Understanding Your Healthy Stress/Survival Response


You can reduce your stress response by making yourself safe with you.

Three major concepts will help you manage your physical and emotional stress.

1. Think of your Stress Response as a Natural Survival Response.

What most people call the stress response is a natural survival response. This stress response takes place when the body reacts to signs of danger––whether from external threats or self-threats of anger, self-criticism and threatening to make yourself miserable if things don’t go your way.

Your Survival-fight, flight, or freeze- response is sensitive to messages of current or future danger to your life or your worth as a person. Learn to replace danger messages with safety and you will shut off your stress hormones within 10 to 30 seconds.

"Why do I feel so wired and scared when I’m stressed?"

The natural survival response includes activating your adrenal glands; constricting blood vessels; and raising blood pressure to rush blood to the heart, brain, and large muscles. During the stress response blood rushes away from the extremities toward the more essential organs, leaving the palms cool and then damp. Adrenaline makes the heart beat faster and you may experience “butterflies in the stomach” because the processes of digestion and elimination are being halted to conserve energy for survival.

All of this takes place when your brain receives a message of danger and prepares your body for the “fight-flight-or freeze” response even if there’s no physical danger. Distress occurs when you use this survival response continually, with no chance to direct the tremendous burst of energy toward corrective action, and with no time to recuperate.

2. Negative Beliefs and Attitudes can make you more Vulnerable to Stress Reactions.

Beliefs that imply that you must feel upset if something unpleasant happens to you, or if you fail to achieve what you want, will make you more vulnerable to distress.

Such beliefs insinuate that negative events must lead to feeling undeserving of happiness, to lose self-esteem, and cause you to threaten yourself with self-hatred––the ultimate source of self-inflicted stress.

If, however, you believe in your innate worth and that life usually includes painful events that have nothing to do with your worth or goodness, you can manage these events with minimal stress. Focusing on problem-solving rather than self-criticism will also reduce a stress response.       

When you maintain self-worth, regardless of what happens, you will call forth the appropriate level of energy to take action, rather than the stress reaction needed to defend yourself physically. Consider using a scale of one to ten to rate your levels of danger and stress. You can learn to shut off the stress response when you decide an event is only a level one or two and that it is safe to exhale, sit still and send the message to your body: “I’m safe. This is not the end of the world. I will not make myself feel bad about this. Your worth is safe with me.” Your body will learn to follow your lead and offer the appropriate level of energy to cope rather than the overwhelming level 10 of stress and panic. You wouldn't pull the fire alarm for an event that took place ten years ago or may happen next month. So don't do that to your body. Make a higher brain decision to make yourself safe, to stop self-threats, and your stress/survival response will be calm and give you the appropriate level of energy when needed.

3. Bring Your Time-Traveling Mind into the Present

Your nervous system responds to your thoughts and images as if they are real and happening now. There is no past or future for the nervous system. There is only now. Distress and anxiety occur when you create images of past regrets or worry about potential problems you anticipate in an imaginary future.

These images (or “virtual realities”) of work or threats in the future or past, evoke energy that cannot be used now and leave you feeling stuck with anxiety. Once you focus your attention on what you can do now, your body releases this stuck energy and you experience excitement and effectiveness.

Give your body clear messages about what to do now and when to start and you will find that you’ve eliminated anxiety, lowered stress, and become infinitely more productive.

If it could speak, your distressed, anxious, overwhelmed body might ask:

How much energy do you want now?
Do you want to run from a tiger or sit still during a job interview?
Are you just worrying about potential problems in the future, feeling guilty about a past behavior, or is there something we can work on now?
Will you make me miserable if you don’t get what you want?
Am I safe with you, no matter what happens?   

Neil Fiore, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, author and trainer specializing in productivity and success. Learn more about coping with stress in your life and making your body and immune system robust at www.neilfiore.com