How to manage stress in everyday life?

Stress accompanies your life and is familiar to you. In your daily life, the tension you often experience is accompanied by impatience and irritability which are expressed, to a greater or lesser extent, in your reaction to the unexpected, setbacks or conflicts. 

Your mood changes at the slightest opportunity when plans do not go as you anticipated, when you have to make a simple decision or in the middle of traffic when someone unexpectedly crosses your path, and you react in an intense way to something or someone who rationally recognises that there is no reason for such an emotional outburst. All this happens gradually until there comes a moment when you realise with trepidation that you have little or no capacity to deal with the ordinary events in your life and everything seems to be too much for you.

All these reactions can be caused by physical, psychological or environmental factors which generate stress, but these are not the only reactions to stress. In some cases, instead of irritability or emotional instability, you disconnect from everything and everyone. He/she becomes isolated or withdrawn, contrary to his/her own nature and personality, in an attempt to re-establish internal order, a sense of balance and well-being to cope with the continuous pressure, agitation, fatigue or physical and psychological discomfort.

How to manage stress in daily life with the multivagal approach?

What is stress anyway? What are some of its reactions? Which stress management strategies are more in tune with the balance of our nervous system according to the multivagal approach? This theory which explains reactions to stress, based on the functioning of the nervous system, in a continuum of reactions aimed at reducing or resolving danger or insecurity cues to re-establish internal security, which improves physical and mental health, connection and relationship with others, promotes openness to change and ease of adaptation to new situations.

“Stress is caused

by being “here”

but wanting to be “there”.”

Eckhart Tolle

What does stress mean?

Stress results from the perception of inability to cope with the demands of situations determined by factors inside (physical or physiological changes) or outside the person (for example: deadlines, workload, conflicts, environmental conditions, etc.). The person feels that he/she does not have the ability or the means to cope with events.

Good stress (eustress) vs Bad stress (distress)

This pressure may impel you to act and improve your performance (good stress or eutress) and to find new ways of coping, such as:

  • improving your time management;
  • increasing their ability to say no
  • Being more up-front in the way you communicate;
  • dealing with a physical issue;
  • improving your living, working and/or environmental conditions. 

If, on the contrary, it contributes to a decrease in intellectual performance, emotional or physical well-being we are facing a situation of bad stress (distress). Some studies clearly show that prolonged and high levels of stress are associated with poor physical and mental health and increase the risk of premature death

“Doing something that is productive

is a great way to

to relieve emotional stress”

Ziggy Marley

Some reactions to stress

Hayles, around 1930, noted that there were two types of responses to stress: fight and flight. These are ways of resolving situations by facing them or avoiding (ignoring) them as a way of resolving or adapting. Later, researchers added a third response which is expressed in the inability to react resulting from various processes which lead to immobilisation, the blocking of action (freeze).

In situations of extreme stress – in which the person feels their life (physical or psychological) in imminent danger and feels unable to react – trauma specialists have recently identified other reactions, such as, for example: an immense need to please or to connect with other people, or, then, the extreme response that is to collapse or conform, without vital energy to act or react.

And what do all these reactions to stress have in common?

They are basic adaptation and survival mechanisms which, in the context of your life, can lead to greater integration, balance, well-being or fulfilment or, on the contrary, to enormous weariness, tiredness, frustration, irritability or detachment, lack of interest in your surroundings and other physical symptoms such as insomnia, hypertension, headaches, irregularities in the menstrual cycle, sexual problems and fertility, among others.

“The body reorganises itself when it feels safe.

Stephen Porges

3 Ways in which the Autonomic Nervous System regulates itself in the face of danger:

It is important to understand, briefly, how your body, in particular your brain – Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) – works to regulate your reaction to stress, increase your resilience and connection with others. For the author of the polyvagal approach, psychiatrist Stephen Porges, and one of the people who has most publicised and applied this approach, psychotherapist Deb Dana, to understand the strategies it is important to know the three forms of protection of the ANS.

There are three ways of protecting the ANS from danger (stress), which I will simplify with some examples that do not reflect all the individual reactions to each of these states:

1. Protection through immobilisation or the dorsal system: it favours immobilisation and isolation strategies to protect itself. If you are an inactive person, with little interest in your surroundings or who sleeps a lot you are likely to spend much of your life in the dorsal state;

2. Mobilisation as a form of protection or defence governed by the sympathetic nervous system (when faced with danger he reacts by “fighting” or “fleeing”). If you are a dynamic person who is always busy doing something, who cannot sit still or be quiet, you probably spend most of your life in this survival mode;

3. Security or connection who is governed by the social vagal, that is to say, he lives in a security mode that allows him to be frequently connected, available and in relationship with others. If you occupy your life with various forms of connection with others or with nature and you are in a state of flow, calm, connection, creativity, although you may be in a more desirable mode, you need to “experience” all three modes in order to be in physical and psychological balance.

Balance comes through flexible and balanced navigation in the three states: dorsal, sympathetic and social vagal, rather than being permanently in one state.

“There is more wisdom in your body

than in the deepest philosophy.”

Nietzsche

What are the best strategies for stress regulation according to the SNA approach?

1. identify the mode in which you spend most time

First of all, you need to identify and characterise in which mode you spend most time so that you can create moments in which you feel safer, calmer and more connected.

  • Do you spend most time in a mode of isolation or absence that characterises a back mode where you often feel absent, hopeless, exhausted, dazed, helpless, empty, isolated?
  • Is your day characterised more by a survival mode regulated by the sympathetic system that can go from a state of more or less frenzy or movement, speed to a state of more or less worry, anxiety, concern?
  • Do you often find yourself in relationship and connection with the world and with others? Do you feel more relaxed, calm, confident, free, grateful, curious, compassionate?

2. Identify what puts you in protection/defence mode

  • What kind of events, situations, people put you in a protection/defence mode (which implies the functioning of the dorsal and the sympathetic system)?
  • What events cause you stress: constant demands that you cannot cope with (deadlines, volume of work, diversity of tasks), feeling ignored, powerless, listening to the news on the TV, listening to or reading messages (posts) on Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp or other social networks, family arguments, bills that you cannot pay or that have come due, noisy or confrontational colleagues?

3. Identify what strategies you use to stop being in a state of blockage or immobility

  • What actions or micro-events make you move from a state of greater immobility/blocking to being more in tune with yourself and others?

If you are in a more backward state, the following strategies of a more mental or emotional nature may help. For example: praying, meditating, crying, remembering happy moments, thinking of someone you love, accepting a hug, talking to someone, being in a place with little movement. These can be small actions that help move from a state of greater blockage/immobility to action. Some physical strategies to get out of this state can include something as simple as a hot drink, a bath, a massage, or even sleep.

4. Identify what strategies you use to deal with events that cause you agitation, anxiety, irritation

Some people, when they are nervous, clean up, organize their cupboards or throw things away. Others exercise, dance, sing, listen to loud music, talk to someone or write.

  • Which ways do you use when you are in this state and what helps you to relax and become calmer?

5. Identify what people, events, situations make you feel safe and want to connect

Just as there may be small things that cause blockage or agitation, there are also micro-events that help you feel good. It can be something as simple as a smile from someone, feeling the sun on your face, listening to a programme with someone you like, driving to the beach, playing with children or pets, breathing intentionally and consciously, enjoying nature, concentrating on enjoying a song, a landscape or doing something with total concentration or in such a way that you feel deeply connected to something or someone, which is characteristic of various forms of spirituality or reconnection (religion).

For human beings, regulation through the social vagal is what allows us to feel a shared security with others. This explains the satisfaction and well-being that is obtained when one is with friends, girlfriends, close people or peers with whom one has affinity and security. This fact, which translates into the capacity for co-regulation, clearly explains to us that relating to others is a biological imperative and is no longer just a social need that affects our health.

For their humans, social relationship is a fundamental social imperative for physical health.

However, physical, mental and emotional balance requires flexibility so that you can stop when you need to, act at the right time and relate safely. Without knowing it, you have a radar where your body detects danger without you being aware of it (neuroception). It is therefore important to find a way in which you bring into awareness what causes you to enter each state and what leads you to gradually come out of it.

“There is within you

a natural capacity for self-healing

which is your greatest strength

to make you well.”

Hipócrates

“What can help me deal effectively with stress?”

Naturally, this is the question that is hanging over your mind. And, much to my regret, there is no universal recipe. There are practices used that I mentioned earlier. But, the most appropriate strategies for you necessarily involve gaining awareness of what state you are in at various times throughout the day/week/month and learning to define what triggers are causing more or less agitation, and how you can get out of it. In this way, even though stress may be a fact of life, it will certainly no longer be a way of life.

“Listen to the wind, it speaks.

Listen to the silence, it speaks.

Listen to your heart, it knows.”

Native American proverb

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