Get smart about stress
You can become smarter about how stress impacts your body by becoming more in tune to what happens when you feel stressed, and having a strategy to balance out the stress response.

By: Mind - Mental Health - 11/15/2018

​The human body’s natural stress response is a primitive system in your body that helps keep you safe from threats and danger by signaling to you to either stand your ground and fight or flee to safety.  This “fight-or-flight response” is valuable when activated for short periods.

When you perceive a threat, your body automatically engages various bodily functions to increase your chance of survival.  Here’s what happens in your body when you perceive there’s a threat on the horizon:

  • First, your body releases stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) that prepare your body’s various systems to respond to danger.

  • As a result of the release of these hormones, your body speeds up the use of its energy sources and raises your heart rate, blood pressure, and rate of breathing—priming your body and brain for action and alertness.  Your immune function even gets a short boost in case of possible injury and infection.

  • Other functions not needed in the moment (growth, digestion, reproduction) slow down.

  • Your muscles tense for extra speed and strength, pupils dilate to sharpen your vision, and perspiration increases to prevent overheating from increased energy usage.

You are likely familiar with the fight-or-flight response.  Operators are no strangers to volatile, unpredictable, and complex situations, and you have trained to leverage the changes in your body to effectively deal with threats, both in training and combat environments.  Your stress response helps keep you and your teammates out of harm’s way.

Is there a downside to fight-or-flight?  The stress response often enacts in the face of a real threat, such as an enemy combatant coming toward you.  Other times, fight-or-flight activates in exactly the same way when stressors are only imagined.  For example, maybe you feel stressed when your ex-spouse emails you about adjusting your parenting schedule, or when you remember you missed the due date to pay the phone bill.

When your stress system cranks up without good reason or stays activated too long, it can negatively impact your health.  When you’re under stress, your body mobilizes stress hormones and other substances to help protect you from disease and infection while fending off threats.

When over-activated, those very same responses can suppress other immune functions and lead to disease and premature aging. Overactivation of the stress response drains you of critical energy you need to devote to mission and family critical matters.  It can impact your mood, your relationships, and the stress levels of everyone around you.

How Do I Get Smarter About Stress?

The first step in becoming smarter about stress is self-awareness.  See if you can make yourself more aware of when your stress response gets activated.  In those moments, try to take note of what happens to you emotionally and physically.  See you if you can assess whether the stress response is warranted for that situation.  Is your anxiety about the threat driving you to prepare?  If so, then it’s good.

However, you might also notice that there are situations in which your stress response is taking you off course.  Is the uptick in your heart rate causing you to express more anger than needed for the situation?  Are the butterflies in your stomach making you want to disengage?  These are situations where you want to take a tactical pause and put some strategies in place to help reduce the harmful effects of a stress system gone wild.

What Can I Do?

The good news is that your body has another natural mechanism to help counteract stress:  the relaxation response.  It reduces heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, muscle tension, and anxiety.  It also leads to positive mood, calmness, and a greater sense of well-being.  It can protect against both psychological issues (such as anxiety and depression) and physical conditions (such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers).

The relaxation response can actually affect how your cells function.  For example, it can help activate genes that allow your body to use energy more efficiently—thus reducing cellular aging—and inhibit some genes that lead to inflammation and stress.  There are various mind-body techniques you can use to turn on this relaxation response.  Methods include deep-breathing exercises, guided imagery, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, mindful stretching, yoga, and others.

The effects become stronger with practice:  just 2 short sessions (about 10 minutes) a day can help prevent or reverse the effects of chronic stress.

Long-term use of these techniques reduces mental distress and levels of stress hormones in your body.  All stress isn’t bad.  Remember that you can influence your body’s response to stress and offset the negative impact it can have on your body by practicing simple strategies to become more aware of and offset how you respond to stress.

Related Articles