About stress

The thoughts in your head and the feelings in your body have a direct relationship.

Thinking about a stressful or difficult situation can make your brain set off an alarm throughout the central nervous system and you go into fight-flight-freeze mode.

This places the body on high alert to either confront the threat (fight) or leave as quickly as possible (flight). The amygdala (the ‘old’ part of your brain that governs your survival instincts) takes over.

The ‘new’ part of your brain becomes less able to function, to think rationally, store memories and perform higher-order tasks. The brain is in survival mode.

How do you notice your brain has gone into fight or flight?

Your palms may become sweaty or your fingers may go very cold. Your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes shallower, your muscles tense.

Fight-flight-freeze helps us adapt when we need to save a toddler from crossing the road in front of a car. But in survival mode, we’re in action brain, not rational brain. We can’t store memories as well, or think rationally as well. logically. It affects our behaviour and means we can’t cope as effectively when trying to reason with a teenager or a colleague.

Over a longer period, stress is attritional. Under continual, daily stress, the part of the brain designed to handle threats gets stronger, and the part of the brain tasked with more complex thought goes into hiding.

We may get back problems, neck aches, headaches or suffer colds more frequently. Plus, in a constant fight or flight state, we’re more easily triggered by day-to-day irritations, and cope less well with the day’s stresses and strains. Our relationships begin to suffer.

What can we do about it?

In the longer term, you need to address the underlying causes of stress. In the short term, here are some well evidenced and effective ways can help you control stress when you begin to notice you’re flooding your brain with stress chemicals:

· Controlled breathing

· Progressive muscle relaxation

· Grounding

· Exercise

Controlled breathing

Slowing down your breathing can bring down both the heart rate and adrenaline response.

Breathe in for 1-2-3-4

Breathe out for 1-2-3-4

Repeat this cycle five or six times.

The exact number doesn’t matter.

Then extend the pattern by one second:

Breathe in for 1-2-3-4-5

Breathe out for 1-2-3-4-5

Again, repeat this cycle a few times, then add another second. Your rough aim is to get to ‘eight in, eight out’. HOWEVER – it’s essential not to strain. Strain = stress. So that won’t help.

Variation – breathing out for longer than you breathe in Breathe in for 1-2-3-4 Breathe out for 1-2-3-4-5 Extend the count the same as outlined above. Your aim is to breathe in and out for as long as if comfortable. But again – don’t strain.

Quick muscle relaxation

This exercise helps you to recognise and reduce muscle tension in a part of your body by tensing and relaxing each muscle in turn.

Sitting in a comfortable chair:

1. Close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing. Slowly breath in through your nose and out through your mouth.

2. Make a fist, squeezing your hand tightly.

3. Hold this for a few seconds, noticing the tension.

4. Slowly open your fingers and feel the difference – notice the tension leaving. Your hand is much lighter and relaxed.

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)

PMR is a deep relaxation technique that has been effectively used to control stress and anxiety, relieve insomnia, and reduce symptoms of certain types of chronic pain. It's based upon the simple practice of tensing, or tightening, one muscle group at a time followed by a relaxation phase with release of the tension.

While breathing in, tense one muscle group (for example your upper thighs) for 5-10 seconds, then breathe out and suddenly release the tension in that muscle group.

Give yourself 10-20 seconds to relax, and then move on to the next muscle group (for example your calves).

While releasing the tension, try to focus on the changes you feel when the muscle group is relaxed. Perhaps think of an image to use when you release the tension, for example, imagining that stressful feelings are flowing out of your body as you relax each muscle group.

Gradually work your way up the body contracting and relaxing muscle groups.

For a description of how to do PMR, visit:

Grounding – 54321

What are 5 things you can see? Look for small details such as a pattern on the ceiling, the way light reflects off a surface, or an object you never noticed.

What are 4 things you can feel? Notice the sensation of clothing on your body, the sun on your skin, or the feeling of the chair you are sitting in. Pick up an object and examine its weight, texture, and other physical qualities.

What are 3 things you can hear? Pay special attention to the sounds your mind has tuned out, such as a ticking clock, distant traffic, or trees blowing in the wind.

What are 2 things you can smell? Try to notice smells in the air around you, like an air freshener or freshly mowed grass. You may also look around for something that has a scent, such as a flower or an unlit candle.

What is 1 thing you can taste? Carry chewing gum, or small snacks for this step. Put one in your mouth and focus your attention closely on the flavour and textures.

Simple visualisation exercise

This involves using an image as a way to focus the mind. Create in your mind an ideal place to relax. It can be:

· Real or imaginary

· Somewhere you will find restful, calming, safe and happy

· A place you would want to return to whenever you feel the need to relax

· Imagine it in as much detail as you can using your senses to make it as real as possible

Now close your eyes and take a slow, regular breath in through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. Focus on your relaxation place in all its detail and breathe out through your mouth. Do this for as long as you feel able to.


Exercise really works. It diverts you from the very thing you are anxious about.

Moving your body decreases muscle tension, lowering the body’s contribution to feeling anxious.

Getting your heart rate up changes brain chemistry, increasing the availability of important anti-anxiety neurochemicals.

Exercise activates the parts of the brain responsible for executive function, which helps control the amygdala, which responds to real or imagined threats to our survival. Exercising regularly builds up resources that bolster resilience against stormy emotions.

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