How The Stress Response Tampers With Our Relationships
What do fight, flight, and self-care all have in common? They don’t even share the same letters! Well, it all comes down to our natural stress response, and how we manage it. Keep reading to learn how your stress response might impact you.
What Is Stress?
You’ve probably heard of stress before.
Basically, stress is our body’s response to a perceived threat. Whereas threats millions of years ago were predators, now humans have other threats to worry about.
When we perceive a threat, we tense up, our blood rushes, and our heart rate increases! We breathe more rapidly, and we become hypervigilant. This allows us to escape that threat, or fight it. Therefore, our stress response is also known as our fight or flight response.
Unfortunately, the stress of today is not as immediate as facing a lion head-on. Stressors can include things like paying rent, finishing an assignment, or an argument with a friend or partner. Current events are also very stressful for many people, especially if they regularly watch the news.
Because modern-day stressors are often drawn out over lengths of time, our natural reaction to stress has become maladaptive. This means that our stress response has become prolonged, and is now interfering with our daily functioning! People are in a constant state of stress, and it is causing problems.
How can you fight your bills? You can’t exactly run away from statistics.
Chronic Stress & Relationships
Do you ever feel like you’re annoyed with every single thing your brother, roommate, or partner does, no matter how insignificant it actually is? Does your mood sour as soon as another person is in your vicinity? Have you ever been the person to verbally harass a grocery store employee just because you were slightly inconvenienced?
If you have, you’re not alone.
We all have lapses in judgment. Everyone has a bad day once in a while. If they could only see things from your perspective, surely they would see that you’re actually in the right!
Of course, I am not saying we should let people berate service staff or support insignificant arguments between loved ones. As adults, we have to take responsibility for our actions, and accept that part of our responsibility is to treat others with respect.
Fight or Flight
BUT there could be a simple reason why every little thing seems to set you off!
Simply, stress and that wonderful evolutionary stress response!
Our stress response is meant to give us the energy to either run or attack a threat. If there is no threat that you can run from or attack, we may lash out at immediate targets, like our innocent loved ones or the poor grocery store clerk, even though they have done nothing wrong.
In my own life, I have seen this pattern a lot. If I am stressed about a task, I snap at those trying to help. When I am ruminating about the state of the world, I get angry with people if they have the TV too loud. I take my stress response, which is a natural response to any stressor, and I direct it at those who have done nothing to deserve it.
Basically, I fight with those around me if I cannot actually fight the thing that is stressing me out.
Managing Irritability: Fight, Flight, And Self-Care
I’ve been thinking a lot about how monks in movies seem to be totally unaffected by terrible news. How do they get so zen? Can I be that zen one day? Is it something that’s even possible to achieve?
If we consider how to fight, flight, and self-care interact, then yes, I think it is possible.
Because, if we see angrily lashing out as a manifestation of the stress response, then we can conclude that the ideal monk has complete control over their stress response. If we can manage our body’s automatic response to a stressful situation, then we can theoretically avoid fighting (or fleeing) whatever that situation is.
I, for one, am a lot better at managing my urge to run than my anger.
So, the question becomes “how do I manage my stress effectively?”
The simple answer is this: self-care. The longer answer has a lot to do with the importance of mindfulness.
Managing Stress Through Coping
We all have coping mechanisms. Some of these coping mechanisms work better than others, but since we were little kids, we have been developing strategies to help us manage stress.
There are three (3) general kinds of coping:
- Emotion-Focused Coping
- Problem-Focused Coping
- Avoidant Coping
When we use emotion-focused coping, we try to reduce the icky feelings that come with a stressor. If you get anxious before public speaking, you may try to hype yourself up with some music. Or, perhaps you self-soothe by cuddling a favorite toy or eating your favorite food (guilty!). Sometimes, it can help to speak about your emotions or journal.
Problem-focused coping, on the other hand, addresses the stressor directly. If an assignment is stressing me out, I usually try to get a part of that assignment done. When I am stressed about money, I take a look at or readjust my budget.
Avoidant coping strategies can be emotion-focused or problem-focused. For example, if you are literally running away from a problem, I would call that problem-focused! Basically, avoidant coping means we (surprise, surprise) avoid the problem. Maybe we drink or use drugs to forget what is bothering us, or maybe we binge-watch Disney movies instead of studying for that final exam.
Unsurprisingly, avoiding a problem does not solve a problem. If these are our only coping strategies, we may find that we are crazy stressed, and not very successful. This is doubly true if our avoidant coping mechanisms don’t actually give us the strength to address our problems after the fact.
Managing Stress With Self-Care
Is self-care just a different name for coping mechanisms? Technically, yes. But, in the context of this article, I am going to use self-care to mean managing our stress positively.
For example, you can give your pet a tranquilizer to make it sleep through the night. But it is a lot healthier (and less illegal) to take it for a walk or play with it, so it doesn’t have as much energy to burn off in 3 AM zoomies.
So, how does self-care help manage stress?
As I said above, stressors today are a lot more complicated than they were in 10,000 B.C. Many stressors are chronic, or outside of our control. While we can address some threats with problem-focused coping (such as actually studying for that final exam), there are others we have no control of (maybe you’ve already saved all the money you can, and your budget is still making you pull your hair out).
In this case, emotion-focused coping is key! We have to learn to self-soothe, and we have to do so in ways that rejuvenate us (not just provide enough distraction until we are hungover the next day).
So what can we do?
- Forest bathing
- Practicing gratitude
- Engaging in a hobby that makes us happy
- Spending time with people who make us laugh
- Setting boundaries around where/how stressors can affect you
For many people, journaling allows them to work their way through their thoughts slowly. I journal when I have a lot on my mind, or I want to reflect on my actions and emotions in a way I can visualize.
When I journal, I can write things that I may be too scared to speak or even think. I can also brainstorm solutions to different problems that I have.
However, journaling does not always work for everyone. If you are particularly anxious or find that your thoughts run wild even when you do your best to tame them, journaling may not be for you. You can read more about that in my article, here!
Essentially, forest bathing is a Japanese practice whereby you mindfully enjoy and engage with nature. There are many physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits to forest bathing. It even has immune-boosting qualities!
Personally, I enjoy this practice because it separates me from the modern world and its demands. If you are somewhere without technology and the internet, how can you be stressed about your computer not working properly?
Meditation involves sitting in quiet thought. A common practice in meditation is allowing your thoughts to come and go without attaching meaning or importance to them. It is setting a boundary in the here and now, and letting go of your obligations and duties, even if only for five minutes.
You can listen to calming music, or just take the time to breathe deeply and slowly. But ultimately, meditation allows you to carve out a small space of time for just yourself.
Did you know that humans are predisposed to remember negative things about people, places, and events? It is an evolutionary response that is meant to keep us alive. Unfortunately, it takes around four positive thoughts to balance out a negative one.
Therefore, if you go somewhere and get pushed by a stranger, you may feel like your day was ruined, even though you had a really tasty meal.
When we choose gratitude, we choose to focus on the positives, and this gives them more power. You can read more about the value of gratitude here.
Engaging in a Hobby That Makes Us Happy
Like practicing gratitude, joyful hobbies put a focus on the positive! If you enjoy knitting, you can use it as a tool to regulate your stress response.
Hobbies have the added benefit of helping us feel accomplished, or as though we are part of a community. Join a club or share your hobbies on social media to double the benefits!
Spending Time With People Who Make Us Laugh
Sometimes this could be your best friend, and sometimes this could be a comedian. Laughter has a lot of benefits, and one of the main ones is reducing stress.
Why? If you’re laughing at a joke, then you’re obviously not in a life-threatening situation.
I’ll be the first to admit that exercise is not my go-to stress management technique, and that can be a problem! For one, I often tense up and sit funny when I’m stressed, and that can trigger a migraine.
Secondly, exercise uses all the adrenaline from the stress response, and puts it right into a positive activity like running! When you’re done, all that’s left are happy endorphins. Bye-bye stress!
Boundaries are an under-rated self-care strategy. If your boss can call you anywhere and anytime, how are you ever truly “off the clock”.
The reality is that there are countless demands on our time and thoughts. For example, healthcare workers have to deal with the pandemic for 12-hour shifts. If they then go home and watch the news on repeat, they have no break from the stress of COVID-19.
Or, say I go to school. I attend two 3-hour lectures in a row, and then I spend the night studying in my bed, or reviewing my work, or reading research papers. Then, I am not setting a boundary around my school work.
Setting boundaries is key to active rest. We need to remind ourselves when outside stressors are creeping in, and we need to say “no”. It has become far too normalized to have everything demanding everything from us all at once.
If we have our email notifications on at all times, it gives them power over us. Then, subconsciously, we begin to have a stress response every time we hear that little ping.
Sometimes, boundaries are physical. We can close a door to separate ourselves from a roommate we have spent far too much time with. If your significant other gives you more physical affection than you are comfortable with, you can ask for some space.
If you can’t physically create a boundary, it is important to create mental boundaries. I often do this by taking “no social media days” or even deleting social media off my phone.
Boundaries look different to everyone, but you do deserve them. If someone gets angry that you have created a boundary to protect your health, it usually means that they benefitted from you having no boundaries at all.
Fight, Flight, And Self-Care: An Overarching Theme
Today’s article is long, and for anyone who has read this far, thank you. If your eyes did begin to go a little cross-eyed, I will summarize with one main theme.
This buzzword has been in the media a lot lately, and for good reason. The above self-care strategies are all tools that you can use to improve your mindfulness. You have to be mindful of when someone is crossing a boundary. When you’re knitting with a pattern, you have to be mindful of your stitches. If you’re meditating, you are mindful of your breathing, and the coming and going of your thoughts. Exercise helps us slow our stress response down so we have the chance to be mindful. Practicing gratitude allows us to mindfully focus on the positives in life.
When I think of a monk, I think of a man in robes, in a quiet garden. I think of someone who is at peace.
Mindfulness allows us to monitor our body’s reactions to stimuli. Furthermore, it helps us manage those reactions by thinking through them, calming down, and interrupting our fight or flight response.
A monk doesn’t leap into a fiery rage when the enemies infiltrate the monastery because they have mastery over their stress. They are mindful.
And, if I could be a quarter as mindful as a monk, well I would say that that is a good start.
Disclaimer: If you lash out at someone due to stress, you are still responsible for your actions. This article does not absolve you from apologizing for your hurting another person. Moreover, some people may lash out for other reasons, such as a sense of entitlement or disrespect. While stress can account for many misunderstandings and misplaced anger, there is no way around the fact that some people are just jerks.