When you are stressed, your body produces adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. Your body is getting signals that you are in danger and the hormones of stress are preparing you to run or defend yourself. There are stories that go along with theses stress hormones and as we repeat these stories to ourselves, we perpetuate the cycle. These are usually stories about self-doubt, scarcity of time or resources, fear of the past or future, etc.
If you have been living with significant stress over time, your body can actually become habituated to these hormones. This isn’t good as the physical effects can include:
- Poor sleep and fatigue
- Slower metabolism and weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Decreased creativity and problem-solving abilities
- Lower productivity
- Depression and anxiety
- Weakened immune response
Once you have the stress habit, even when you start to calm down, those problematic stories will tend to sneak up on you and signal a scary thought just to give your body another shot of cortisol. Body memory is a powerful thing and habits can be hard to break. If you have been an athlete or a dancer or musician, you know that unlearning is much harder than learning. It is possible to retrain yourself though with some intention and discipline.
And guess what? Your body is here to help. When you get yourself present and relaxed, your sympathetic nervous system calms down and your parasympathetic nervous system floods your body with feel-good hormones like endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. That’s the habit that you want to develop in place of the stress response.
How do you do this? First, you have to first identify the triggers. What opens the door to stress? What are those fearful stories? Fear is often attached to thoughts about the past or the future, so getting present breaks the spell. Here are some simple ways of bringing yourself into the present:
- Name five colors or shapes that you can see around you now.
- Repeat to yourself (until you believe it): I’m safe right now.
- Breathe! I know you’re tired of hearing that, but exhale deeply first, then let gravity bring breath back into your body. Do this three times and note how you feel.
- People with significant fear or trauma may have a hard time with meditations that require an empty mind. In that case, I would recommend something guided.
- Tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique)
- EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)
(These last two are topics for another blog.)
It’s not enough to just change your mind. If it were, it wouldn’t really be a problem. You have to bring your body along in order to create lasting change. You break the stress habit by bringing your mind and body together in the present.