Do you know when you’re stressed out?
Stress is your body’s way of dealing with challenges. It is built upon an evolutionary system which is tasked with sending biological messages between your body and brain. In the case of stress, these are both electrical and chemical by way of your sympathetic nervous system and your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA for short) axis.
When you feel under challenge, these systems become activated, and the messages result in the physical feelings that we all associate with being stressed. A racing heart, sweaty palms, and shortness of breath to name a few. It also causes metabolic changes which alter other underlying systems such as mobilizing your glucose stores so you can be ready for action if necessary (aka fight or flight).
When these sensations are strong, it is fairly easy to be self-aware to the fact that you are feeling stressed out. In fact, these sensations are sometimes tough to ignore, distracting you even more from the task that you are supposed to be working on, and causing you emotional distress.
However, sometimes, these sensations just linger subtly in the background of your mental and physiological awareness. Never quite reaching a threshold that causes them to stand out and shout “stress!”, but still sufficiently present to have an impact on your performance. When we are only talking about short-term low-level stress then this can be a good thing, as commonly shown by the fact that mild stress can be motivating in some contexts. However, when it is chronic, stronger and never-ending, then it can start to have a harmful effect on your overall health and well-being.
Being able to realize and recognize the signals of stress is, therefore, key to making sure that you can put an action plan together, or initiate lifestyle changes, which can help mitigate the negative effects of stress.
Being in sync with your stress.
Recent research also shows that people differ in terms of how good or bad they are at picking up on their body’s stress response signals and translating them into a subjective realization of stress. This matters because the researchers also showed that people who are more in sync with the physiological sensations going on in their body have a higher level of psychological well-being.
In their research, they looked at how closely people’s ratings of their own perceived stress levels matched the physiological markers of stress that were measured from their body – in particular, their heart rate. And what they found was that some people showed a better match between their subjective feelings of stress and their physiological markers of stress. In other words, they were more in sync with the stress reactions that were going on inside their body.
Stress, emotional regulation and psychological well-being.
And, what’s especially interesting, is that it was these people – the people who were more in sync with their body physiology – who showed fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, a greater overall psychological well-being, and lower levels of inflammation.
What’s not clear from the research yet is whether it is their greater level of emotional regulation which results in them being more in sync with their body signals, or whether being more in sync with their body signals leads to greater levels of emotional regulation. However, what is does suggest is that denial probably isn’t the optimal route to take. Instead, listening to the stressful feeling and sensations that you are experiencing, rather than dismissing or ignoring them, might help you regulate your stress-related emotions more effectively.
More generally, studies like this one suggest that having a greater awareness of your own internal emotional and physiological state – through improvements in your emotional intelligence – is an important element of managing your psychological well-being. Also, interventions which help you pay attention to your physical states, such as meditation/mindfulness, or those which target management of your vagal tone, might be effective routes for building up your resilience to stressful situations and helping to improve your emotional regulation.
To learn more about how to manage your physical well being and help those in your organization improve emotional regulation please get in touch with us: