Managing our Stress Response in Times of Crisis

Managing our Stress Response in Times of Crisis

The past few weeks have encompassed an immense amount of change at an extremely rapid rate. Life as we know it has completely shifted from what our normal routines looked like only days before. Amongst the transition lies significant uncertainty, which naturally produces sensations of unrest, agitation, anxiety, and fear, all of which are ok to be feeling right now. Managing these emotions in a constructive way is central to the overall outcome of the current health crisis, as well as our quality of life while navigating the process. This article explores the natural human stress response and how to adapt in a way that fosters personal growth and nervous system balance during a time of great unknown.

When faced with any type of change, the body automatically undergoes a stress response, which can vary in magnitude depending on the nature and rate of the change. This response occurs whether the change is judged to be good, bad, or somewhere in between. The intriguing piece is decoding what that stress response looks like on a physical, emotional, and behavioural level, which will vary between each unique person depending on their past experiences and personal emotional triggers. We are currently in the midst of a mass stress response of global scale, which is greatly impacting our collective reaction to a very significant health crisis, the nature of which is highly dependent on our timely actions as a whole.

This is an incredible opportunity for each individual to get in touch with what their personal stress response looks like, and become familiar with how emotions impact actions and behaviours. When faced with any type of threat, it’s a natural human instinct to experience fear and desire to secure basic survival needs. However, as conscious beings, we have the ability to intentionally clear the lens through which we perceive things in our environment, and decipher whether our behaviours are being driven by emotions versus the situation at hand. The reality is that emotions are powerful and drive a lot of our behaviours. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when considering positive emotions such as happiness and love, which can generate incredibly wonderful experiences. The key piece is being aware that emotions influence us, often outside of our immediate conscious awareness. Learning how we are being affected is fundamental, especially during a stressful and emotional time, where various behaviours can have significant impacts on the overall outcome.

Currently, the vast majority of people are experiencing some kind of stress response pertaining to either a health or financial threat, or a significant change in lifestyle. Strategies for cultivating awareness of how your own unique body and mind respond in these scenarios are of vital importance. The best place to start is to check-in with yourself about how you’re feeling both physically and emotionally, especially when you notice a pattern shifting in your thoughts or actions. Some parameters to be aware of are:

  • Heartbeat: what is the rate, rhythm, and force of contraction?
  • Respiration: is breathing fast or slow? Shallow or deep?
  • Mouth: does it feel dry?
  • Hands: are they sweaty?
  • Stomach: does it feel knotted or twisted?
  • Emotional: do you feel calm, happy, sad, angry, afraid, isolated, stressed?

The sympathetic “fight or flight” stress response affects many different organ systems in the body, but a typical response can include increased heart rate and force of contraction of the heart, decreased salivary secretions, and increased sweating. This doesn’t mean you need to continuously check your Fitbit for your vitals, but if you do have that data, it may be eye-opening to observe the patterns. Becoming familiar with these physical sensations can provide compelling insight into what may be influencing thoughts, emotions, and actions. 

Just as the nervous system can mount a sympathetic response in a stressful scenario, it can also enter a restorative parasympathetic “rest and digest” state if it feels safe enough to do so. Certain tools can be incredibly effective for promoting a shift in nervous system activity that contribute to a calm, grounded, and mindful state, in which observation of the body and mind becomes much easier. Some strategies include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Deep diaphragm breathing: inhale through your nose for 5 seconds, hold for 3 seconds, and slowly exhale through your mouth for 5 seconds. Keep your shoulders and upper chest still while feeling your lower abdomen rise and fall. Try 10 breaths in a row to calm a stress response.
  • Meditation 
  • Gentle movements such as Yoga, Tai Chi, or Qi Gong 
  • Being in nature or listening to nature soundtracks and viewing nature photographs
  • Connecting with loved ones, including remotely over video calls, phone calls, text messages, emails, or social media
  • Grounding: in your immediate environment, name 3 things you see, 3 things you hear, and 3 things you physically feel. This technique can be especially helpful when feeling pulled out of the present moment from strong emotional reactions.

With the enormous recent shifts, many people are in the process of adapting to various levels of change, and experiencing stress responses while navigating these transitions and the unknown future. Fortunately, humans are extraordinarily talented at adapting to their environment, and it’s only a matter of time before the novelty of some of these adjustments wears off. In reality, things are always in a state of constant flux and evolution, and while this is one of the most difficult truths to accept, it provides some level of comfort in that whatever we’re currently experiencing will not last, and will transform as time goes on. 

All emotions make up part of the human experience, and feeling them and acknowledging them appropriately without attaching negative judgement is fundamental. Cultivating an awareness of how they manifest in the body and influence thoughts and actions provides tremendous insight on how our behaviours can impact the collective well-being at a time where our actions are vital in the future outcome for all of us together.