Transforming the Stress Response

It is a well-proven medical fact that emotions affect the body, and that stress contributes to illness by compromising many systems, including the heart, digestive and immune systems. It can also lead to depression, anxiety and decreased longevity.

Health science has come a long way in determining the effects of stress and ways to manage it, but there is another dimension to stress management that allows people to release their stress reactions while, or even before, they are triggered.

To learn how to interrupt chronic stress patterns, it’s important to examine what they are. The “stress response” is an automatic biological reaction that occurs when danger is perceived. It stimulates a neurological response in the brain, leading to the release of hormones that travel to many organs in the body to aid in responding to a perceived threat. The physiological effects of these stress hormones include shallow breathing, increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscular tension, hyper alertness, decreased sleep and unsteadiness or feeling ungrounded.

While the stress response was designed to mobilize people in times of actual physical danger, such as fleeing tigers and bears, modern stressors are often more emotional and psychological in nature, such as difficult relationships and overwhelming “to do” lists. The problem is that the body doesn’t know the difference between grizzly bears and being late to a meeting, and the stress response kicks in.

Modern anxieties can become chronic, keeping the stress response locked in the “on” position, which wreaks havoc on physical and psychological health. Complicating the situation is the fact that people often respond to present situations based on stressful experiences in the past. This is called conditioning and is generally unconscious and automatic.

Finally, the nervous system can’t distinguish between an actual threat and an imagined one when triggered by a stressful thought. The fear of failure can activate the stress response as readily as that grizzly bear, even when it’s unconscious.

In addition to adopting stress management practices to help the bodymind shift to a relaxation response, there is another powerful way to combat stress. It involves becoming aware of the unconscious beliefs, memories and perceptions that cause the nervous system to become alert. Becoming aware of one’s emotions and physical reactions allows for conscious choices to release the stress pattern. Here are some simple steps to develop this awareness and help the body shift to a state of more openness and calm.

1. Become aware of your body’s stress responses. Do you hold your breath and tighten your jaw, shoulders or any other muscles? Perhaps you become ungrounded and lose awareness of your body altogether. Notice chronic postures that you adopt in daily life. Do you collapse your chest when you feel afraid? Do you tighten your back to “effort” through life?

2. Release this stress posture by reversing it. Deepen your breath, release tense muscles, open your chest and expand whatever has collapsed. It is helpful to bend the knees and feel the weight of your body on the floor.

3. Identify the “threat” that your nervous system is responding to. Is there really a bear chasing you or are intimidated by your boss? Are you responding to the person or situation in front of you or to someone or something from the past? Are you actually in danger?

Once aware of these conditioned patterns, the most important thing is to practice self-compassion and patience. Awareness brings the ability to adopt new reactions and postures that promote freedom, peace and health.

Alison Shaw is a nurse practitioner, integrative therapist and founder of Bodymind Resourcing, in Arlington. For more information, visit or call 781-646-0686.

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