The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training. – Frank Herbert, Dune
Do you ever wonder why your best friend or partner is as mellow as a noodle while stress accumulates during your day until you feel totally fried and ready to snap apart?
No doubt you want to relax. But, why is it so hard for you?
Actually, there are many factors that can make you more vulnerable to stress. Once you know what they are and ascertain if they might apply to you, it will be far easier to learn how to interrupt the stress cycle and start to learn how to live with greater ease.
Just knowing will help you stop blaming and judging yourself, which only amplifies the distress.
Hopefully, a ray of self-compassion will start to light up as well. You’re not alone and it’s not a flaw in your fundamental being, just a challenge that you can meet with the right training and support.
Factors that Influence the Stress Response
So what’s going on? Why does it seem impossible to conquer stress?
1. Genetic Disposition..
Studies show that some people are genetically predisposed to a stronger stress response or weaker relaxation response. That doesn’t mean your genes control you. A great deal depends on the interplay between genetics and your environment.
You might be fine until a particular trigger or incompatible environment sets off your stress response big time. If left unchecked, chronic stress may develop making you more susceptible to a range of physical disorders and emotional disarray.
But, all is not lost. Once you recognize that your stress response is turned on more or less continually, you can learn better coping strategies. You’ll be able to dial it down or adjust your environment to be more suitable for you.
2. Immune-Related Disorders.
Some immune-related diseases – like rheumatoid arthritis, eczema, and possibly others – may diminish your ability to respond to stress.
In fact, the stress response and the immune system are intimately related. Once the flight or flight system – the stress response – is turned on, some aspects of the immune system are turned down while others are turned up, making you more vulnerable to viral or bacterial infections and other untoward effects. As chronic stress evolves, the immune system can be altered in other ways.
3. Cumulative Adversity.
Cumulative adversity, the number of “bad” events you experience in your life, may also impact your ability to effectively respond to new strains and pressures. In fact, it can change the structure and function of your brain, shrinking the pre-frontal cortex and reducing activity in the regions that help you cope and gracefully adapt.
4. Traumas and Childhood Abuse or Neglect.
Early nurturing or lack thereof can also affect one’s capacity for resilience. Studies show that early childhood neglect or abuse can make you more vulnerable to stress as does any other form of serious trauma that occurs as a child or adult – like being the victim of a violent crime, living through an airplane crash or fighting in a war.
5. Circumstantial variables.
Circumstances also can contribute to a higher level of stress. For example, being a single mom or financially at risk can really fray your nerves.
As you can see, the origins of your stress response are a rather complex affair. But, once you know your own variables, triggers, and typical response patterns, you’ll have a good start on finding relief.
Three Keys to Living with Greater Ease
As someone who has lived a high stress life and suffered adverse health consequences as a result, I know how dangerous it can be to brush off the symptoms of stress, repeatedly steel yourself for more, or pretend everything is okay.
Stress-related illnesses are on the rise given our over-the top busy modern lives. They range from heart disease to diabetes to depression or anxiety and many more. Stress can also exacerbate existing disorders like skin conditions and colitis.
So it’s high time to start turning stress around before it puts you on the bench and out of the game. Here are three keys to living with greater ease:
- Recognize that you are caught in an unrelenting cycle of stress.
- Take responsibility for your stress response instead of blaming externals.
- Start engaging in lifestyle changes and practices that will diminish stress and bring you more calm and serenity.
Is It Really Possible to Tame the Stress Response?
Since Herbert Benson identified the relaxation response – the counterpoint to the stress response – almost 40 years ago, research has steadily accumulated proving it’s eminently possible for most people to intervene in the stress response and live a happier life.
In fact, cutting edge research reported in the Harvard Medical School News even shows the relaxation response positively impacts the expression of critical genes.
A new study from investigators at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center finds that eliciting the relaxation response—a physiologic state of deep rest induced by practices such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing and prayer—produces immediate changes in the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion.
Some of my favorites ways to reduce stress include soaking in a naturally heated warm pond, taking weekends off, and practicing mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques. Mindfulness helps me tune into my body, mind, and emotions in the moment as they engage with the experiences life.
By cultivating awareness, I’m able to see and take action when the early warning signs of stress appear, long before they reach a critical state.
No single stress reduction method works for everyone. Experiment and find what brings your stress meter down. It may take some practice before you find the methods that work effectively for you, so don’t give up early on.
There will always be physical, environmental, and personal circumstances that touch off your stress response. But, you don’t have to be a victim to stress. You can learn how to interrupt the fight-or-flight response and cultivate the relaxation response instead. As you do so, you will gradually begin to live with greater ease.