Stressful situations arise often, but they are not always in our control. However, the way we respond or react in these situations is something we can control. While these two words may sound similar, they are two very different approaches to managing stress. Let’s explore how your approach can make all the difference in daily stress management.

It’s Natural to React

Our bodies naturally react whenever they encounter a stressful situation. Once our brain recognizes a real or perceived threat, it tells our automatic nervous system (ANS) that it is time to act. The ANS first signals our sympathetic nervous system by increasing stress hormone production and initiating our flight or fight reaction. This reaction causes quick changes in bodily function, such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, elevated blood pressure, contracted muscles, and digestive changes. When the stressor passes, the ANS tells our parasympathetic nervous system that it’s time to slow down the reaction and return to a resting state. This reaction is human and necessary during times of emergency or acute stress. However, problems start to arise whenever stress becomes chronic or poorly managed. Instead of a natural reaction during an emergency, this reaction becomes a consistent response.

The Difference Between Reacting and Responding

Reacting is a quick and natural response. It’s impulsive and typically without much thought. When dealing with daily stressors that aren’t emergencies, rarely are impulsive reactions productive. Quick reactions leave us more vulnerable to poor coping choices, like compulsive behaviors, unhealthy habits, and emotional replies. Often, these reactions leave us even more stressed about the situation. Instead, choosing to respond is more thoughtful, deliberate, and solution-based. Responding acknowledges what happened and seeks constructive ways to manage it. It allows you to be more present with decision-making rather than being on autopilot or letting your thoughts spiral out of control. Responding helps you see which parts of a situation are in your control or out of your control so you can use your energy wisely. A thoughtful response doesn’t always fix the problem, but it allows you space to manage how it will affect you. This approach can help you be more resilient during stressful situations in the future.

Practicing Your Response

Know Your Warning Signs. What physical, mental, or behavioral symptoms do you notice when stressed? Maybe you feel burnt out, unfocused, frustrated, or irritable. These are your warning signs for stress. Use your warning signs to indicate that it is time to think about your response to stressful situations.

Try the STOP Method. Stop and pause what you’re doing, even if for a few seconds. Take a breath and allow your heart rate and breathing to slow down. Observe the situation, your feelings, and possible solutions. Then, proceed with more mindfulness and awareness. This approach can help you cultivate a response rather than a reaction.

Implement the 4 As of Stress Management. Evaluate your stressors by thinking about how you can approach them. Avoid stressors that you can change. Alter stressors that you cannot fully control. Accept and manage stressors that will be around for an extended time, and think about what you can learn from the experience. Adapt your expectations in times of prolonged or expected stress.

Train with Mindfulness Techniques. Practice mindfulness techniques like deep breathing, grounding, or meditation that promote responding and help slow down impulsive reactions. Being mindful only takes a few seconds and reframes your approach to stress management.

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