A lot of things happen when we’re stressed. When feeling threatened, our bodies produce more cortisol and adrenaline – stress hormones – which rouse the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper – the ‘fight or flight response (1). Great for our ancestors when they had to quickly flee the scene because of a roaming wild animal – not so great these days as this same reaction is triggered more often and for longer while our minds go into overdrive down a spiral of worst-case-scenarios.
One way to manage stress practically and mindfully is to work on your self-awareness, which can even help reduce overwhelm and worry over time. This might sound like it’s not as effective in terms of quick-relief but is, in fact, a very useful tool to help you recognise the signs of upcoming stresses, work with them, and eventually release them. Observing your habits and behaviours is the first step to understanding them and changing them.
You can do this on your own with a piece of paper. Alternatively, you can share this with a friend or family member. Sharing this process with people you love can be useful as they can help you notice your triggers and may suggest practices they know would work for you.
How to deal with stress: Signs and questions
1. What makes you stressed?
It may seem scary but drawing your attention to the things that might push you over the edge can help you put coping mechanisms in place before it all gets overwhelming. We’re actually incredibly attuned to the things that make us stressed, so be mindful about what they are, notice them.
2. How do you know you’re stressed?
We all have tell-tale signs we’re getting stressed, but we so often ignore them. Listing them actually helps us become more aware of them. As we’re always on the go, a handy way is to keep a note in your phone and list the things that you notice happen right before you get stressed and when you’re stressed. For example, some people get tension in the neck, nightmares or feeling like they need to be isolated from the world.
3. What are my unhelpful coping strategies?
We all have reactions to stress that we know aren’t helpful. Some of these, like withdrawing from friends and family, can be signals that we are stressed and haven’t noticed. Others are just downright counterproductive – think binge-eating, binge-drinking, smoking more etc. When you’re stressed, it’s best to not indulge in ‘temporary fixes’ like sugar, caffeine, alcohol drugs or tobacco. These just confuse your body more, disrupt your sleep and heighten your anxiety – not the routine you want to settle into when you’re trying to deal with stress! When you find yourself drawn to one of your quick fixes, notice that urge and choose a practice from your list in the next step.
4. What are my helpful coping strategies?
For some reason, we are less likely to do the things that we know help when we’re in the middle of a crisis. Reminding yourself that you feel much better when you go for a run/see your friends/go to yoga/read a book makes it more likely you’ll turn to a helpful and healthy practice when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Try relaxing and soothing home remedies like herbal teas, long warm magnesium-rich baths and or a guided relaxation. I’ve even suggested people record voice memos to themselves when they feel really good after doing something that makes them feel better – your own voice telling you to go do it can be a powerful tool.
We get so caught up in the stress and the “I’m too busy to do the one thing that would make me feel better”-ness of it all that we don’t do what we know works and instead turn to the things that make us feel worse. This simple and effective exercise can really help to nurture your self-awareness and help you learn to recognise the signs of overwhelm and take early action in order to combat stress. You got this.