The Simple Mental Shift That Reduces Stress
How to reappraise situations and avoid going into full-blown “fight or flight” mode.
I recently found myself standing on the side of the road while my three-year-old son was kicking his legs and screaming his lungs out. It was a Monday morning and I had a To-Do list as long as my arm waiting for me at work. My son did not want to go to kindergarten and he felt that the whole neighborhood should know about it. When neighbors began coming out of their houses to see what was going on, the situation escalated. My heart was racing, my shoulders were tense, and I wanted to start screaming myself. I was seriously stresssssssed.
The scientific definition of “stress,” refers to an physiological response to unpredictability and uncontrollability, which prepares us for an acute threat. It’s an evolutionary superpower designed to save our life. But while we all generally know what stress feels like and what it does to our body, there’s a important component in the science of stress that is often forgotten — It turns out that how we perceive or appraise the situation plays a large role in whether the stressor triggers our fight or flight response.
In the 1960s and 1970s stress researcher John Wayne Mason discovered that our perception of a stressful event was critical to how our body responded to it. More recent research shows that our biology responds according to this perception. When we believe we have enough resources to cope with the stressors in our lives, we experience a challenge response but when circumstances are seen as exceeding our resources, we have a threat response.
In other words, whereas one person may be consumed by terror at the thought of public speaking, another might see it as an exciting challenge. One person in a traffic jam may sit fuming at the delay, but another person in the same traffic jam may sit calmly taking the time to enjoy listening to their audio book.
Leading stress researcher Hebert Benson, who founded the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital, highlights that for many of us, the “tigers” are in our heads. “Often, that every day thinking is what’s stressful. It’s not a real saber-toothed tiger in front of you. It’s your fear of losing your job, it’s your fear of illness or what have you, ” he says.
As Benson explains in the below video taken from my film The Connection: Mind Your Body, often it’s the train of everyday thinking that is causing stress in our lives. We’re worried about things that have happened in our past or may happen in our future and those thoughts are causing stress chemicals and hormones to be released in our body.
The word “stress” is a catch-all phrase we apply to a variety of negative mental states and circumstances. While the source of stress is different for everyone, when we say we’re feeling stressed, we’re generally referring to a feeling that the demands we’re facing exceed our resources and capabilities. Our jobs are stressful. Paying the mortgage is stressful. So is being homeless. Years of infertility are stressful. And so is wrangling a three-year-old on the side of the road in the midst of a tantrum tornado when you need to get to work.
As I stood on the side of the road next to my son who had completely lost it, I knew that there was no sense in losing it myself. I was keenly aware that my fight or flight stress response would be triggered based on my perception of how threatening this moment was. I took a minute to reappraise the situation and to notice that there was no immediate danger to anyone. This was not a matter of life or death and my To-Do list could wait. I turned my son around and took him back home. My husband hadn’t yet left for work and without giving-in to our mighty-toddler, together we coached him through his big emotions and helped him to calm down and reconnect. When I finally did get to my desk that Monday morning my mood was calm and focused. My week had started more than an hour later than I’d expected it it to, but at least it hadn’t started in full-blown stress-mode.
Originally published at www.thewholehealthlife.com.
** Being healthy in this crazy, busy, modern world is not easy. For journalist Shannon Harvey, finding a solution to this problem became personal when she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that had no known cause and no known cure. On her road to getting better she met people with remarkable stories of recovery, discovered the truth amidst conflicting medical advice and sorted the quacks from the experts. She has now compiled the latest evidence into her feature film The Connection: Mind Your Body and her book The Whole Health Life.**