Did I Train Myself For Stress?
What is a conditioned stress response?
Most people only think of the fight or flight response is something that happens when they are in danger. However, many people do not know that the body can also respond to conditioned stress. This means that the body can react to events and situations that are not dangerous but are perceived as stressful. For example, if a person has a traumatic experience at work, they may start having a conditioned stress response every time they go to work. This response can cause health problems and difficulties dealing with day-to-day life. Therefore, learning about your body's conditioned stress response and how to deal with it is an essential step in taking care of yourself.
A conditioned stress response happens when you have a negative experience with something, and your body associates it with stress. Over time this wreaks havoc on your mind and body, and you start to experience anxiety, depression, and physical pain. This is caused by the fact that cortisol levels spike when we have a conditioned response, which suppresses our immune system and begins to cause systemic inflammation.
How do we condition ourselves to be stressed?
It's a learned response, whether you call it a conditioned stress response or just the stress response. You are not born with it; you are taught it.
So, how does this work? It's called sensitization of stress or classical conditioning. This means that your body has been trained to associate certain stimuli with the fight or flight reaction. Let's say, for example; you grew up in a loud household where everyone yelled at each other all the time, then every time you see someone get angry with another person (even if they're not saying anything directly to you), your body still reacts as though they are yelling at you. You might respond by running out of the room or hiding under a desk-that rush of adrenaline makes itself known despite there being no threat present right now! Similarly, say that when you were younger, someone teased or bullied you about something specific (maybe they told some lies). Again, that can affect you later in life; your body will respond as if the threat is still happening.
We tend to push these feelings off as "normal" and allow ourselves to "push" through, but all we are doing is strengthening the response. As a result, the limbic system remains on high alert constantly and never has a break, which leads to overwhelm, anxiety and panic.
Classical conditioning can also happen through operant conditioning when we learn to associate a particular behavior with a specific consequence. When we shut down our responses and hide from our emotions, we develop phobias. For example, if you were walking down the street and got bitten by a dog, you would probably start to associate dogs with pain. As a result, you will begin to avoid dogs (and maybe even places where there are dogs, like the park). If this avoidance behavior continues, it can turn into a full-fledged phobia.
How do you condition yourself to be less stressed?
If you have ever felt like your stress response is out of control, there are a few things you can do to get it back.
First, be aware of how your body responds to different situations. You might be surprised by what triggers an overactive stress response in you. Maybe it's crowds, change, being on time, or even being late for work. Perhaps it's your boss or coworkers or your commute to work. Awareness will help you notice when these triggers are happening so that you can begin using relaxation techniques and tools more effectively to calm down and get through them without feeling overwhelmed with stress and anxiety.
Secondly, you need a toolbox for relaxation responses. When you find yourself in a situation that triggers a reaction, instead of freaking out, you automatically move to your toolbox of techniques. Your toolbox should always include self-awareness techniques such as emotion identification, belief identification, and self-regulation techniques. While relaxation tools and mantras can be effective, if you haven't done the work around the stressor itself, it will always remain. This is where we may feel we have failed therapy or mindset strategies before.
Lastly, behavior modification is key to changing the stress response for good. By using behaviors with a positive association, you will begin to rewire neural pathways.
Being stressed is a conditioned response that you can re-condition.
It's not a secret that stress is prevalent in our modern world, and our traditional therapies and "suck it up" techniques are no longer cutting it. However, stress management is something we have to learn, so how do we go about it?
- Self-Awareness: By becoming self-aware of your triggers or stress response, you can begin to manage the effects of stress.
- Self-Regulation: After you become aware of your stressors, you can then begin to work on self-regulating your responses to them. This can be done several ways, but some popular methods are deep breathing exercises, limiting belief and emotional work.
- Behavior Modification: After you have practiced self-awareness and regulation, the next step is modifying your behavior. After identifying your stressors, you will need to find ways to train for them incrementally. Big tip: Avoidance behavior is one of the WORST things you can do to your nervous system; this trains your subconscious to avoid, leading to agoraphobia or enhanced panic disorder. Graduated exposure therapy is excellent for incremental training, which slowly exposes you to the stressor while working on your emotions and beliefs. This allows you to "rewire" the stressor in a controlled environment for something positive.
Managing stress is an essential part of living a healthy life.
For some people, it can be easy to identify and manage their triggers. However, it may be more difficult for others to find the root cause of their stress and how to address it effectively. Our coaching programs come in – we work with you one-on-one to help you identify your stressors, learn how to control your triggers and manage your responses. We have seen firsthand how retraining the brain through our coaching program helps improve mental health and physical well-being. Have you tried our coaching services? If so, what has been your experience?