5 Steps to Managing Your Response to Chronic Stress

Today’s world is a stressful world.

We work extra hours in order to pay ever-growing bills.  We drive our children to activities all over town and stay up late to complete even more work or–if we’re lucky–spend some quality with our partner.  Meals are on the run and often unhealthy.  We drink caffeine to make up for our lack of sleep and drink alcohol at the end of the day to unwind from all the hustle and bustle.

This stress has a tremendous impact on our health.  In the long term, it increases our risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and obesity.  Immediately, it compromises our productivity and our ability to creatively problem-solve.

The culprit behind all of these effects is the fight-or-flight response.  This is a primitive mechanism in which the subconscious mind alerts our body to a potential threat.  When the mind receives this alert, it triggers the production of stress hormones–especially adrenaline and cortisol.

These stress hormones cause elevated heart rate and breathing, as well as tunnel vision, hearing, and understanding.  The more this response intensifies, the less able we are to see situations clearly and creatively problem-solve.  The fight-or-flight response causes a feeling of being rushed, of always trying to beat the clock, as our productivity and focus decrease.

So how can we counteract, minimize, or even stop and prevent this stress response?  There are a number of lifestyle factors that can help protect our mind and body from the immediate and delayed effects of chronic stress.

These lifestyle choices include:

1.  Get at least 8 hours of sleep.  Right now, we are a nation in the middle of a sleep crisis.  Our bodies require sleep in order to recover from the effects of chronic stress.  Furthermore, lack of sleep is interpreted by the mind to be a direct threat on survival, which triggers the fight-or-flight response.  Make sleep a priority, and you will see your creativity and productivity increase.

2.  Drink lots of water.  Not only are we sleep-deprived, we are also dehydrated.  Caffeine, alcohol, and sugary drinks deplete our bodies of water.  Sipping water throughout the day instead can be calming to the body and mind and help prevent the mind and body from going into the survival mode of fight-or-flight.

3.  Eat high protein meals and snacks.  Hunger triggers the fight-or-flight response, so snacking during the day will minimize this.  Eating high protein meals helps the brain produce serotonin and keeps blood sugar levels stable.  Eating sugar and refined carbohydrates causes blood sugar to spike, leading to energy crashes and the fight-or-flight response.

4.  Take mini-breaks throughout the day.  Take a few minutes each hour–or at least twice a day–to focus on the present moment and calm your body.  Practicing breathing techniques and deep relaxation can bring the body out of fight-or-flight and help you to refocus and stay creative and productive.

5.  When you observe the response, stop and breathe.  If you notice your body going into the fight-or-flight response, stop what you are doing and take a short break.  Focus on your breath, counting to 7 when you inhale and counting to 7 when you exhale.  Consciously relax your body.  Notice areas of tension when you inhale and relax those areas when you exhale.  Remind your mind that it is safe.  Even thank it for the “alert,” but assure it that there is no threat at this time.

Most people are in some level of fight-or-flight most of the time.  As you learn to minimize and even stop this response, you will observe that time is moving slower.  You will suddenly be less busy than those around you, yet you will be getting more done.

You also notice that you are more understanding.  You will experience fewer conflicts, as you will be able to clearly and objectively understand the situations surrounding you.  You will likely notice an increase in your ability to solve problems and in your creativity.

Learning to manage stress and take care of yourself could be the best thing you can do to help yourself grow in the workplace, in your relationships, and in life!


This is a guest post by Bethany.

Bethany blogs at http://onlinetherapyandcoaching.org , where she helps people deal with chronic stress and other issues through her blog, e-courses, and individual e-mail, chat, or Skype sessions.