Acute stress is a physical reaction that helps you to survive. It gives us energy and makes us alert so that we can stay sharp and be prepared for action in life-threatening situations. That’s exactly what you need if you encounter a lion on the way home (just as an example). But it’s more difficult to manage if you’re caught off guard at work, for whatever reason.
How can you manage the tension in situations like this and reduce the stress you’re feeling? Psychologist Britt Slief explains.
Acute stress vs. chronic stress
“Stress comes in two different forms: acute and chronic stress. Acute stress can be helpful, for example when it comes to making decisions,” explains psychologist Britt Slief. “Generally speaking, your body can handle it pretty well.”
Chronic stress is another story. “If stress persists for longer, it becomes dangerous for your body. You lose the positive elements and it leaves you physically exhausted,” she continues.
“Think of it as using water to put out a fire: at first that’s going to be really effective at scaling back the blaze. But if you keep pouring water on a house that’s no longer burning, eventually the house will also fall apart,” psychologist Soesja Vogels illustrated in a previous article.
If you’re experiencing chronic stress, your stress hormones stay high and your body is in a constant state of alert. This causes physical symptoms that you’ll notice in your body, such as:
- Muscle tension
- Stomach aches
- Digestive problems
- Difficulties sleeping
- Reduced focus
The signs your body is giving you can vary depending on the situation. Britt: “On the one hand, you might experience heart palpations and rapid breathing, but on the other hand, you could also begin to sweat and notice your muscles tense up.”
Reducing stress in acute situations
So, your body tells you when you’re stressed – and your body sometimes knows that better than your brain. The question is: what can you do in a stressful situation to reduce the tension and calm down again?
There are various things you can do to manage stressful situations better, both in the long term and in the short term.
Also of interest: The 5 Exercises a Psychologist Does to Relieve Stress
How to reduce stress in an acute situation
How can you calm down your nervous system when you’re suddenly confronted with a stressful situation, such as an angry colleague or an unexpectedly tight deadline? Britt advises:
1. Focus on your breathing. Your breath is a powerful tool that can immediately calm you down. The breath helps us to focus on the here and now and is our connection to the nervous system.
2. Find a distraction: Simply distracting yourself helps you to clear your mind and get some perspective on the situation. For example, focus on your environment, look at what’s going on around you and shift your thoughts. Do this both before and after the situation to reduce your stress response.
3. Cultivate helpful thoughts. When we’re stressed, we quickly descend into worst-case scenarios. Replace these critical thoughts with helpful ones. Challenge your pessimistic theories and shift your thoughts to more positive scenarios. A mantra that might help you here is saying to yourself, for example: “I can do hard things.”
Remember that different techniques work for different people. And also, in different situations. In some situations, you might benefit from a distraction, while at other times that might not help at all.
How to reduce stress in the long term
By building mental resilience you become more resistant to stress. Even the acute kind that comes out of nowhere (such as a difficult conversation that you’re nervous about or when your manager suddenly calls you to their office with a grumpy message).
Resilience helps you to take a flexible approach to deal with challenging situations and setbacks, as they arise, but it also helps you to bounce back afterwards.
This means if you want to experience less stress and keep a cooler head in tense situations, it helps to build resilience. Britt advises:
1. Implement a healthy routine. Routine gives you a sense of control and adds some focus to your day.
2. Exercise. Exercise and sport help you to get out of your head and into your body. That’s exactly what you need when your mind is working overtime.
3. Practice mindfulness regularly. In the long run, mindfulness boosts melatonin production, which helps you to relax, sleep better and be better at dealing with stress. It’s extra important to keep doing it during times of stress or when a stressful period is approaching. Practice mindfulness with OpenUp.
4. Take control of your thoughts. Write down what’s stressing you out and what you can do about it. What is within your control and what can’t you influence? You can prepare for a conversation, but you can’t control how the other person reacts.
5. Do things that give you energy. By doing things that give you energy and help you to relax, you’re making it easier for your body to recover after a stressful situation.
Further reading: 6 Tips for Helping Your Body Recover from (Too Much) Stress
Practice with a psychologist to reduce stress
A psychologist can help you before, during and after stressful situations. By looking at the situation from a distance together, to reflecting on your behaviour and examining what went well and what didn’t, you can learn from your experiences.
Also, a psychologist can help you to prepare for an impending stressful situation. Say, for example, you have an interview coming up and it’s stressing you out. With a psychologist, you can examine where exactly your stress is coming from and how you can prepare for this interview.
A psychologist will also help you to be less hard on yourself and to treat yourself with compassion (because we all have a tendency to judge ourselves harshly in these situations) and reflect on the situation when it’s over. This ensures that you’ll learn something from the stressful experience and it will make you stronger.
Are you facing a stressful situation and could you use some support? Schedule a consultation with one of our psychologists.