‘Sense’ No Fear- Outsmart the Stress Response

We all have the inner wisdom required to reduce stress as it’s happening in the moment. With practice, you can learn to tap into this wisdom and identify the stress triggers, helping you stay in control when the pressure builds. Learning mindfulness techniques and stress reduction tools can alter neural pathways, reduce unhelpful habitual reactivity and provide effective relief from the primal stress response. Like any skill, mindfulness takes some self-exploration, discipline and regular practice. However, there are simple and effective ways to reduce the impact of stress straight away.

Make SENSE of the Situation

 When our bodies “fight, flight, freeze” state continues repeatedly, a heightened state of physiological and psychological hyper-arousal occurs. This state is characterised by significant muscle tension and strong emotions. The stress response is a hard-wired physiological response to ‘perceived threat’.  This is where things get rather interesting. The body’s perception of a ‘perceived threat’ is rarely accurate or true. Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, work pressures, and relationship difficulties.

The good news is you can ‘outsmart’ this overactive physiological stress response. Studies show that you can feel better immediately by engaging the five senses—and that stands to reason when you consider how the demands of modern life disconnect the mind from the body. The quickest way to stamp out stress and to calm your nervous system is to move out of your ‘head’ and into your ‘body’. This can be done quickly and easily by engaging one or more of your senses—your sense of sight, sound, taste, smell, or touch. The practice of using your senses immediately sends a signal to the brain’s limbic system to let the body know it is safe from harm and danger. This rapidly stabilises your emotions and will calm and ground you in the present moment.

The key to practicing quick stress relief of this manner is learning what kind of sensory input helps your particular nervous system find calm and focus quickly. Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so it’s essential to discover your personal preferences.

The Power of The Present 

Regular activation of the senses in the present moment can stimulate and boost various areas of the brain’s pre-frontal cortex. This provides a disconnection of our mind from its “stress centre”, giving rise to a range of physical as well as mental health benefits.

Simply put, using our senses and being mindful in the moment calms our nervous system. While stress activates the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system, mindfulness meditation activates the “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system, helping to put a break on the stress response. Our heart rate drops, our respiration slows and our blood pressure falls.

MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight, flight, freeze” centre, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress.

As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker. The “functional connectivity” between these regions – i.e. how often they are activated together – also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.

Beat the Stress at Work

  • Be mindful Practice being mindful in each moment. Slow down, smell and taste your food, listen to others attentively. Practice a mindfulness exercise. Focus on your breathing to help you really stay focused on what you are doing in that very moment. Feel your body in space as you sit at your desk or move.
  • In meetings. During stressful or tense meetings, always remember the breath is easily accessible and can anchor you to the present moment immediately. Remain connected to your breath. Notice how your abdomen rises and falls with each inbreath and each outbreath. Notice the touch of the chair underneath you or feel the floor beneath your feet.  Massage the tips of your fingers. Wiggle your toes. Smell your coffee and drink it slowly.
  • On the phone. Smell something energising, like lemon and ginger tea or a fresh coffee. Try to walk as much as possible when on the phone. If you can go outside notice your surroundings and quietly repeat to yourself how many colours you can see around you (e.g blue sky, green tree etc)
  • On the computer. Stand up regularly. Look outside if you are near a window to connect with nature. Shades of blue and green, as well as neutral earth tones, have calming effects through their associations with nature. Wrap a soft scarf around your neck. Try sucking on a peppermint.
  • During lunch breaks. Take a walk around the block or in the parking lot. Listen to soothing music while eating. Eat mindfully, make sure your mind is not wandering- be present with each mouthful. Have a quick chat with a loved one or close friend.
  • At Your Desk Display family photos of your loved ones or pets on your desk and use images of nature or special places to remind you of your life outside the office. If you are near the window, look outside regularly and connect with as many senses as possible.

For more information about our 8 week mindfulness-based stress resilience program ‘Wise’ please visit www.engagehealth.com.au/wise