Staying calm: How to lower your stress, turn off your fight-or-flight response, and feel more zen.

Written by Natasha Thomas

Posted on: November 5, 2018

If you feel more stressed than you’d like, you’re not alone. Millions (probably billions) of people deal with significant stress on a regular basis – relationships, work, money, and so many other painful, scary or difficult to navigate parts of life. Let’s face it: living can be stressful! Fight-or-flight kicks in and zen disappears.

But not all stress is created equal. Some stress is unavoidable. If we’re surprised by a loud, sudden noise, most of us will startle, and feel our hearts racing afterward.

But other forms of stress—especially chronic stress—are not. In fact, much of the stress we deal with is about how we respond to a situation, rather than the situation itself. That kind of stress can be overwhelming, but we can also do something about it.

How does stress work in the body?

Before we get into that, let’s talk a little about how stress actually works in the body. When you feel stressed—tension, anxiety, rapid pulse, racing thoughts, sweating, a heavy feeling in your chest—what you’re experiencing is the result of a series of events that begin with your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis, which includes parts of your brain and your hormone-producing adrenal glands, is what jump-starts your body’s stress response, triggering the release of hormones like adrenaline that activate your sympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system, more commonly known as your fight-or-flight instinct (and now increasingly spoken of as fight, flight or freeze), is what actually gets your body riled up. This is supposed to be a temporary state—a momentary burst of energy to help you get out of danger. Your stress response is meant to last just until the stressful situation is over, at which point your HPA axis stops releasing stress hormones and your calming parasympathetic nervous system activates and helps your body relax.

The problem is that our stress response, which is essentially a primal instinct meant to help us escape from the sort of life or death situations that animals encounter in the wild, does not distinguish between genuine danger and the more banal stressors of modern life. In addition, aspects of how we live today, including what we eat and how we spend our time, can influence our feelings of stress even absent any concrete stressful event. The stressor doesn’t even have to be external or physical—it can simply exist in our minds. In other words: we’re constantly dealing with experiences that don’t put us in any real danger, but leave us feeling stressed out anyway.

Fortunately, there is a lot we can do about this. One big part of the solution: mind-body techniques.

Mind-body skills to the rescue

Mind-body is a term that has become increasingly popular in health and wellness circles. But what is it really about? Simply put: presence. Mind-body practices help you learn to be more present with your body and your moment-to-moment experience, and to spend less time chasing your thoughts (and the stress those thoughts create).

If your first reaction to the phrase mind-body is the thought that such a concept seems more suited to a monastery or an ashram than the everyday, worldly life most of us lead, keep reading anyway. Mind-body techniques are supremely practical, and meant to help you feel more at ease with your experience of life, wherever you are.

In fact, let’s start with a mind-body practice based on something most of us do every day: walking. Most of the time, when we’re going for a walk, our minds are elsewhere. We’re (hopefully) paying attention to where we’re going, but otherwise, we’re likely thinking about something that isn’t right in front of us. We’re caught up in a story that we’re telling ourselves about ourselves—and oftentimes, that story is a scary one. In other words, we’re worrying, which can significantly contribute to chronic stress.

For example, let’s say we get a bill in the mail that we can’t afford to pay. We have the initial stressful experience—seeing and opening the bill. We might even go into fight-or-flight mode when we see the amount due printed on the page.

But that experience of opening the bill only lasts a few moments. Where most of us run into trouble is that we’ll spend the rest of the day, or the week worrying about the bill. This will not only make the day a stressful one, but can actually keep us in fight-or-flight mode, which has a host of physiological consequences.

Fight-Or-Flight
Calm stress with Mindful Walking, movement works wonders

However, if we use practices like mindful walking, we can take a break from spending so much time with our thoughts. Mindful walking means putting our attention towards the experience we’re having in our body as we walk. We can notice the sensation of our feet touching the ground, the color of the leaves on the trees as we walk by, the humidity in the air and the sunshine on our faces. We can also notice our internal weather: the feelings in our bodies and the pull of our minds as we get caught up again in thinking and telling ourselves our stories.

Movement and exercise in any form can help us to feel more relaxed if we’re already stressed. But mindful walking and other mindfulness practices can actually also help us not to feel so stressed out in the first place. This is because they can help us learn to not take ourselves so seriously and to not get so caught up in our worries.

Meditation and focus

Meditation is another great mind-body approach. There are many different meditation forms of meditation, ranging from guided imagery to loving-kindness meditation to traditional Buddhist and Hindu techniques. One popular type of meditation called Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, involves sitting quietly and focusing your attention on your breath as it flows in and out. You’ll constantly find yourself getting distracted, and that’s okay—but when you notice you’re distracted, you bring your attention back to your breath.

I’m also fond of a related practice called alternate-nostril breathing. Instead of simply focusing on your breath, alternate-nostril breathing involves covering your right nostril with your thumb, inhaling through your left nostril, then moving your thumb to cover the left nostril you just inhaled through, and exhaling through the now open right nostril. You then inhale through your right nostril, cover it, and exhale through your left.

You can repeat this pattern indefinitely.

Movement works wonders

For those who find it difficult to sit still during meditation, and are looking for a challenge, I also recommend yoga or other forms of movement-based mind-body practices like qigong or tai chi. These can offer the immediate stress-reduction benefits of exercise, but can also help train your mind to be more present in the manner of sitting meditation practices. Win-win.

Fight-Or-Flight
Sitting quietly in meditation to calm stress and achieve Zen

Many mind-body techniques are supported by both thousands of years of historical use and an increasing body of scientific evidence. Indeed, numerous studies have found that mind-body practices can help turn off your stress response, deactivating your sympathetic nervous system and stimulating your relaxing parasympathetic nervous system. However, the proof, as they say, is in the practice. Find a mind-body technique you like, and stick with it for a while. 

You just may find yourself feeling more zen, and finding that you float more easily over the waves of life.

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