When things are tough and we feel stressed, sometimes we just want to switch off and ignore it. But doing this doesn’t make the problems go away and can often make them worse as we fail to deal with them.
Ignoring the warning signs that we are stressed or that our ways of coping are unhelpful, and trying to carry on regardless, means that we do not become familiar with our own individual stress response. This information is important as it can be used to cope better in the future, bounce back more quickly and find new skills and strategies that can strengthen us for future challenges and difficulties.
Here we examine four key factors that can impact on our stress response, which if we notice them early can help us manage stress better as it arises. These are our ability to recognise the triggers and early signs and symptoms of stress; our coping behaviours and in particular the ways these can be unhelpful and can keep stress going; our thinking styles which can keep us hooked into a negative perspective, and changes in our self-care behaviours which can undermine our ability to cope.
Triggers, signs and symptoms
Your own individual stress response is unique to you, moulded from your past experiences of threat and challenge and linked to your values and your insecurities. Each instance is also hugely influenced by what else is also going in your life at that time. What triggers the stress response for you and how it manifests itself in physiological changes, emotional responses, thinking patterns and behaviour will influence your ability to cope effectively and bounce back.
Knowing your own triggers, signs and symptoms gives you advanced warning of stress so you can put in place strategies to manage them better. It gives you the chance to make a choice about how you want to respond. Changes in your physical sensations such as your breathing rate, muscle tension, churning stomach or elevated heart rate can be warning signs that something has triggered your stress response. See if you can track back to what the trigger was. Perhaps it was something that someone said, or a fear of not completing a task for a deadline. Note down triggers as they happen, keep a notebook with you or jot them down on your phone.
The more aware you are of your own particular triggers for stress and the earlier you notice something is happening, the quicker you will be able to use emotion regulation strategies like relaxation, mindfulness or deep breathing to calm your bodily reactions and clear your thinking.
Stress is a useful survival tool, evolved to protect us from harm by preparing us to fight or flee. Sympathetic nervous system arousal associated with this fight or flight response is adaptive and protective designed to help us cope with danger, to survive. However, in the modern day, our bodies can’t tell the difference between being chased by a dangerous animal and too many emails.
When we perceive a threat we may try to find ways of escaping the situation: making excuses, avoiding, procrastinating and putting things off. We might argue back or threaten others who make us feel this way. We might try to ignore our emotions by suppressing them or avoiding thinking about them. Or we might spend too much time ruminating about the situation without ever finding a solution. These ways of coping may seem helpful in the short term but can ultimately be unhelpful having unintended consequences that can contribute to further stress.
Understanding our own ways of coping, and evaluating whether these protective strategies might have unhelpful consequences, can help us to find more adaptive and helpful strategies. Facing our fears is one way of coping that you may have heard about. Similarly, contacting the present moment by using mindfulness exercises can help us to step back, re-evaluate and take stock of a situation. As we calm our physiological response to stress we free our brains up to problem-solve and think more clearly about the best course of action to take. Similarly talking things through with other people can help us to step back, calm down and find alternative more helpful ways of coping.
In modern life we encounter many situations that we perceive as threatening, which generally aren’t really mortally dangerous to us. However, when our brains tell our bodies that we are in danger, our bodies produce the stress hormones that kick start the reactions we need to prepare us for ‘fight or flight’. Recognising your negative thinking patterns when you are stressed can help you to tell the difference between real and perceived threat
Through noticing negative thoughts, recognising negative thinking patterns, writing them down and analysing whether thinking this way is helpful or not, you can learn to see things differently. Try looking at the evidence for and against your thoughts. Are there other ways of thinking about this or seeing this situation? How would a friend see it? Are you being overly hard on yourself or only seeing the negative? Thinking more flexibly in this way, looking at different ways of viewing a situation and finding more balanced ways of seeing it can help you to feel differently about it.
When we are under pressure or facing difficult or challenging situations it is common for us to feel like we don’t have time for the things we usually enjoy. It feels hard to prioritise things we do for pleasure when there is so much else to do, but research tells us that we need these activities more when we are stressed than at other times. Noticing that we are putting activities we enjoy on the back burner, or not doing the things that keep us healthy and connected with other people, are useful early warning signs that we are starting to feel under pressure.
Spending some time working out how you balance the different demands in your life, how you take time to recover from work or other pressures, and planning time to spend on activities that you love will help to build your resilience and future proof you against stress. Make sure that caring for yourself remains high on your agenda even when you are experiencing high levels of pressures and demands. Your resilience depends on you being able to look after yourself.
Stress doesn’t have to be the negative, all-consuming emotion that it is commonly perceived as. By learning to recognise your response, you can give yourself a choice about how you react and allow yourself to take control and react in a more positive way. Our training programmes are designed to help people do this, as well as building their resilience in other ways. Contact us for more information.