make decisions quickly.
But in the case of a school or an office presentation, you surely do not need higher perspiration, dilated pupils, and a dry mouth. It will be fine enough to present while also digesting the last meal you had.
This is where you need to learn how to manage your fear and stress.
Your brain thought that this is a stressful situation and flips to the sympathetic nervous system. Now you again want to flip the switch to the relaxed mode of being because you think your brain is not good at identifying situations (BTW are you your brain or are you something different over your brain?).
How to not be stressed?
Are you stressed? Just calm down lol.
Well seriously, you need to tell your brain that this is a normal thing and nothing to worry about. To do that, you can make the environment feel more normal. If the brain finds that something is a normal routine for you, then it stops getting stressed about it.
When you first learned to ride a bike, you must have experienced a lot of fear. Over time, this fear subsided and now you cycle as if it is a part of your body. Similar experiences occur for people who were first afraid of public speaking but once they start speaking more frequently, the fear started waning away.
Moral of the story: do what you are afraid of more frequently.
How to turn off your stress response?
But what if you are stressed already?
Again, ask your body to calm down. Here are some techniques that might help:
- Listening to music
This is a passive method of calming yourself down. Music can hugely affect your brain. Listening to calming music reduces your heart rate and makes you calmer.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
A more active form of relaxation, PMR is the practice of tensing one muscle group of your body at a time and then relaxing it. It can be very helpful in reducing stress and anxiety. Useful if you have some time and can lie or sit down.
- Rhythmic Breathing
In rhythmic breathing, you breathe in and out in a certain rhythm that helps in calming down your body and reducing the effects of your stress response. There are multiple breathing techniques such as 4-7-8 breathing (breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, breathe out for 8 seconds) , Box breathing, or 4-4-4-4 breathing (breathe in, hold, breathe out, hold each for 4 seconds). Anulom-vilom and kapalbhati are also some pranayama that focus on rhythmic breathing and help you calm down.
- Mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness is an immense tool to relieve stress and manage anxiety. You can learn to practice mindfulness using many mobile apps (such as Headspace, Atom, Simple Habit) or even YouTube videos.
How do you limit worrying in the first place? Here are some actionable steps.
- Limit social media usage
Social media can encourage you to compare your life with others. Other than that, there is also a lot of negative news and updates on social media that fill your brain with negativity and cause you to worry and stress.
- Cognitive restructuring
It is a technique where you notice your thought patterns, identify and stop any negative thoughts, and create alternate ways to think about them. In essence, you are changing negative thoughts to positive or more hopeful ones.  explains the complete process in more detail.
Writing down your thoughts and feelings on paper is an excellent way to really understand what you are feeling and why you feel so. When you can understand that, then it is easier to take action to stop that feeling of worry.
- Change what you are thinking about
Humans can only think about one thing at a time. Use this to your advantage. Change what you are thinking or worried about and think of something positive. Or take action and do something else. Watch a happy movie, or play a sport, or draw.
- Connect with people
Talking to people is an underrated technique to stop worrying. When you have someone to talk to, someone who is willing to listen to what you are worrying about, then it gets easy to identify what went wrong with your thought process.
- Beat helplessnessSometimes we worry because we feel helpless. To escape that feeling of helplessness, it is advisable to take some action to improve yourself. Clean your room or desktop, take an online course, learn to play a musical instrument, or go for a run. Anything that makes you feel that you are progressing will help.
Whenever you feel stressed or worried about anything, try doing one of these exercises and see how it feels. I would recommend practicing one or two of these exercises every day so that you know how to use them when you are actually stressed. My recommendation would be Progressive Muscle Relaxation and rhythmic breathing since they are both easy to do, and you can feel them calming you down.
Let me know if you practice any of them or any other exercise to calm yourself.