Dealing with Stress, Part I

Ok. I really don’t have to tell you what stress is. Stress is that feeling of tightness, of being choked up, of being between a rock and a deadline, right? Stress is that feeling you get when you don’t have enough time in your day, or when you’re weathering a storm at work that is beyond your control, or when you realize that exam you thought was next week is tomorrow.

Stress is not always bad. The feeling creeps up when you get called in for a terrific role (stage-fright is actually just an acute and extreme form of stress – we’ll talk about that in Part II), or when you are being interviewed for a promotion, or you find out you and your partner are expecting a child (okay maybe that last example bends towards all out panic… we should just stick to stress for this post I think).

But the weird and very annoying fact is that most of the time stress does NOT aid us in fixing a problem we are having or give us an extra boost of clarity or charm. Instead, it leaves us grouchy, tongue-tied, and heading for the Tums in the medicine cabinet. Over a lifetime it ages us, makes us more susceptible to strokes and heart attacks as well as circulatory problems, insomnia, depression, general anxiety disorders, IBS, and a host of other very serious issues that reduce our quality of life.

So why do we react with stress to the inevitable challenges in our lives when the reaction only seems to do more harm than good? It turns out there is a very real and healthy instinct we are born with that often leads to what we refer to as stress. It is called the Fight/Flight/Freeze response.

Ever heard of it? Most people have somewhere in high school biology or on Jeopardy or read an article about it sometime in their lives. (This is the same as the “Fight or Flight” response, but I prefer to add Freeze as a third element and you’ll see why in a minute.) You probably see the Fight/Flight/Freeze response all the time and just never stop to think about it. Ever caught a squirrel off guard? There they are, going about eating their acorn, and all of the sudden you lumber by. What is their reaction? They tense up, freeze for about a half second, and then fly up higher into the trees. (Although there is a squirrel in my building who once came at me at full speed – I was holding a peanut-butter sandwich at the time so that may have had something to do with it). The term “deer caught in the headlights” also sums up Fright/Flight/Freeze. The deer freezes when it realizes that your car is barreling down at it at 60mph, and then (hopefully) it bolts off into the night.

Humans also experience this same response–specifically in the hypothalamus in close association with the limbic system of our brains. And in fact, if it had not been for our ancestors possessing healthy Fight/Flight/Freeze responses, we probably wouldn’t be here today.

See, here’s the problem. You aren’t running from tigers or stalking antelope for your survival. But, when your boss storms through your door red-faced, carrying the report you put on his desk yesterday, this survival instinct kicks in. Chances are your first instinct is to freeze and contract in, holding your breath–and this is natural. You suddenly feel the urge to be aggressive and over-reactive. The problem is that from this state, though your instinct might be to fight or run away, your higher brain function knows that these actions will result in the loss of your job and keeps you in check, frozen on the spot. You’ve over-ridden your body’s natural response to danger and so where do you end up? Stressed out, you’re blood pressure rising, stuttering, and unable to clarify what you meant in your report in the most articulate manner. It’s as if you’ve pulled up the parking break on your whole neuro-muscular system.

So is there any hope for us? How do we release the parking break? How do we reduce the stress in our lives, not AFTER the fact, not twice a week at Yoga or when we’re on vacation, but right now in the moment when we need to be cool-headed and at our best?

The first step is to stop. Once this reflex takes hold we want to react! Give yourself some space or room in this moment to not react right then. This isn’t a denial of your emotional state or a squelching of your instinctual reactions, it is only meant to be a pause. When you pause, you give yourself a choice on how you’d like to react.

Second, in the space you are giving yourself (and this space can be as short at a few seconds) become aware of what is happening in your thinking and in your body in this moment without judgment. Observe your breathing (are you breathing?) and pinpoint exactly where are the places you are tightening up (what is your jaw and your neck doing at that moment??).

Finally, allow your neck and shoulders to soften, allow your clenched fist to release. Come back to yourself. Again, with practice all of this can be done in a second or two.

Now respond. Did you notice I didn’t say “react”? Because you no longer are reacting. You are making a choice on how to proceed.

Easier said then done, you say? I agree. Beyond this, we need to look at the mechanics of the Fight/Fight/Freeze response. What is actually happening to us, anyway??? Is there any to turn this reflex around and use it to help us perform better? The answer is yes.

Stay tuned for part II.

Has this article been helpful to you? Have other ways to deal with stress? Questions? Interested in learning more? Leave a comment below.