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Not many of us think of stress as something to be appreciated, but the truth is, stress reactions fire us up for peak performance in moments of crisis and danger and increase our probability of survival in life and death situations.

Unfortunately, the stress reactions that make a lot of sense when hunting (or running from!) a large animal don’t offer much of an advantage when lineups at the DMV get your heart rate pounding or when a business meeting has you wanting to jump up and bolt.

Uncontrolled stress does more harm than good in most modern lives, but we still need adrenalin spikes for moments of legitimate danger. Fortunately, if we learn a bit more about how stress works and about what’s going on in our bodies during a stress response, we can learn to outsmart stress when it’s not needed and minimize its negative impact on quality of life.

To beat stress we need to:

  1. Understand stress and be able to recognize the physical signs of a stress response
  2. Counter or exhaust the physical processes associated with a stress response

Do You Know What Stress Feels Like? Learn to Recognize the Physical Signs of Stress

So you’re at the office and a coworker’s sloppy work is putting the success of your morning presentation in jeopardy... You start feeling some stress. You don’t know it yet, but your body has gone into fight or flight mode and is marshaling physiological resources to either flee or attack.

But while you may want to attack your under-performing colleague, you probably shouldn’t or won’t – so really, you’re building up a surplus of emergency energy that has nowhere to go.

So what’s happening and why?

  • Heart – Your heart rate increases, arteries constrict to increase blood pressure and your veins expand to accelerate the return of blood to the pump. More blood is pumped to the muscles of the extremities for quick or powerful actions.
  • Lungs – Breathing simultaneously quickens and deepens as the throat and nostrils also expand to allow for greater air flow. All to get more oxygen into the blood traveling to the muscles.
  • Energy – Your liver produces sugar energy and bodily fat stores are transformed to sugar for an energy surge in the bloodstream.
  • Digestive Processes – Processes involved in the digestion and excretion of food slow or stop and less blood travels to the kidneys, stomach and intestines. You may experience dry mouth or a need to urinate/defecate as a result.
  • Sensory processes – Your senses heighten as you prepare to run or fight. Pupils dilate to improve vision, the hairs on your skin stand erect to improve your sense of touch and your brain releases endorphins to improve your focus and to reduce sensations of pain.
  • Skin – You start sweating as a prophylactic cooling method and your skin vessels tighten to reduce blood loss in the event of an injury1

So as your stress response builds you start sweating, your heart pounds, your breathing intensifies and accelerates and a host of other processes combine to make you into the fastest runner or fiercest warrior you’re capable of being.

But that’s not much help at the office, so what are you supposed to do when you recognize the physical signs of stress?

2 Ways to Overcome Stress – "Burn It Off" or "Soothe It Down"

Too much stress does bad things to the body and definitely affects overall quality of life. You’ll never eliminate stress from your life, but you can learn techniques that help you to manage stress a little better and to reduce its impact.

Stressful times are coming, whether you like it or not – but if you can learn to burn off or tame stress in a few minutes, instead of letting stress affect you for hours, you greatly reduce its harmful consequences. Two ways to accelerate your stress recovery are to:

  1. Burn it off with vigorous activity
  2. Tame it with conscious calming exercises

1. Burn it off – Your body’s stress response readies you for a short burst of intense activity – so why not give your body what it’s looking for and take 10 minutes or so to burn off some energy.

Feeling stressed at the office? Excuse yourself for a few minutes and go for a vigorous walk around the block. You’ll burn off some of the energy you’ve marshaled to ‘fight or flee’ and you’ll calm your mind down enough to arrest the continuation of the stress reaction. Not a fancy solution but an easy and very effective one.

2. Tame It – Sometimes circumstances don’t allow you a brief exercise break. In such situations when you can’t bleed off that extra energy (like during a business meeting, for example) you might try conscious calming exercises as a way to arrest and reverse some of the physiological changes of the stress response.2

Stress causes accelerated respiration and heart rate. By doing deep breathing exercises you can slow your respiration and heart rate and by doing so you signal to your body that any danger has passed and that it can revert to normal functioning.

Try taking a number slow deep breaths and flexing and relaxing the muscles of your stomach and legs and arms. If you can, try counting slowly to 5 as you inhale and again counting slowly to 5 as you exhale.3

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Page last updated Jun 27, 2015

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