The stress pot

Hand-drawn picture on flipchart

During my recent workshop on managing stress and anxiety, one participant asked how some people are able to stay unstressed and seem calm pretty much most of the time and other people seem to be stressed far more often. There are various possible explanations for this but the one I’ll focus on here is the stress pot concept.

Let’s assume someone has a residual level of stress due to a work or home situation. During the day, from waking onwards, they may encounter things that cause micro stress doses such as shouting to get kids up and ready, seeing something annoying on social media, running late and getting caught in traffic, having an argument in work, not getting the sandwich they wanted at lunch, getting home and finding someone else didn’t do the shopping/cooking, reaching for wine and/or chocolate to make them feel better etc. None of these are very stressful on their own, but by the end of the day they will have built up to the point where the person can feel like they’re at the end of their tether and had a really stressful day. Each one will have caused the body to send messages to the brain to indicate that things are not right and the person may be in danger. This will have activated the fight or flight response with the result that adrenaline and cortisol are released into the body, with short and long term consequences.

Hand-drawn picture on flipchart
My pretty poor drawing and writing explaining the stress pot concept

For the the person who appears to cope better with stress, their day could be very different because of a lower base level of stress and not being as affected by the same incidents. This is likely to be because they have ways to counteract the micro stress doses, and they do these things throughout the day, such as a morning meditation, consciously breathing from their diaphragm, going for a walk at lunchtime in a green space, listening to their favourite music to feel happy, going to a yoga class after work etc. These actions mean that the stress pot isn’t filling up with micro stress doses during the day. They may also do some things weekly or less often that also reassure the brain that everything’s fine, the body is safe, activating the ‘relaxation response’ rather than the ‘fight or flight’ response. This might be going swimming once a month, or a bike ride, or a long walk in nature, watching a comedy film with friends, or booking a massage. These are preemptive strategies against stress and in essence make the person’s stress pot bigger,

Integrating daily, weekly or more occasional habits into your life will build up your capacity or resilience to stress, and will essentially give you a bigger stress pot. This means that when you do encounter stress it doesn’t overwhelm you, and you have techniques you can use to trigger the beneficial relaxation response instead. Yoga and breathing practices which emphasise a long exhale are ideal, but the trick is to find thing that you enjoy doing, and that comfort you and send signals to your brain that everything’s fine.

On Stress Awareness Day (Wednesday 6th November 2019) in the UK, can you identify one small action you could take today which would make your brain and body feel good, happy, in a safe place and relaxed? Try to set aside the time to do this, even for 5 minutes. If you’re at a loss of what to do, you could listen to one of my audio tracks on mindful breathing – people say I have a very calming voice!

To read more about long term stress and the effect it has on the body read my previous blog post on it or the blog post on other ways to cope with stress.

Red leaves on tree with church in background
Autumn colours on the Crichton estate, Dumfries

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