During high levels of stress, a number of internal processes may be enacted with the intention of getting you out of harm’s way and back to a position of safety. Within a matter of seconds, your body will ramp up your heart rate to feed oxygen-rich blood to the parts most crucial to your defense. This can produce uncomfortable sensations, and here lies the difficulty with managing the modern high-stress world we live in.
Such biological reactions may be very appropriate to the threat of an attack from a wild animal, and in situations of actual danger, they may very well save your life. But, in the modern context, it is rare for us to require such a dramatic response. However, this is still exactly what happens in answer to all manner of daily worries—when that deadline is looming, if you just cannot face the grueling morning commute, or when that unexpected bill lands in your lap. Thankfully, there are many strategies you can use to help make coping with stress easier.
Coping with Stress – Short-term Strategies
Awareness is the first step. If you recognize what is happening and when, these short-term steps may help bring relief.
Breathe calmly and deeply—Become aware of your breathing, and work to bring each breath under control. This is a powerful technique that targets one of the parent causes of many other uncomfortable symptoms. Slow, deep breathing will bring down your heart rate and arrest the attack before it has a chance to develop.
Acknowledge and accept—It is important to understand that the majority of cases of extreme stress are caused not by a real and present danger but, rather, by your thoughts and projections into the future. The idea of what might happen in a given situation can set in motion a chain reaction of thoughts that take hold of your senses and trigger the onset of physical symptoms. By observing what is happening in reality, you can acknowledge the situation for what it really is and accept that you are having a fear response to something that is perhaps not anywhere near as dangerous as your thoughts would have you believe.
Coping with Stress – Long-term Strategies
The best time to prepare for situational stress is when you are relaxed, calm and centered.
Mindfulness—You can use mindfulness in both the long and short term. It works perfectly in conjunction with controlled breathing. Mindfulness is a wonderful technique for managing the stressful aspects of modern life and their impact on your mood. The key to achieving a state of mindfulness is to guide your attention to the present moment.
Focus your attention on what is happening in and around you. If you are practicing deep breathing, concentrate on the rise and fall of your chest, the sensation of air passing through your nostrils as you inhale and exhale. You can also count in your mind—1 as you inhale, 2 as you exhale, 3 as you inhale, and so on to the count of 10, then start again from 1. If you are in a position to do so, close your eyes, and direct all your attention to the sounds you can hear. Armed with mindfulness techniques and a little practice, you will find this a great way to cope with stressful situations in general.
Identify troublesome thoughts—Learn to spot the thoughts that trigger your responses to stress. Perhaps particular subjects fill you with fear, or the idea of certain situations makes you feel anxious. Write these thoughts down, and challenge them. “Why should I feel so scared about X or Y?” “Is the way I feel about a given situation in proportion to reality?” Keep a thought diary or journal, and take a moment each day to go through any thoughts that have made you feel apprehensive. As you learn to identify the thought patterns that act as triggers, you’ll find that coping with stress gets easier.
Speak to a therapist—Sometimes, we all need a helping hand. If you feel overwhelmed by your responses, a therapist can help you get to the root of the issues and find strategies that work for you.