Often we think of stress as something that is happening to us: too many demands, situations that aren’t resolving as we hoped, or a series of unfavorable events. However we might benefit from seeing stress in a different light, as how we react to events, rather than how events are happening to us.
Our body provides us with one underlying mechanism to address emergencies or ‘stressful’ situations. When challenging events happen, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) becomes activated. At its core, this system is designed to focus our energy to manage potentially life-threatening situations. When faced with a difficult or ‘stressful’ situation, a cascade of neurochemical messengers and hormones signal our heart to begin racing, our pupils to dilate, our digestive system to slow and our mind to more narrowly focus upon danger. This response is more fitting to being surprised by an animal in the jungle rather than to reacting to ‘stressors’ of the modern day like needing to balance a checkbook, or organizing a busy workday. Many ills of our modern day can be attributed to an overactive SNS –flailing to address crises or stressors with a system built for different types of demands.
But there is a solution. The mind and body are equipped with a cognitive ability to reappraise threats and a parasympathetic nervous system (PNAS), which can turn-off the SNS with a relaxation response. Good stress management can be understood as using our reasoning to realistically appraise the demands in our life, and most importantly, building our ability to activate our PNAS. With our patients we try to formulate specific goals for recreation, physical activity, enjoyable social connections, and practiced relaxation such as deep breathing or meditation; all of which strengthen the PNAS.
There are many good books on resilience and stress management, some of which you might recommend in comments. One I would recommend is ‘Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers’ by Robert Sapolsky. Now in it’s third edition, the book provides a very accurate scientific description in a fun easy to read format.
I would like to hear from you about strategies you have found helpful to manage stress and develop your 'relaxation response'.