Health / Expert Advice

What Your Reaction to Stress Says About You

Understanding how you respond to stressful situations may be the key to learning how to cope with them.

We don’t enjoy feeling stressed, nor is it particularly good for us.

But stress is actually perfectly natural. In fact, it’s the body’s evolutionary way of sounding an alarm system in response to a threat or demand, explains Jaclyn Friedenthal, Psy.D, clinical psychologist at Thrive Psychology Group in Santa Monica, California.

“If you were on a hike and a mountain lion came running towards you, it [wouldn’t] benefit you to take your sweet time to analyze the situation. Your body’s ‘fight-flight-freeze’ response activates automatically.

Stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, are released. Blood and oxygen are diverted to our essential organs and muscles to prepare you for action,” she explains. “Even in the modern age, this ‘fight-flight-freeze’ response can still help us survive dangerous situations and react quickly.”

What triggers this reaction in our body can vary from person to person. It can also be the result of a myriad of different things.

“If we open and align to this energy, we feel alive, joyful, and experience high performance. However, if we close down and resist it, we experience discomfort, distress, or, over time, disease,” explains Aimee Bernstein, a psychotherapist, executive coach, and mindfulness-in-action teacher and author of Stress Less Achieve More.

“Chronic stress can cause numerous physical ailments including heart disease, stroke, IBS, hair loss, rashes, migraines and lack of sexual libido, as well as reduce the telomeres in the brain, [which] causes premature aging.”

How you respond to stress can tell a lot about your personality and your coping mechanisms.

Aaptiv has workouts that can help you manage stress like yoga, meditation, stretching and more. View them in the app today.

Here are the most common stress reactions and what it might mean if you fall under that specific category.

You experience physical symptoms

Physical stress reactions may include headaches, muscle aches or tension, stomachaches, chest pain, rapid heart rate, upset stomach, low energy, decreased sex drive or ability, increased perspiration, clenched jaw, teeth grinding, or skin or hair problems, explains Dr. Friedenthal.

“If you are someone who holds stress and tension in your body, you may benefit from identifying your stressors or triggers. Explore the thoughts and feelings that are associated with your physical symptoms,” she says.

As a solution, she suggests journaling or talking with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist.

“You may also benefit from certain stress management techniques that address the mind-body connection, such as balanced eating, staying well hydrated, diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, yoga, or other exercise approved by your doctor.”

Luckily, Aaptiv has you covered there. View our meditation and yoga classes in the app today.

You experience cognitive symptoms

If you tend to lose focus and feel particularly forgetful during moments of stress, experiencing memory issues, excessive worry, and racing thoughts, you tend to respond to stress cognitively, as Dr. Friedenthal explains.

“When we feel overwhelmed, it usually means [that] we have jumped into ‘emotion mind’ and it may be helpful to engage in activities, such as diaphragmatic breathing, focusing on the present, and mindfulness or grounding exercises, to bring the thinking part of our brains back online,” she says.

“If you are feeling overwhelmed with demands, worries, or tasks, it may also be helpful to establish priorities and break down objectives into ‘S.M.A.R.T’ goals. These are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely goals that help you move closer to your overall objective.”

You experience behavioral symptoms

Do you change the way you act under times of extensive stress? Such reactions include overeating, undereating, sleeping more or less than you usually do, isolating and withdrawing from others, procrastinating, or engaging in nervous habits like nail biting, fidgeting, hair pulling, skin picking, or pacing.

It can also include using alcohol, cigarettes, or substances, according to Dr. Friedenthal. “If you are prone to anxiety, you may be particularly susceptible to avoidance coping. Avoidance of the stressor through procrastination, sleep, eating, or substances reduces anxiety in the short-term,” she explains.

“However, avoidance coping magnifies stress in the long-term. The stressor does not go away, and now other consequences may surface related to these behaviors.”

If your behavioral reactions are affecting your life negatively, she recommends speaking to a therapist. They can help you replace your current behaviors with more effective coping skills.

“Remember that if you are isolating and withdrawing from others, you do not have the opportunity to realize that others struggle, too,” she adds. “You might be surprised how many people can empathize and support you when you’re feeling stressed.”

You experience emotional symptoms

It’s certainly not uncommon to feel a surge of sadness, moodiness, irritability, or anger when under stress. But if these are your go-to responses, it’s time to amp up the TLC.

“Caring for yourself and engaging in pleasurable activities does not only reduce stress. It also communicates to your brain that you are deserving, which can help boost your mood,” says Dr. Friedenthal.

If you are experiencing emotional stress reactions, she suggests engaging in calming and pleasurable activities.

These could include deep breathing and mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, exercise, listening to music, or opening up to someone. “Talking to a family member, friend, or therapist may help you put things in[to] perspective and develop more self-compassion,” she adds.

Find our deep breathing meditation classes in the Aaptiv app today. Your mind and body will appreciate it!

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