What Is Stress Really?

03/25/2015 05:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015
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It's been a tough and stressful winter. Finally day light savings time has arrived and we can slowly watch the snow melt and even imagine warmer days. Last week I thought I smelled a hint of earthiness and it reminded me that time is on our side and green things will grow.

Well this winter it was January and February, not December that did most of us in, but the end is in sight.

We've been stressed thinking about weather, about getting kids to school or hiring a baby-sitter, getting to work on time, avoiding slipping on the ice, etc.

But what is stress really and what can we do to minimize its effect?

When we are faced with danger, our body goes into what is called a flight/fight response. Our brain releases certain chemicals and hormones that help us fight or flee for safety. Our breath and pulse quicken, muscles tense, excess oxygen gets sent to the brain, we become physically stronger than usual and in the short run, our immune system gets a boost. This response allows us to have clear focus, enormous energy and a surge of activation which is the good news when we actually need it.

However chronic stress has a negative effect. We become tired, have difficulty sleeping, suffer with poor concentration, get head and back aches, become irritable, anger and agitated.

So sometimes the stress response is useful for our performance, safety and survival, but much of the time we create a stress response when there is only a perceived danger. Legend has it that Mark Twain said something to the effect of having his life endangered by things that never even happened.

Our stress is often caused by worry and ruminating. Our mind tells us stories that are not necessarily so, and then we react as if we are in real danger. Our worrying thoughts often start with worries about what might happen and take off to joining Mark Twain in disasters that are only of our imagination.

What can we do to worry less and diminish our stress response from getting activated when it is not useful for creating a feeling of safety and/or actual physical survival?

How we can manage our thoughts to minimize stress:

1. Awareness is always the first step. Become mindful of the way your mind is telling you stories, predicting negative outcomes, sending self-critical messages and seeing only negative outcomes.

2. Once you are aware that this is what your mind is doing, we need to immediately stop the thought. interrupt the thought and tell ourselves that this is not a useful story.

3. Ask yourself what other story, or outcome of your circumstance would be more realistic and more optimistic.

4. Talk to yourself now with the voice of an Inner Coach that sees realistically, neutrally, with calm and encouragement.

How we manage out breathing goes a long way to help us calm ourselves down.

Here are three breathing techniques that work. Practice them for creating a calm nervous system and countering your stress response:

1. Mindful breathing: Sit quietly and put all your attention on your breath. Follow the breath like it is a raft flowing down river. Feel the sensations of your breath going in your nostrils and sliding downward towards your belly and then follow the sensations of your breath upward. When your mind distracts you, just gently come back to awareness of your breath. Do this for 5 minutes if you can.

2. Deep belly breathing: Slowly fill yourself up with breath. Feel your chest expand and then your belly. When full up, slowly release your breath, first feeling it leave your belly, move up through your chest, your throat and out your nostrils. Move slowly with this breath, not forcing anything but looking to gently fill up. Do this many times.

3. Breath counting: breath in to the count of two (each count being about two seconds). Breathe out to the count of two. Breathe in to the count of two and out to the count of four. Breathe in to the count of two and out to the count of six. Breathe in to the count of two and out to the count of eight. Repeat.

It's also important to find what additional supports work for you. It might be exercise, talking with friends, playing music, gardening (won't that feel good when we can?), making pottery, and other activities that you experiment with for relaxation.

For more information on stress management, resilience and the development of your Inner Coach: