1. Rest and Digest
We aren’t meant to spend most of our time in overdrive. Part of life necessarily involves replenishing ourselves by getting into a parasympathetic response — what you experience when you nap, get a massage, or lie in savasana at the end of yoga. This restorative mode helps us recover from the wear and tear of daily life and times of stress.
The problem is that most of us don’t take time to hit the pause button, because we think we can’t — or shouldn’t. But intentionally taking time to recuperate after an unexpected stressful event will lessen its effects. Better yet, we should regularly build this time into our schedules.
I recommend creating a nightly routine that helps you downshift; this guarantees that your body has a chance to get out of fight-or-flight mode daily. Try to eat dinner at least three hours before bed, so your body can finish the period of active digestion and use those nutrients for rest and repair while you sleep. Turn off devices at least an hour before bedtime to avoid upsetting messages and the light from the screen that signals the pineal gland that it’s time to wake up.
Here are a few other ways to shift into “rest and digest” that you can try anytime:
- Breathe slowly and deeply for five minutes.
- Spend 30 minutes a day in nature.
- Take a relaxing hot bath.
- Attend a yoga class.
- Meditate, even for just 10 minutes.
2. Tend and Befriend
There’s a physiological reason it feels so good to call a friend when you’re feeling anxious or down. UCLA researcher Shelley Taylor, PhD, has identified this as the “tend and befriend” stress response.
Along with adrenaline and cortisol, the body produces a small amount of oxytocin in response to a threat. Sometimes called “the cuddle hormone,” oxytocin triggers us to bond with others, which helps us feel safe and settle down.
When Taylor’s research group investigated why reaching out for support is typically easier for women, they concluded that it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. It’s not easy to fight off a beast or to run if you’re pregnant or caring for small children, so females relied more on the group for protection.
Men also benefit greatly from social support — and for them, a little bonding goes a long way because they seem to have fewer oxytocin receptors than women do.
Either way, it’s worth silencing the achievement-oriented voices of shame in your head that tell you to avoid sharing your worries. The idea that you should be able to handle stress without help is just not true; we never have. And why deny yourself one of nature’s great “chill pills”? Shifting into this mode isn’t hard:
- Do something social — anything that allows you to bond with others. You don’t need to discuss problems to get the benefit of social bonding.
- Connect with a good friend on the phone or take a walk and talk it out. Studies show that verbalizing our concerns automatically turns off the sympathetic nervous system.
3. Excite and Delight
You don’t have to shut down when you feel pressure. It’s possible to open up and use the energy of stress to become more interested in what’s going on. This is called the “excite and delight” response. Because it also involves cortisol and adrenaline, you feel the same level of alertness and awareness as you do in fight or flight.
But rather than narrowing your focus, you choose to open up, to be curious.
Marilee Adams, PhD, calls this a “learner mindset.” When we’re faced with a situation we don’t know how to handle, we start asking questions. Its opposite is a “judger mindset”: We see something unfamiliar or threatening and make quick judgments — no questions asked. This is the default of the fight-or-flight response, in which hormones limit our perception of the bigger picture.
If you adopt a learner mindset, a challenging situation can become an opportunity to learn or experience something new. If you’re ill, for example, you can view your symptoms as a chance to listen to your body instead of as signs of your demise. Or if someone is being aggressive toward you, you could ask yourself what’s going on with that person, rather than reacting defensively. This might lead to compassion instead of more anger.
Curiosity expands your options for how to solve problems — and often resolves them more quickly and easily.
Once you’ve developed a habit of being interested, you can use all the best parts of the stress response — alertness, energy, focus — to have new kinds of experiences, ones in which you use your excited energy to expand your abilities and ideas, instead of shutting down.
Asking yourself these questions can help you shift into excite-and-delight mode:
- What’s really happening here?
- What else might be going on that I’m not seeing?
- What’s interesting about this situation?
This article originally appeared as part of “Reset Your Stress” by Aviva Romm, MD.