When a horse, badger, or red panda like the one in the photo above faces a stressful situation, they go into a mode we’re all too familiar with, fight-or-flight. The survival instinct is a powerful force across species. Yet when the danger passes, these animals don’t obsess or replay the event over and over like a broken record. They do something very different from humans—they just drop the whole darn thing like it never happened.
As we know all too well, we hold on to the stress, and, of course, the stress response and its destructive effects on health—reduced immune system, increased levels of the bad cholesterol, and a host of negative effects, because we insist on clinging to the event after it’s gone. The stress response was designed to be momentary, not chronic, because it weakens health the longer it goes on.
If we could be as smart as a red panda, and drop the stress after the adverse event, it could save a lot of trips to the pharmacy and ER. That's the idea behind my stress management classes, training, and coaching. Reframing stress and disputing it is key to catch ourselves in the act of reacting before we think. We can have a differnet response in a stressful moment, one that our body is already prepared to help us with.
It turns out that our bodies have stress deactivation built into the system. It’s called the parasympathetic nervous system, and its purpose is to bring the body back to equilibrium through rest and maintenance.
THE BUILT-IN STRESS COUNTER
There’s no reason to feel guilty in a moment of stepping back. It’s what we’re designed to do! Parasympathetic activity slows the heart rate and blood pressure from the fight-or-flight state, promotes digestion, and puts the mind in a calmer state where it can see the bigger picture, including the fact that we are not about to die and that the stress response is almost always a false emergency. Our brains don't know how to compute the social stressors of the modern world.
Countering the activation of the automatic stress response with its opposite number, rest and maintenance, is crucial for stress management and any semblance of work-life balance. Since stress activation is so automatic, we have to be able to consciously flip the switch. The goal is psychological detachment from the source of the stress and recovery from a state of activation that makes our system work overtime.
Relaxation is a learned skill. We have to practice shutting off the false alarms and get our bodies and minds used to a state other than hyper-arousal. Tape a photo of a light switch onto your computer or refrigerator and use it to mentally turn your workday off when you leave the office.
MAKING THE BREAK
After the work day is over, try setting aside 30 minutes for an activity that will allow you to shift gears and pressure. It could be yoga, listening to music, the gym, a walk, anything that can put your mind in a relaxing trajectory.
Finding a regular recreational activity to practice is a great switch-flipper. Identify three hobbies or pursuits you would like to try out. It could be anything from dancing to pottery or cooking lessons. Activities like these break the psychological vise grip that work issues can have on our brains. They shift focus to the rules of the game, so there is no room for stressful thoughts. Studies show that active recreation builds positive mood, camaraderie, and self-worth, all of which help counter negative loops.
DETACHING FROM TENSION
Researcher Sabine Sonnentag and others have demonstrated that a break from the work state of mind allows recovery from strain and ends the pattern of negative affect that drives pessimism and chronic stress. Studies show that people who are able to detach from the day's work tensions are more likely to report positive mood in the morning and a reduction in stress.
Besides activity and exercise, it's also important to make sure to set aside a few minutes here and there to just relax, like the red panda, a pro in this department. When you are relaxing, you are not doing nothing, if I may use that double-negative, as we are led to believe. You are flipping the switch on stress and providing the rest and recuperative services so normal for skillful functioning that they’re built into our physiology.
If you would like to learn more about how to manage stress and end burnout, check out our online stress mangement classes, held every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. or click the button below for a free cocahing consultation. What's your biggest challenge?