The stress response involves a strong Sympathetic nervous system arousal – the flght/flight response - which effects every part of the body. The Sympathetic branch of the nervous system is energy mobilizing for immediate action. This stress reaction is a fantastic short term strategy which has evolved to assist our survival – when our major stressors were physical threats to our existence. The Parasympathetic branch of the nervous system is energy conserving and facilitates our ability to rest, recuperate and for the body to carry out cell maintenance and repair. For optimum health, we need these two branches of the nervous system to work in a balanced way so that we can respond effectively when we need to mobilize our energy, and then calm down quickly afterwards.
When we are challenged by life, people, work, our nervous system responds by a stimulation of the sympathetic branch - preparing for action to help with survival – the fight/flight response. The result is a state of physiological and psychological hyper-arousal, characterised by a great deal of muscle tension and strong emotions which may vary from anxiety, fright, terror, to rage and anger. This leads to heightened sense perceptions and a profound preparedness to act for our survival. This response is hard-wired to facilitate biological survival in the face of threat to life (from predators, and physical attack.)
However, in response to many of life’s stresses, our nervous system responds with the flight /fight response and it is not conducive in this world to either hitting someone or running! We have to find other ways of responding and looking after our lives and relationships.
Excessive ongoing experience of the flight/flight response which is not regulated and modulated, is experienced as stress and distress, is painful and can lead to other problems if we can’t find healthy adaptive ways to calm down and regulate our responses.
It sounds like you are having a life in which you are not externally threatened. However, habitual thoughts can act like threats and be perceived as threats to our sense of self. Critical attacking thoughts, or thoughts which drive us to never feeling satisfied, or always inadequate can act like stressors to the brain and body, and lead to deep patterns of stress reactivity.
In order to feel stressed, we need two things:
A: the experience that a change is needed, or that there is a demand to meet AND
B: that one doesn’t have the resources to meet that demand.
Both of these steps involve appraisal – which may be inaccurate. Human beings tend to over-estimate the threat or the demand and underestimate their resources. Perhaps you need to give yourself some space and time to begin to explore your appraisals, and the see if they are completely true. We can open up more freedom for ourselves when we can clearly see the appraisals we are making and open to other possibilities as well. Even holding our perceptions more lightly can free us up to see what else is there, what else might be possible in this moment.
The practice of mindfulness may be helpful to you. It allows you to pay close attention to the present moment, noting your thoughts, feelings and body sensations with an attitude of curiosity and non-judgment. This observing, non-reactive perspective enables one to consciously respond with clarity and focus, rather than react out of a habitual pattern. It opens up the possibility of working more wisely with difficulties in life and to choose what is nourishing to ourselves and others.
Mindful awareness is about being awake – open to the present – rather than being caught dwelling in the past or anticipating the future. In contrast, you’ve probably encountered moments of “mindlessness” — a loss of awareness resulting in disconnectedness and a sense of living mechanically and with a lack of purpose.
You may do some research to find out where you could learn mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is an evidence based program where you can learn mindfulness skills to help you see how unhelpful patterns of thinking and feeling may be keeping you stuck in patterns of stress reactivity.
It uses mindfulness meditation training as the basis of a program which is practical, inspiring and transformative. It has been widely researched over the past 25 years and is at the cutting edge of integrative and preventative medicine.
Two decades of published research indicates that the majority of people who complete the course report:
- Lasting decreases in physical and psychological symptoms
- An increased ability to relax
- Reductions in pain levels and an enhanced ability to cope with pain that may not go away
- Greater energy and enthusiasm for life
- Improved self-esteem
- An ability to cope more effectively with both short and long-term stressful situations.
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