If we do not learn to manage stress correctly it can negatively impact both our mental and physical wellbeing. Prolonged periods of stress, for example, can affect our ability to digest food and sleep, while laying the foundation for mental issues such as anxiety and depression. It is therefore vital that we recognize when our body is in toxic stress so we can quickly move out of the "danger zone".
Once we are aware we are in the “danger zone” we can make stress work for us by reconceptualizing the problem and turning it into something constructive, as I discuss in my book Think, Learn, Succeed. This process of awareness and reconceptualization will allow the blood vessels around our hearts to dilate, which increases the oxygen flowing to our brains. This, in turn, increases our cognitive fluency and clarity of thought, that is our ability to not only face a challenge but overcome it. This increased blood flow also balances the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, allowing a number of neurophysiological and genetic processes to work for us by fueling intellectual growth. Additionally, a genetic switch will be turned on inside the hippocampus of our brains, which strengthens our bodies, allowing us to cope in a difficult situation and stay strong amid adversity.
So what are some of the signs that our brain and body is in toxic stress?
- Digestive Issues. As I discuss in my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart, our mind and gut are interconnected, and thus happiness, joy, and pleasure, as well as anger, anxiety, sadness, and bitterness all trigger physical reactions in our digestive systems. As a result, when we are stressed we can often experience digestive issues such as a change in appetite (like craving sweets because they can boost our serotonin and make us feel better), a loss of appetite, bloating (such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS) and constipation.
- Foggy Thinking. If we get stressed about being stressed, our brain tends to go into overdrive, which can hinder our ability to think clearly and reasonably about the situation we are facing. Indeed, “foggy thinking” is often associated with uncontrolled stress—the hypothalamus doesn’t tell our brain and body that things are okay, so they are constantly working overtime to just try keep us on our feet, which takes energy away from thinking clearly about and figuring a way out of the situation at hand. This can also result in headaches and a lack of flexible thinking from low oxytocin and dopamine levels.
- Erratic Energy Levels. Many people experience low energy levels when they are in toxic stress, which further impacts their ability to deal with the situation at hand. On the other hand, some people become extremely hyper when they are stressed as a way to keep distracted and ignore the problem they are facing, which can be equally destructive when it comes to dealing with the root cause of our toxic stress.
So what can we do once we recognize the signs of toxic stress in our lives?
- Find the root cause of your stress through a process of self-reflection and self-dialogue. Stress is a symptom of something that is going on in your life. It is therefore incredibly important that you find out what is making you stressed by analyzing your thinking so you can deal with the cause. Ask yourself why you feel stressed about something, what is happening, how can you change the situation and how your mindset is affecting your ability to deal with the situation. Write down your thoughts; this can bring clarity to the situation at hand.
- Make a plan of action to fix the situation. Once you recognize what is causing your toxic stress reaction it is important to deal with the issue. You need to reconceptialize this toxic thinking pattern by replacing it with a new mindset over a period of 63 days (roughly the time it takes to build a new thought habit). For example, think about how you can learn from the stressful experience, improve yourself or help others going similar issues. Choose to reconceptualize the negative into positive, and over time you will build this into a habit. Do not deny the negative, but do not accept it or claim it as your identity. My new app Switch (coming soon!), which is on pre-sale for less 30% at https://theswitch.app/promo/, is a great tool for helping you through this 63 day process. It is based on my 5 step program, which is designed to help you identify and eliminate the root of your toxic stress, and help you build a healthy new thinking habit. You can also find out more on toxic thinking and how to change negative thinking patterns in my book Switch On Your Brain.
- Chill out. It is so important to give your mind a rest by taking mental health breaks throughout your day, such as running a bubble bath, going for a walk or to an exercise class, grabbing a coffee with a friend, enjoying the weekend—whatever you love to do. When we go into a directed rest state (that is when we are intentional about relaxing!), we enhance and increase the effectiveness of our thinking, which allows us to be more productive when we are working. This, in turn, will reduce our stress levels as we get things done in less time, and move efficiently from task to task.
- Take the time to talk to someone when you feel stressed. Finding life difficult at times is not something to be ashamed of, while suppressing your emotions will only make your stress levels worse. Talk to a friend, a family member, a local counselor, or an online help center. The key to overcoming stress is not in pretending you are always on top of things!
- Reach out and help others. Serving others is a great way to deal with the negative side-effects of toxic stress, as you focus less on your own problem and more on what you can do to make this world a better place for people less fortunate than you. Moreover, when you help others you also help yourself—studies show how helping others can increase our own chance of healing by up to 63%! So join a local institution, spiritual center or non-profit organization and see what you can do to help when you are feeling overwhelmed with stress.
For more information on how to manage stress see my book Think, Learn, Succeed. You can get it today for less 20% with the code TLS20 at checkout!