Are You Making This Mistake And Missing Out On Near-Instantaneous Stress Relief?

Your heart beats a rapid staccato in your chest, your muscles clench tightly, you breath rapidly and shallowly, your mouth turns into the Sahara, and the butterflies dance with wild abandon in your stomach. You raise your clammy palm to the door to push it and enter the room, steeling yourself for the worst, knowing this is going to be the patient visit from hell…

But… did you even realize how stressed you were? Or did your stress response creep up on you unnoticed, and advance unmanaged? Did you at least take a deep breath when you realized how on edge you were? No? Let’s talk for a bit…

As a nurse practitioner and human being, you intimately know the sympathetic nervous system cascade that overtakes you in times of acute stress. The precisely orchestrated hormonal and physiological avalanche that helps you flee from the proverbial saber tooth tiger are as easily activated these days with a non life-threatening stressor such as a difficult patient or fear of a bad patient outcome, rather than something truly life threatening.

However, stress isn’t always so straightforward, and doesn’t even always look like stress. Do you recognize your own stress response, and what it looks like in YOU?

Failing To Recognize Your Own Stress Response Is Ignoring A “Restore-All” That Could Offer You Near-Instantaneous Stress Relief

Recognizing stress and your own stress response is the first and most important step in lessening its effects. I’m going to say that again. Recognizing stress and your own stress response is the first and most important step in lessening its effects.

We all know that we are stressed, and that we are facing many different stressors. We often don’t recognize our own stress response, though, and don’t respond until it is too late. We push through it, or take meds for it, or ignore it, or simply don’t even realize it exists. So what exactly is the stress response?

Stress Responses Fall Into 3 Main Categories: GO, STOP and FREEZE

Do you feel angry or agitated when you are stressed? Are you mobilized to action, unable to sit still, irritated, and maybe even prone to lash out? You are a GO responder.

Do you back away from stressors? Withdraw into yourself? Stop talking about it, distance yourself and try to avoid it as best as you can? You are a STOP responder.

Do you freeze in place, unable to take conscious action, either toward or away from stressors? Do you feel overwhelmed or paralyzed by indecision at key moments, even though your brain is nattering away furiously at you that you must do something, anything? You are a FREEZE responder.

Take a moment now and think about your responses to different stressful situations. Which response type do you experience the most? How does it effect your actions and how you handle stressors?

Stress Responses Include 3 Dimensions: Physical, Mental and Spiritual

Physical responses include sensations as eclectic and far-reaching as heartburn, unexplained energy, lethargy, headache, abdominal pain, “butterflies” in your stomach, muscle tension and hyperventilation, including to the point of asthma and panic attacks.

Mental responses include psychological and emotional states such as agitation, frustration, decreased ability to handle intellectual and social tasks, moodiness, rigidity, anger, depression, shutting down, pulling away and spacing out.

Spiritual responses highlight how we see ourselves in the world, and include disengagement, apathy, anger at the world, angst, moral indecision, invalidation as a person and self-awareness.

How do you respond to stressors? Take a minute now and characterize your own responses to stressors in the physical, mental and spiritual dimensions.

Why Do You Respond to Stress The Way You Do?

Genetics play a major role in stress responses, firmly guided by life experiences. Stress responses are definitely a case of both/and with respect to the nature/nurture debate.

How others react to your stress responses plays an additional pivotal role. For example, anger is frowned upon in our society, especially when expressed by women, so individuals with natural anger reactions learn to dampen their external expression of anger and turn it inward.

Can You Change The Way You Respond To Stress?

Kind of. While the physiologic and hormonal cascade of stress response and how your brain interprets it is outside of your control, recognizing and engaging with your stress response lowers its impact on you markedly. Additionally, when you start taking healthy actions based on the responses, such as deep breathing, you begin training yourself how to respond in the future, affecting the “life experience” side of the response for the better.

Can You “Fix” Your Stress Response?

That’s a fair question, but a tricky one. You don’t want to “fix” your stress response, meaning get rid of it completely, because some stress is positive, and we require some stress to make healthy decisions and move forward as human beings. This is especially true of us nurse practitioners, who make decisions affecting others’ health and lives many times per day.

You can decrease the strength of the negative aspects of your stress response by implementing nonspecific recommendations like exercising, fostering healthy social connections, eating right, sleeping enough, relaxing, meditating, cultivating a sense of humor and otherwise taking care of yourself, but these don’t address the specific concerns with YOUR stress response.

However, I have run out of space, so I will defer the answer to the question “how do you deal with specific reaction types” until the next blog post.

Do you recognize your stress response category, and how you respond in the 3 main dimensions? How does it affect you and your workday and your stress level? Share your story in the comments below.

Take Care Of You,


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