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Best Stress Management Techniques: Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress

Stress is a natural response to life's challenges and changes, acting as a built-in alarm system for our body and mind (National Institute of Mental Health). Whether the situations are positive or negative, stress kicks in, triggering the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This prepares us for the "fight or flight" response, resulting in increased heart rate, tense muscles, and shallow breathing. In the midst of stress, our minds enter a reactive mode, making clear thinking and focus challenging while clouding our judgement.

Stress often operates in a cycle, where physical and mental stressors amplify each other. Ideally, this cycle should be short-lived, allowing us to swiftly return to our normal routine. However, when stress becomes a constant companion or recovery time is neglected, the cycle can persist indefinitely, taking a toll on our body and nervous system.

Tips for Coping with Stress

What is the stress response?

The stress cycle consists of three stages: alarm, resistance and exhaustion. That is true if the cycle is complete but what happens when it turns into a loop? Let's look at all the stages together.

Stage One.

As the trigger occurs, your senses kick into action. They send signals to a part of your brain called the amygdala. Think of amygdala as your gatekeeper or a spotter. It's like a built-in alarm system that activates when we face situations that demand our attention, whether they are positive or negative.

Stage two.

The amygdala sends a message to the hypothalamus, saying, "Hey, there's something we need to deal with—maybe it's a threat, and we should get ready.”

Stage three.

Stress Response Cycle

The hypothalamus, being the commander or leader, decides on a response. It engages pituitary gland, the messenger between the brain and the rest of the body, to get ready for action by activating your sympathetic nervous system, the “emergency” system to activate the adrenal glands that release adrenaline and cortisol.

Stage four Part 1.

Adrenaline stimulates the cardiovascular system, increasing heart rate, redirecting blood flow to essential organs and muscles, mobilises glucose for quick energy. Cortisol suppresses the Parasympathetic Nervous System (the rest and relax), temporarily shutting down the immune and digestive systems.

So, in simple terms, the amygdala notices something important, tells the hypothalamus about it, and then the hypothalamus decides on a response and communicates that response to the rest of the body through the pituitary gland. This whole process is part of how your body prepares to handle different situations.

Stage four Part 2.

At the same time, the same response that enhances physical reactions impacts your cognitive functions, including those associated with clarity of thought.

  • Cortisol Impact: Elevated cortisol levels during stress affect the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain responsible for executive functions such as decision-making, problem-solving, and focus. This can result in difficulty concentrating and making clear decisions.

  • Amygdala Activation: The amygdala, a region associated with emotions, is activated during stress. This heightened emotional state can overwhelm rational thinking and contribute to a sense of confusion or lack of mental clarity.

  • Diverted Attention: Stress tends to narrow your focus on the perceived threat, diverting attention away from other tasks or cognitive processes. This tunnel vision can make it challenging to see the bigger picture or consider alternative perspectives.

In summary, during stress, your brain's attention shifts more to the emotional and instinctive side (handled by the limbic system) and away from the logical decision-making part (in the prefrontal cortex). It's like your brain is saying, "Okay, quick reactions, we need to survive this!”. You end up leaning more on quick, habitual responses, making it a bit harder to think things through clearly.

Stage five.

At this stage you may have noticed your heart racing, your chest tightening slightly as your

breathing becomes more shallow. This is the stress response in action. And you may have noticed that your brain was not working to its full capacity - you struggle to remember facts, think straight, and maybe you got angry, or upset. Maybe you wanted to lash out or cry.

You inadvertently start reacting to the stress response adding internal stressors such a negative thoughts, like “I can’t cope! This job is killing! How will I ever get through this?”, activating and intensifying the negative emotions like dread.

Stage six.

This is where we begin coping. Coping with stress comes down to your personal choices and habits. Remember, the moment we perceive a threat, stress hormones rush through us, and our primal brain takes over. Most of us try to cope with stress while in this mode. Stress not only drives us to seek short-term "relief" but also makes it harder to flex our willpower or adopt new behaviors. We tend to fall into patterns that are familiar and easy. The brain tends to choose what it knows when faced with uncertainty.

When stressed, we often turn to habits that activate the brain's reward system, leading to the release of dopamine, such as indulging in chocolate, having a glass of wine, binge-watching TV, or scrolling through social media. These activities offer a quick escape from negative feelings, further embedding them in how we cope with stress. The more we engage in these habits during stress, the more our brain associates them with feeling better. These habits act as rapid fixes for our brain, providing immediate distraction or relief without requiring much thought. Over time, these habits become automatic, becoming our default response when stress hits.

What is the Stress Cycle Loop?

Our experience of stress has significantly evolved from the life-or-death situations faced by our ancestors. Unlike them, our stressors are often more psychological than physical, stemming from daily challenges in our work and personal lives rather than immediate threats to survival. The upset boss does not mean that we will be thrown out of the tribe. A missed deadline is not life threatening either.

In today's context, most stress is chronic rather than an immediate physical danger, but our brains haven't caught up with this distinction. Chronic stress often interferes with the natural recovery phase of our stress response

Comfort eating, excessive drinking, or avoiding problems may offer short-term relief, but they reinforce the stress cycle by sidestepping the real issues. This leads to a loop of stress, rumination, and reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms, creating a cycle that's tough to break.

Over time, high levels of cortisol start to interfere with our memory centre, the hippocampus, making it harder to learn and remember things. Prolonged exposure to cortisol can even shrink the hippocampus, affecting not only memory but also emotional regulation.

These stressors can pile up, causing more stress, creating chaos, and impacting your overall well-being. The constant connection between personal and work life makes things even more challenging, creating further stress.

Inadequate sleep, a poor diet, and making unhealthy choices become part of the stress loop, further impacting performance and overall well-being. Emotional distress becomes intertwined with these factors, creating a cycle of challenges that can seem overwhelming.

Breaking the stress cycle involves recognising these patterns, adopting healthier coping mechanisms, and addressing underlying issues. By doing so, we equip ourselves with the tools needed to handle the twists and turns of our changing world and take care of our overall well-being.

So, choose your coping tools wisely. Opt for habits that truly reduce stress rather than those that just distract you momentarily. It's about building a toolbox that supports your well-being in the long run.

Signs that you are stuck in the loop

The workplace is an easy indicator to check if you're caught in a stress loop cycle. See if you exhibit any of these behaviour patterns:

  • Continuously taking on too much work;

  • Struggling with task priorities;

  • Finding it hard to take a break;

  • Fearing failure;

  • Feeling pressured to accept more tasks;

  • Not making time for self-care;

  • Noticing strain on work relationships.

These stressors can pile up, causing more stress, creating chaos, and impacting your overall well-being. The constant connection between personal and work life makes things even more challenging, creating further stress.

How not to cope with stress

These maladaptive coping strategies only prolong the stress, trapping us in a stress cycle loop.

  • Alcohol and sugar may initially provide a sense of pleasure or relaxation by affecting neurotransmitters like dopamine, the subsequent fluctuations can lead to mood swings and increased stress.

  • Binge-watching TV or constantly checking phones, especially before bedtime, can interfere with the quality of sleep. Poor sleep is strongly linked to increased stress levels and a decreased ability to cope with challenges.

  • Social media can trigger feelings of inadequacy and stress through constant comparison with others. The fear of missing out (FOMO) on social events or achievements can contribute to anxiety and stress.

  • Sedentary behaviours associated with excessive TV watching or prolonged phone use can lead to a lack of physical activity. Regular exercise is known to be a natural stress-reliever by promoting the release of endorphins, the body's feel-good neurotransmitters.

  • Immersing oneself in work or constantly staying busy might be a form of avoidance coping. While it provides a temporary distraction, it doesn't address the underlying sources of stress, allowing them to accumulate over time.

In summary, these behaviours may offer short-term relief or distraction, but they often neglect addressing the root causes of stress. Moreover, they can introduce new stressors or exacerbate existing ones, leading to a cycle of stress accumulation rather than effective stress management. Breaking the loop is crucial for preventing chronic stress and promoting overall well-being.

How to break free from the stress cycle loop?

Managing sleep, embracing a nourishing diet, drinking enough water, setting boundaries, releasing emotions, and practicing self-care form the foundation of a resilient stress management strategy.

My favourite Long-Term Strategies for Breaking the Stress Loop:

  • Breathwork techniques like deep breathing exercises or pranayama help regulate your breath, calming the nervous system and reducing stress hormone like cortisol. It’s like a soothing lullaby for our nervous system. It sends a clear signal – "Hey, it's time to relax."

  • Meditation fosters awareness, allowing us to observe, and put a mental pause, creating space between stressors and our reactions without feeling overwhelmed. In addition meditation promotes relaxation and helps us develop the ability of focus by choice. It empowers us to redirect our attention from stress triggers to more productive aspects of life.

  • Hypnotherapy involves guided relaxation and focused attention to help you reach a heightened state of awareness. It teaches your mind how to relax and helps you get to the bottom of your behaviour as a reaction to a certain stress trigger. It then helps you to rewire your brain and adopt a new positive behaviour much faster.

  • Mindset Coaching. Working with a coach can help you shift your perspective, identify limiting beliefs, and develop a positive mindset, empowering you to handle stress more effectively.

Taking care of our mental health is not just a luxury; it's a necessity. It's an investment that pays dividends in both our mental and physical well-being, equipping us with the resilience and clarity of mind needed to face life's challenges.

If you are keep to break the stress cycle for good, then it is important to learn to recognise your stress patterns, find out the root cause and adopt healthier coping mechanisms by rewiring your mindset. The most efficient way in my experience is hypnotherapy.

Remember, just like tending to a physical injury, giving attention to your mental health is a proactive step towards a healthier and more fulfilling life. It's a conscious choice that sets the foundation for long-term success and well-being. So, prioritise your mental health, invest in self-care, and pave the way for a brighter, more resilient future.

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