In my last post , I described the stress response using polyvagal theory. This identifies three branches of the stress response that all developed at different times. The oldest branch sends us into freeze mode when there’s a potential threat that’s beyond our perceived ability to handle. The middle branch kicks on fight or flight when there’s a perceived a threat we believe we can handle. The newest branch helps us scan our environment to better evaluate a potential threat and respond accordingly.
What’s really powerful about this deeper understanding of the stress response is the power our perception has over how the stress response impacts us.
If we have a potential threat, and social cues that we trust indicate it’s not a threat, we stay in control and the more protective stress responses don’t kick in.
If we have a potential threat, and we believe we have the ability to handle this threat, we go into fight or flight mode to handle this threat.
If we have a potential threat, and we believe it is beyond our ability to handle it, we go into freeze mode to withdraw from the threat.
Given this information, what can we do to impact the stress response?
Lean Into The Stressors
Since our perception of our ability to handle a threat determines how our bodies respond to it, we need to lean into what we are experiencing and find our power. If we find ourselves avoiding it because we aren’t sure if it’s really a threat or aren’t sure if we can handle it, we might have made this threat seem bigger than it is. Thinking a stressor is bad makes the impact of the stressor worse. In fact, research is showing stress is only harmful for your health if you believe it’s harmful for your health.
Impact Your Physiology
There are strategies we can use to directly impact our physiology. These will aim to lower the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for fight or flight) and engage the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for rest and digest).
The quickest and easiest way to impact out physiology is to focus on our breathing. To engage the parasympathetic nervous system, we need to take deep, slow breaths, and our exhale should be as long as or longer than our inhale. For example, if we inhale for four seconds, we should exhale for four to eight seconds. As we breathe this way, we should focus on expanding our bellies with our inhale.
Impact Your Perception
If how we are perceiving a potential threat is the driving factor in how our bodies respond to it, we need to learn to impact our perception of threats. Some strategies include self-talk and affirmation statements focusing on your ability to handle what you are facing (“this is going to be hard, and I can do hard things”). Repeating a positive or uplifting statement about your ability to handle your stressors will impact the emotions you are experiencing and can help keep the stress response in check.
Mindfulness is also a great strategy for impacting our perception. Mindfulness allows you to shift into neutral or disengage from the cycle of thoughts and reactions. It’s like going from the person in the middle of a stressful event to being a bystander that can see the event is difficult, but isn’t swept up in the stress of it. If you haven’t tried mindfulness before, it’s helpful to listen to audio scripts. You can find some free downloads at this link (http://www.freemindfulness.org/download).
Impact Your Overall Threat Level
Another major factor on your perceived ability to handle a stressor is your overall state of stress. For example, if you have a bucket of water that’s mostly full, it doesn’t take much for your bucket to overflow. If your overall stress level is high, it doesn’t take a large stressor to send you beyond your capacity to manage. If your overall stress level is low, you can handle bigger stressors without overflowing.
To empty your bucket, you can look at eliminating stressors you are facing, but you’ve probably already done that. Another way to look at managing the fullness of our buckets is to find ways to promote a sense of safety. If we feel physically, psychologically and emotionally safe, our bucket expands. Our capacity to manage stress expands.
To promote a sense of safety, we can surround ourselves with good friends and support. We can confide in people we trust. We can give ourselves grace. If your bucket is full, maybe you can relax your expectations of yourself and your performance. This might mean doing less, extending deadlines, or asking for help.
Another way to promote safety is to take a bath. Hear me out on this one. A hot bath can promotes circulation and relieves sore and stiff muscles, allowing your muscles to recover from the stress response. A hot bath also envelopes the body in warmth, like an all over hug, reminding our bodies of the time we spent in the womb (a time we were warm, comfortable, safe, and all of our needs were met).
Can we impact the stress response? Yes we can.
Gordon, B. (2002, October 14). In hot water? Have a bath and relax. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/alternative-medicine/4711987/In-hot-water-Have-a-bath-and-relax.html
Loder, V. (2015, June 4). Can Stress Kill You? Research Says Only If You Believe It Can. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/vanessaloder/2015/06/03/can-stress-kill-you-research-says-only-if-you-believe-it-can/#853aa16682ed.
McGonigal, K. (2015). The upside of stress: Why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it.
Porges, S., (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation. W. W. Norton & Company.
The Free Mindfulness Project. (n.d.). Free Resources. Retrieved from http://www.freemindfulness.org/download