Take Control of Your Reaction to Stress

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By Kelly Brevig

“We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control our response.”  The internet is full of quotes like this by various authors. We might be used to reacting to things out of our control, like other drivers, political posts from the opposition, and even the weather. Some things we experience can truly grind our gears. We might find ourselves in a state of agitation because some cars don’t believe in blinkers, or some drive 8 miles an hour under the limit in great road conditions, or when your cashier flips their trouble light. It can be a challenge when things don’t seem to go our way. Here lies the rub; our response to everyday irritations may be making us sick.

Stressful driving
Mounting anxiety or anger can release adrenaline and increase blood pressure.

Mounting anxiety or anger can release adrenaline and increase blood pressure. The fight-or-flight response can prompt the nervous system to cut off blood flow to the digestive tract and increase stomach aches. Over time, anger can encourage fatty deposits to pile up in the heart and carotid arteries. Serotonin, a chemical in the brain associated with happy feelings, is diminished and increases the likelihood of depression. This seems like an awful lot of control to give to someone who we allow to push our buttons, or at the very least, “don’t even know how to drive.” How do we learn to change our responses from a state of anxious agony to an attitude of optimism?

We need to act not react. An initial healthy step is to stop and breathe. When blood pressure is rising and the heart rate is accelerating, taking a few deep, long breaths can slow things down. It tricks the body into thinking, “There’s no panic here. Everything is chill, calm, and manageable.” We give space for our brains’ frontal lobe to take control. The “4-7-8” method of breathing is one technique that can help accomplish this task. Breath in for four counts through the nose, hold the breath for seven seconds and gently blow the breath out of the mouth for eight seconds. For the best results, repeat this pattern at least 4 times. Too complicated? Try a slow five count inhale followed by a slow five count exhale. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Breathing to Relax
When blood pressure is rising and the heart rate is accelerating, taking a few deep, long breaths can slow things down.

As we gradually take control of our physical reactions to stress, we can begin to do a little cognitive restructuring. Consider the reasoning behind other people’s bad or irritating behavior. Perhaps there is a logical reason that things are not lining up the way we would like and it has nothing to do with us, thus taking away the sting of being personally slighted. Circumstances out of our control can be frustrating, to say the least, but we do have the ability to “talk ourselves down” and go with the flow.

If we find ourselves in a constant place of anger and irritation, we might need to step up our response game. Life’s pressures could be overwhelming at the moment.  We could benefit from a healthy outlet for mounting tension. Exercise, (while easier said than done when feeling unmotivated) can be a great safety valve and natural antidepressant. The trick is in getting the shoes laced up and out the door. If you show up at the gym, you’ll probably do some exercise. If you can cross the threshold of your front door, you’ll likely take that walk. Explore talk therapy. Venting about our issues is a great way to blow off steam and get some of the toxins out of our system. It can feel good to be validated and affirmed. Medication can also be a helpful tool in self-regulation. Talking to a doctor is always an excellent idea anyway in preventative care.

While it may be true that we “can’t control what happens to us,” we can learn to control the way we respond to stress. We might even learn to find the humor in situations, like when the car in front of us runs out of blinker fluid. Remember that we are all human and no one is perfect. In the event you may see me blowing a gasket sometime in the future, please remind me to breathe.          

Kelly Brevig is the Suicide Services Coordinator for Evergreen Youth and Family Services in Bemidji, MN.

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