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When stressing over something, is it really that urgent?

I mean that as a question.  Take a minute and think about all the things you stress over.  It could be money, your work, kids, family, or whether people like you are not.

Now I am not dismissing these worries, but I hope to get you to think about them, not only differently, but less.  But first, I need to tell you what I mean when I say are your worries that urgent.

If you are late for work and can’t find your keys, ask yourself how you might be feeling.  Now you could be one of those laid-back types that would take this in their stride, but you probably wouldn’t be reading this post!  I need you to imagine someone (maybe even your good self) getting stressed over this, maybe the odd swear word, rushing about and generally getting more frantic.

Found your keys but are freaking out all the way to work.

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What’s happening to your body?

You are getting a stress response.  It could be mild or strong, but you will recognise the telltale signs if you are easier to anger (like, say, at that person who took too long to pull away from the traffic lights when you were already running late.)

So why does it matter?

Well, the stress response is really only designed for when your life is in danger.

The stress response is great at helping you cope with an immediate threat, but the problem is how you (or rather, your brain) defines a threat.

If you are getting stressed over, for example, being late for work, losing your keys, getting stuck in traffic, your brain (loosely speaking) defines these as threats – hence you feel the stress.  It is tough for your brain to know when the threat has passed and that it is okay to calm down, and you can end up in a state of chronic stress.

What chronic stress does to your body

Suppose you are constantly getting stressed over small things (such as being stuck in traffic). In that case, you can think of this as having a switch for anxiety, and it is stuck on the ‘on position’ – again, if you haven’t watched the video referred to above, it is explained fully in the video.  Your body is responding as if everything is urgent.  When I say urgent, I mean that your body is required to use a considerable amount of effort (the same effort required in life and death situations) to mobilise you to cope with the threat – it demands your urgent attention and this urgent attention reaction from your body.

Is getting stuck in traffic or losing your keys worth this urgent response?

No.  As your body is going to pay for this constant stress.

Chronic stress is not good for your heart.  The stress response results in your heart beating faster, which is fine if you quickly need to get out of harm’s way.  But if this happens over day-to-day things, this extra pressure on your heart can take its toll.

It can lead to muscle pain and tension headaches – as your muscles tense when you are in danger to give you the energy you need to fight or flight.

Chronic stress can lead to tummy problems, such as acid reflux, as during the stress response, your digestive processes slow down.

More information can be found on APA.org

How to react differently?

The first thing is being aware that you are overreacting to day-to-day things.  You are not doing this on purpose; instead, think of it as a habitual reaction that you have that you now wish to change.

When you feel the effects of stress, angry or under pressure, ask yourself.

Does this situation need an urgent response? Is my life in danger?

If the answer is no, don’t expect miracles at the start, as this will take practice.  Whatever is happening, take a few minutes and settle your breathing.  Why?  Breathing in, stimulate the stress response a little; breathing out, stimulate a relaxation response a little, so you want to focus on making your exhales a little longer than your inhales.

Watch what is happening in your brain

Ask yourself what is going on with your thought processes.  Are you calling the person in the car in front a selection of choice names?  Could you stop it?  Your thoughts directly impact what is happening in your body; again, this is explained in the video.  Tell yourself the person in front is doing their best, show some compassion, as when you are compassionate, you feel less anger, and the stress response will start to calm down.

If there is one thing to take away from this post, remember when you are stressed.

Is this something I need to respond to urgently? Is this a life and death situation?

Further reading Anxiety