THE BLOG

Taming Your Stress Response

04/01/2012 08:56 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2012

What is the human stress response and why is it important?

When we talk about stress today, we are usually referring to the pressures we experience in daily life. These can be the pressures to earn a living, pay our bills, meet the demands of raising a family, live up to the expectations of people around us or care for aging parents. They can be daily pressures, such as a traffic jam, disrespectful co-workers or being asked to do things we're not good at. They can come from the environment -- poor lighting or noise -- and from our minds.

We experience stress when we perceive something as threatening. The threat may be to our life or well-being, but it can just as easily be a threat to an important relationship or our standing at work.

People are unique in that in addition to physical threats, we can experience social and psychological threats as stressful. And this is important. The human stress response developed as a survival mechanism. If you've ever been threatened and felt that rush of strength and energy that made you more physically capable than you have been at other times, then you've experienced the body's stress response. We hear about it in news stories about people who rescue someone by lifting a heavy object, like a car.

To help us survive physical threats, our bodies send extra amounts of energy to our muscles. During a stress response, our senses can become sharper and we can gain physical strength and power. The problem with the human stress response today is that it is so often activated when we are sitting in traffic, on the phone, behind a desk or in some other way inactive. Our bodies prepare for action, but action isn't required by most of the stressors we face today.

The result of experiencing stress without an outlet for the energy of the stress response can be debilitating. Worry, moodiness, self-criticism, sweating, irritation, muscle tension and pain, difficulty focusing, a pounding heart and headaches are some of the symptoms of stress. When you don't have an outlet for the energy caused by your body's stress response, these symptoms can stick around and interfere with your ability to live your life.

If you have recurrent symptoms of stress, are stuck in negative emotion, are frequently physically exhausted or escape from stress in unhealthy ways (say by eating too much, or spending money you don't have), then you need strategies to respond to early signs of stress, cope with life events that contribute to stress, change thoughts that make stress worse and calm the body's stress response.

Try This:

The first step to leading a less stressed-out life is to become aware of your own individual response to stressful life events. The next time you find yourself getting stressed, take note of your body and your mind. Start at the top of your head and slowly sweep your attention down your body. Notice tension, fatigue, aches, pain, jitteriness and jumpiness. Is your heart pounding? Do you feel shaky or is your jaw tense?

Now notice your thoughts. Are you worried? Are you self-critical -- thinking of how you should be different -- or critical of others? Have the pace of your mind and your thinking accelerated in the same way that your heart rate has?

This first step doesn't involve trying to change your reaction in any way. In the beginning, you want to become more aware of all the ways that you react to the pressures that you experience. You will want to know yourself well enough that you can predict how your body and mind will react when stressed. Predictability on its own will decrease the body's stress response. When stressed, you want to be able to say to yourself, "There it is, again, I'm feeling tense and am clenching my jaw." The better you know yourself, the more quickly you will be able to respond to early signs of stress and the better you will be able to choose coping strategies that are effective for you.

You can find more strategies to improve how you feel in my new book, The Stress Response and by clicking here to sign up for more of my tips and podcasts using DBT strategies to improve how you feel.

For more by Christy Matta, M.A., click here.

For more on stress, click here.