In her book “well stressed” Sonia Lupien describes our stressors as mammoths. This is a reference to the evolutionary flight or flight response we have to perceived threats. In essence it implies that a minor but frustrating event (like a traffic jam) can be perceived as life threatening and trigger an emergency response. Once we realise that the traffic jam we’re stuck in isn’t going to kill us, our body restores itself back to normal.
This process of triggering an emergency response and restoring normalcy can be exhausting and when this cycle is repeated consistently, it can lead to chronic stress. So how can we avoid this cycle so our brains don’t look like this everytime something mildly anxiety-inducing happens to us?
Get others to help: Studies have found that social support reduces stress levels, if you find that your social support network is lacking, volunteering can always help.
Use your body to calm your body: Our bodies are capable of creating a robust response to perceived threats and thus also have mechanisms in place for reestablishing equilibrium. Lupien emphasizes the importance of breathing:
The best way to use your breathing to diminish your stress response is to do what I call “belly breathing.” The goal is very simple. Allow air to enter your body through your mouth or nose with the idea of filling your belly up with as much air as possible—making it stick out. That's it! That's the whole thing. There's no need to strike a fancy yoga pose. You can do this exercise while driving, during a meeting with the management committee or your boss, at the coffee machine with Jenny or while giving your kids a bath!
Breathing helps because, when you breathe in, your diaphragm expands and triggers a parasympathetic response (the mechanism that reverses your stress response)
Use music! Our breathing syncs with the music we’re listening to. If we’re listening to music that has slow beats, our breathing slows down, allowing in more air and thus diaphramic breathing.
Use your energy: When a stress response is created by our bodies, a large amount of energy is mobilized, if this energy is not used consistently, it will lead to a chronic stress response. Your body might be producing enough energy to help you kill a mammoth while you’re stressed about an exam – this energy needs to be used. The only way to use it is to get moving!
If Nothing Works, Flee the Mammoth: Lupien explains that simply leaving the situation helps. Contrary to the popular idea of ‘facing your challenges head on’, you can simply leave (if the situation allows this) if you feel a stress response building up.
Our stress response is an evolutionary survival response which means its necessary for our survival. If we didn’t get stressed, we’d never run out of a burning building! Its always going to be a part of our lives, so let’s start facing it!
Sanjana has recently graduated with a degree in Psychology and is interning at The Thought Company to gain more knowledge and experience on her path to becoming a mental health professional. She is interested in understanding what makes people resilient in the face of adversity. She has a knack for cooking, origami and re-reading Khaled Hosseini books. Her favourite way to de-stress is watching a Pixar movie curled up next to her dogs. If she could be any Pixar character, she’d be Remy from Ratatouille!