Stress: Proven Ways to Manage and Reduce its Impact

Identifying the source of stress is important for stress relief

Sources of Stress
As intuitive as it may seem, it’s not work, finances, rising inflation, health or relationships that cause stress.  Our stress is often caused by how we feel about these things.  More specifically, it’s our reactions, perspective, attitude and feelings about commonly identified sources of stress that is the root of our stress.  

Ask most people about their source of stress and they are likely to indicate such things as finances, health, relationships or work.  This often leads to problem-solving, brainstorming and other approaches that don’t seem to reduce our chronic fatigue, panic attacks or frequent irritability. 

Persistent stress is more than a lifestyle issue that can be remedied by nail appointments, vacation days or water rafting.  While such activities can be helpful or feel good in the moment, they don’t really make a significant dent in chronic stress which is reportedly on the rise

Stress and Disease Prevention
Learning how to manage overwhelm from prolonged stress is essential to preventing serious health conditions such as asthma, obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and depression.  In fact, stress is also the cause of or significantly impacts inflammation, respiratory conditions such as asthma, gastro-intestinal issues, chronic pain and repeated infections.  However, we can’t very well learn to manage stress if we don’t know its source.

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Stress Relief- Ruminating avoidant behavior

The Role of Emotions in Stress
Because so much of modern life in Western society pits us against acknowledging much less processing our feelings, many of us have no idea where to begin in terms of figuring out how we feel about feelings.  We don’t even know what they are most of the time. 

Fortunately, those who are in therapy or on a path of personal growth are aware that emotions are important.  Understanding the role of emotions in our body’s stress response is the perfect place to start stress management.  It’s not that time-outs, hobbies and relaxation aren’t important in terms of stress management.  Rather, it’s vital that we understand the demands that we place on our body and what it needs in terms of recovery from those demands.

Understanding some of the basic mechanics of  stress responses and being able to discern the operations of our bodies in terms of those responses can help us function at an optimal level.

   Common Signs of Stress

The tricky thing about identifying stress responses is that it’s hard to tell if we are just engaging in regular activity or if we are in a stress response.  Common signs of stress are:

  • Overreacting
  • Prolonged worrying
  • Ruminating
  • Overeating
  • Avoidance
  • Burying yourself in work
  • Feeling “under the weather.”

While many might easily recognize sudden departures from routine behavior, vital to managing stress is to notice the everyday and seemingly rational behaviors that are masking our stress.  For example, when are we “overeating” as a sign of stress?  Maybe we’re just very hungry.  If we come from a family of dedicated eaters who consume large and long meals, maybe this doesn’t look like stress at all.  Worrying may look like and feel like problem-solving and work, well, there are so many social and cultural cues that reinforce work at all hours as a good thing.   Sometimes long hard work is where we find validation.  

Autoregulating with Maladaptive Behaviors
Indeed, working extensive hours is a regular “automated” practice for those with avoidant attachment styles and can feel like a form of self-soothing with its familiar rhythms and rush of satisfaction at the completion of set tasks.  Indeed, a recent study found that those with avoidant and preoccupied attachment were more likely to experience burnout as a result of a deficit in self-esteem that makes them dependent on achievements and external validation. 

So how is one to identify actual stress amongst seemingly acceptable behavior?  The key lies in understanding our emotions and, more significantly, the major role that they play in survival as a part of human evolution.  Anger, fear, joy, sadness, disgust, and surprise are thought to be innate and expressed in the first six months of life. 

To understand these emotions and the role they play as part of the stress response, it helps to understand the part of our brain that plays an essential role in the stress response and the processing of our emotions. 

Stress Relief -Autoregulating at work
Stress Relief -Auto-Regulating Using Work

Identifying Stress Responses
While there are a number of stress responses, the more common ones that can help us understand the body’s physiological reaction to stressful events are fight, flight, freeze and fawn.  These are deeply embedded survival mechanisms that originated with physical threats to safety.  In our modern world, we react the same way to psychological threats, for example, thinking a partner might leave us or that a supervisor won’t like our latest report.

The Science Behind Stress Responses
The goal of these states is to help us defend against threats.  Our evolutionary imperative is to survive, and we do so by eliminating threats.  It is the amygdala that is the link between our emotions and our resulting reactions that lie at the heart of stress.  The amygdala is responsible for activating the flight-or-flight response. It plays a role in how our instinctive behavior and motivation adapts to our environment when alerted to threat. 

Stress Hormones
Under threat conditions, the amygdala transmits signals to our hypothalamus to stimulate the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to release stress hormones.  These are primarily cortisol and adrenaline.  Adrenaline gives us more energy. Cortisol reduces our pain.  (This is why we are sometimes “foggy” in our thinking because cortisol can also shut down our rational thinking).

These hormones cause increased heart rate, rapid breathing and muscle tension.  They shut down all non-essential services such as digestion.  (This is why we sometimes experience “tummy trouble” after immediate danger passes).  That “butterfly” feeling, when we are nervous, is the feeling of blood being diverted from our stomach.  Our racing thoughts are to help us think more quickly.  We might also notice our feet getting cold as blood is redirected to vital organs that are pumping blood to get us to move fast whether that’s to run or to flee. 

Stress Relief -Improve Focus
Stress Relief -Improve Focus

What’s the Right Response?
So, what is freeze? We are still on high alert even if fleeing or fighting are not options as is typical for small children, and in some cases, women (particularly in domestic violence situations).  If this is a situation that has a basis in trauma, it explains why sometimes we do not move despite wishing long after a situation that we had “done something.”  Another stress response that is not as well known, but which might also be common is “fawn.”  A fawn response can kick in when fight, flight or freeze have been unsuccessful.  It is associated with “appeasing.” It is quite common in situations of severe child abuse in which children opt (intentionally or otherwise) for strategies to appease their caregiver or be extremely helpful.  When you are in survival mode, you do what you can to survive.  This is the most adaptive response for children for whom there are few options if the alternative is to fend for themselves without any caregiver.

How are Trauma and Stress Related?
Though in everyday language we might refer to very stressful events as trauma, not all stress would be considered trauma.  Stress refers to the normal physiological response to threatening events.   Stress, in itself, is not a diagnosis.  And in itself, it is not problematic.  Usually when we are talking about stress, we are talking about responses to common life events such as divorce, exams, deadlines and finances.  Chronic stress is problematic, and it occurs when our body doesn’t get sufficient rest in between alarm cycles.  Ideally, we want to discharge the energy accumulated from a stress cycle, repair and restore.  Traumatic stress is a normal reaction to an abnormal event, such as a sexual assault, natural disaster or serious injury.   

Trauma
Any event that involves exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence is considered trauma.  Sometimes therapists who specialize in trauma will refer to developmental or relational trauma.  These are not formal diagnoses in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-V).  It was proposed for inclusion in the DSM-V, following diagnostic criteria developed by Dr Bessel van der Kolk and his colleagues, but it did not make it into the DSM-5.  Neither did racial trauma, but many practitioners who treat clients with this disorder recognize it as having distinct symptoms to warrant a separate disorder.  All of this is to say, it’s not as precise as we would like.  The lines between stressful and traumatic experiences are somewhat blurred.     

PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop after a very stressful or prolonged and distressful experience. You are more vulnerable to trauma if you are experiencing a high degree of stress.  Four of the common symptoms of trauma are (1) Re-experiencing, (2) Avoidance, (3) Hyperarousal and (4) Emotional numbing.  You can have stress AND trauma. 

The Importance of Daily and Consistent Centering

“Accessing our internal landscape is a practice that helps us develop the self-awareness of body sensations and emotions to figure out our stress levels and coordinate a measured response. This is vital to managing overwhelm which undermines our cognitive abilities, true intentions and meaningful connections.”

Recognizing Stress Responses
Recognizing these responses in our behavior is not as straightforward as looking at the behavior of our primitive ancestors.  Though fight, flight, freeze and fawn are evolutionary responses that have been with us since we’ve inhabited the planet, in the modern world, our fight mode, for example, rarely corresponds with hurling a spear.   To identify our responses to psychological threats, we need to discern the emotions and physiological changes that correspond to different states. This is why centering practices that allow us to access inner experience and distinguish between different emotional states are so encouraged by trauma therapists.  For example, discerning irritation, anger and frustration can alert us to our fight response.

Here’s a guide to stress responses that you might be able to detect through routine centering work and other practices that promote awareness of internal sensory states:

FIGHT
In this mode, your body prepares you to respond to the physical demands of having to fight in response to a threat. These responses can alert you to fight mode:

  • Feeling irritation
  • Feeling intense anger
  • Frustration
  • Tightened jaw
  • Feeling a knot in your stomach
  • Being argumentative
  • Clenched fists
  • Feeling the urge to hit someone
  • Making tit for tat barbs 

FLIGHT
The flight response prompts us to leave a dangerous situation. We might respond by physically running away or “metaphorically” leaving as when we “check out.”  It also corresponds with avoidant behavior. These are signs of being in flight mode:

  • Feeling anxious
  • Being scared
  • Uncertainty
  • Worry
  • Fidgeting
  • Restlessness
  • Folding your arms in an argument
  • Staying busy
  • Avoiding interactions

FREEZE
Sometimes we respond with a freeze response when we need to slow down to assess a situation.  It’s associated with a slowed heart rate and muscle tension.  There are nuances to the freeze response that varies from immobility that is akin to a sort of paralysis as in when we experience “stage fright.” If we are physically and mentally unresponsive, it’s sometimes called “flop.”  Animals often freeze when they “play dead.” 

Another freeze response is more orienting as in when we cease eating popcorn during a late-night binge on Netflix to orient ourselves to the sound of a floorboard creaking (especially if we were binging on horror movies).  There’s more activity with orienting compared to flat out freezing.  Identifying a freeze response can be tricky because it sometimes looks like shutting down.  In the classic freeze response, there’s still increased heart rate. 

In a collapsed state there’s what’s known as hypoarousal in which a person slips into being unresponsive. It is a state of dysregulation.  This is something therapists monitor if they want to introduce EMDR and certain other trauma interventions.  So, we can see that stress relief may sometimes take the form of increasing arousal.  

Freeze is a common reaction in cases of sexual assault which can provide some measure of shame, blame or regret, often resulting from a lack of understanding of our involuntary survival reactions.  Freeze is a very intelligent response to a severe threat in which fight, or flight are not options.  Your body will draw on thousands of years of evolutionary wisdom to make the best choice for you to get out of the situation. 

Some signs associated with a freeze response are:

  • Disengaging
  • Sluggishness
  • Holding one’s breath
  • Pale skin
  • Numbness
  • Feeling trapped
  • Feeling disconnected
  • Sense of dread
  • Feeling stiff or cold

FAWN
Placating an attacker, pleading, negotiating or even acting helpful are often misunderstood as not being survival defenses.  They are not signs of consent.  They are also intelligent responses with the sole goal of undermining a threat.  They are instinctive and involuntary responses.  Those surviving a childhood with narcissistic parents may display a fawn response in the face of psychological threat.  Fawn responses are almost always associated with relational trauma, but they are also stand-alone defenses to trauma.  Some signs associated with a fawn response are:

  • Saying “yes” when you really want to say “no.”
  • People-pleasing
  • Lack of boundaries
  • Co-dependency
  • Not letting your needs be known
  • Talking in a whisper, soft voice or baby voice
  • Giving out compliments in an automatic way without reflection
  • Struggling to express yourself and needs
  • Second-guessing
  • Over apologizing
  • Assuming responsibility for others’ reactions and behaviors
  • Rescuing
  • Denying your needs and minimizing your wants or discomfort
  • Children worrying about adult caregiver needs
  • Looking to others as a guide to how you feel
  • Feeling like you have no identity
  • During conflict you seek to appease the angry person
  • Feeling discomfort or confusion when asked for your thoughts or opinion

Daily Centering Practice For Stress Relief

Stress Strategies that Work

Understanding the stress cycle and our physical responses is key to understanding what might actually work to relieve stress.  Some coping responses sound good on paper, but they don’t seem to stop the descent into rapid mood swings, depleted energy, strained relationships, outbursts, erratic behavior, chronic health conditions and the myriad of ways chronic and unmanaged stress takes root in our lives.  It may seem unstoppable.  However, there are proven strategies that help. 

Applying the Science of Stress Responses to Formulate Effective Strategies

Once we understand our own stress responses and how our body creates hormonal and physiological changes to deal with perceived threat, we can focus on counter measures to restore our body to a state of calm and prompt it into recovery mode.  That is where we find meaningful relief and allow the body to repair.  Repair and self-soothing allows us to go about regular operations without the need to slam on brakes or flood the system with fuel to travel a few inches at a time when we need to go the mile. 

Remember, stress responses require energy and that energy is an inherent part of sympathetic nervous system activation.  If there’s no actual threat, that energy must go somewhere.  If we keep it circulating within us, that prolongs our distress.  In the natural order of things, animals that invoke the stress cycle engage in shaking to release trauma in their bodies.  They breathe heavily.  This is the natural way to release energy generated as a defense in order to return the body to homeostasis and routine functioning.  It releases the adrenaline and cortisol after the chase so that the gazelle can go back to grazing when the lion in long gone.  Showing strength by keeping a “stiff upper lip” isn’t really strength after all.  So giving in to that urge to cry after a trigger might be more appropriate to build resilience.  Discharging the unspent energy associated with threat can restore a sense of safety. 

Let Healing Happen
Understanding the significance of the “shuddering” effect, so natural to healing, can help produce better outcomes in therapy as it helps clients retain appropriate expectations regarding progress.  Sometimes we can get in the way of our healing trying to manage the body’s flow by shutting it down. This can occur during EMDR when clients step out of the flow of the session to explain, analyze or resist what is occurring after BLS.

Deep Breathing

We feel safe when we trigger our parasympathetic nervous system, (PNS), the other part of the ANS. 

Deep breathing is one of the simplest practices to activate our PNS where we operate in a state of equilibrium and balance.  Activating the PNS is like hitting the “off” switch when we are stressed.

 

Guiding principles.

  • The consistency of your practice is more important than the particular length of time. 
  • Starting small is a good idea rather than jumping into activities that you cannot sustain.  E.g. If working out doesn’t feel good, then simple morning stretches will suffice as movement. 

Mindfulness Meditation for Stress, Sleep and Anxiety

Check in with yourself on a daily basis

Slow and deep diaphragmatic breathing helps us downregulate particularly if we pause briefly between inhalation and exhalation.  This is the easiest way to regain a sense of control.  Practicing guided meditation on a regular basis with a mindfulness approach is one of the most powerful things you can do to regain control of your life if you suffer from prolonged stress.  Not only are there benefits in the moment, but the long-term advantages are well-known and immense.  Indeed, MRI scans suggest that the amygdala appears to shrink after consistent practice of about two months.  Meditation is also known to have a calming effect on endless worry chatter. You can even kick your meditation up a notch with autogenic training which is a form of self-hypnosis that can foster deep relaxation with therapeutic impact on chronic health conditions.

Your Video on Daily Centering Practice
The video on centering practice demonstrates diaphragmatic breathing in addition to some other aspects drawn from mindfulness practice and positive psychology that strengthen the so-called higher order brain functions of our cerebral cortex associated with attention, focus and concentration.  You can use the direction in the video for a calming effect as a guided meditation.

Breath work can help release trapped arousal energy brought on by stress. This is particularly so if you hold the breath between inhale and exhale and give an extended “push” as you exhale oxygen out of your expanded lungs. The movement combined with soothing responses can make the right meditation an effective stress buster.

Why Daily Centering is So Helpful
Accessing our internal landscape is a practice that helps us develop the self-awareness of body sensations and emotions to figure out our stress levels and coordinate a measured response. This is vital to managing overwhelm which undermines our cognitive abilities, true intentions and meaningful connections.

Finding Time to Heal
Daily centering takes but a few minutes to determine your regular baseline over time and explore your capacity on any given day for the rest of that day, the next hour or the next few moments, depending on your ability.  Ideally, you will do this throughout the day.  Though the guided meditation is several minutes, you can take as short a time as it takes to inhale and exhale to recenter.  That’s the purpose of our involuntary sigh after moments of tension.  You can take that breath in a more directed way to maximize the effect.

You can do this anywhere and at any time you need a reset to check-in with yourself and set your priorities and intentions to your current capacity.

Brief Outline of Your Daily Centering Practice

For maximum benefit, it is ideal that you main a daily practice of centering throughout your day.  Starting out, if you find that you have low motivation or a difficult time getting the ball rolling, start with a few minutes of centering in the morning to start your day.  Checking-in for a moment here and there can really add up to a lifestyle that significantly keeps stress in check.  Here’s a brief outline of the practice set out in the guided meditation:

  • Relax tension.  Relax any tension in your jaw, shoulders and abdomen.  You can visualize “dropping” these three areas or feeling them soften in the rays of a healing light.
  • Slow down.  Bring your attention to slowing your breath through counting in your head using 3-5 seconds to breathe in, pause for a couple of seconds and then 6-10 seconds to exhale slowly.  Give a little “push” at the end of each exhalation.
  • Belly Breath.  On your inhale, expand your belly so that it sticks out as though you were inflating your stomach like a balloon with the air from your inhalation.
  • Find a rhythmic flow.  Shift into comfortable breathing going with the flow of your regular breathing pattern.  Ideally, you are still expanding your stomach on the inhale.
  • Capacity check.  After a period of time in which you feel relaxed, take an “internal temperature” of your energy level using any measurement that makes sense to you to sort how much energy you have available for your day’s priorities.
  • Fitting priorities within capacity.  Set your priorities well within your capability.  Lose any imperative that you *must* complete a preconceived list.  We do not cash checks we cannot pay.  (Don’t overextend. Stay within your “budget” so you have energy on hand for emergencies).
  • Make a commitment.  Set your intention for the day to stay within your comfort zone.

The key is to automate this process and this happens with repetition and consistency.  This entire flow can be done in a minute.  The point is not to rush, but if you need to tell yourself that it can be done in a minute, that can get you started.  It is better to start with the smallest measure of healing than to not start at all.  You can find a minute for yourself. 

As with any new practice, if at any time you are uncomfortable, stop and seek out a licensed health professional.  Sometimes a trauma therapist can help you with modifications to meditation practice to adjust for individual limitations that result from trauma as you heal. 

The Significance of Social Interaction

Theme tune to Cheers by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart-Angelo

“Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came. You want to be where you can see our troubles are all the same. You want to be where everybody knows your name.” 

Other Effective Ways to Manage Stress

To do justice to some of the practices listed here, consult with your therapist.  These are some of the strategies that have provided the most welcomed outcomes for our clients.  Contact us for more information or if you have trouble implementing.  We will elaborate on these further in future posts.

  • Trusting Touch: Being among supportive friends or family helps us regain the connection we lose when we are in survival mode. Restoring this connection through presence and touch can also have a hormonal effect in the release of serotonin and oxytocin.  One exercise is to hug a trusted support for about 20 seconds.  Stay in that mode with your weight supported by your feet on the ground and experience the sensation.  Often, we hug and release in just a few seconds.  Those extra seconds are quite valuable.  If you don’t have a loved one on hand, hug a pet.
  • Social Interaction: Engaging our social system also releases oxytocin, also known as the bonding hormone.  It decreases our anxiety levels and stimulates our innate need to feel connected.  It also allows us to focus outwards which is a particular benefit if we have been ruminating.  Again, consistency and quality are key.  It’s not having a million interactions. It’s having meaningful ones.  They don’t all need to be intimate.  Having warm chit chat with your local barista counts.  Remember the theme tune to Cheers?
  • Creativity: Creativity is also demonstrated to reduce anxiety, depression, and stress.  A systematic review of four arts modalities reported a significant reduction of stress in the participants.  The study indicated that by conceptualizing body, mind, action, and perception as a unity, Music, Dance/Movement, Art, and Drama Therapy, allowed participants to express emotions on a creative and nonverbal level. In another study, 75% of the participants left in a room for 45 minutes with art supplies recorded a lower occurrence of cortisol. 

    Unlike chilling with Netflix, creativity seems to go deeper in terms of active stress relief as a result of “flow” a term coined by Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who stated that a person is at their best when their ‘body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile’.

 

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Below are some links that provide more information on mind-body healing. As always, reach out if you have comments about this journal entry or need more information:

You can find other soundbites related to preparation for therapy here .  Stay in tune with issues related to your well-being and mental health right here in the Urim Recovery Journal updated 2x a week.

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