As suggested in a previous article, stress is as old as mankind itself – a chemical reaction in your body to real or perceived danger which has been passed down through the generations for thousands of years. In effect, in the days of our Neanderthal ancestors, stress was a warning system or an alarm that told our ancient forebears that urgent action was imperative, an alarm that suddenly changed their whole metabolism to prepare for the fight or flight that inevitably followed.
Given that it is very rare indeed for modern man to be in a situation where such dramatic or drastic actions become necessary, it is a fact that stress is nowadays something akin to a false alarm. Whilst there are hazardous situations that need quick and decisive actions (for example, if you are base jumping, you need to make sure your chute opens), there is no real need for most of us to get stressed out in general, everyday situations.
You’re being too hard on yourself
Another thing that you have to understand that might help you deal with stress is that it is not always the situation or event that we perceive as causing stress that is the real cause.
It is often the way that we deal with the situation that causes the stress levels to rise, rather than the situation itself. This happens because it is a basic feature of human nature that we are always harder on ourselves than we would be on other people. When we make a decision or attempt to do something that goes wrong, most people immediately tend to become super self-critical. They give themselves a good “dressing down”, internally explaining why they should never have attempted to do what they were trying to do in the first place, how they have just made a fool of themselves and so on. If a friend or family member had tried what we have just tried, we would console them with the thought that these things happen, that if you never try, you never know and that it is just one of those things.
When we are telling ourselves off however, we tend to be far more critical and sharp. Hence, most of us have the capability to create a stressful situation out of something that was not at all inherently stressful a few brief moments before. This is effectively a double-false alarm because there was not need to get stressed in the first place but we did, only to aggravate our stress levels considerably further by giving ourselves a hard time about it. Negative thinking of this nature is extremely destructive because not only does it damage your potential to perform to your maximum capabilities by undermining your self-confidence, it also distracts your attention away from the main task to focus on your internal emotional strife.
If you can therefore learn or teach yourself how to turn off these false alarm situations so that you do not react to challenging and difficult events by getting stressed, you have taken a significant step towards reducing stress levels in your life. In this way, you have minimized the possibility of suffering the attendant medical side-effects that can be so critically dangerous. So, how do you set about turning off these false alarms when they occur? There are many different tactics or strategies that you can try that have been successful for many other sufferers before you, most of which are focused on learning to relax rather than reacting when faced with a situation which might otherwise become stressful.
Whenever you are faced with a situation that has the potential to become a stress filled moment, it is extremely effective for reducing the impact if you have mastered the art of breathing deeply and slowly on command. Taking slow, deep breaths under complete control rather than the fast and shallow breaths that we automatically tend to take when we are stressed is a highly effective way of making sure that stress never gets its foot into our emotional door. Teaching yourself to react to stressful situations by conscious command of your breathing is a superbly effective way of minimizing the possibility of stress taking control of the moment.
There are many different ways that you can teach yourself to breathe deeply and slowly at those moments when stress seems imminent, such as the classical “stand back, count to ten, in and out” strategy. Anxiety or stress attacks both tend to hit you quickly and suddenly, so if you make a conscious effort to take a step back (physically or metaphorically), slowly count to 10 and force yourself to breathe deeply and slowly, the stressed moment will almost always pass. Sometimes however, even though you know what you should do, it can be difficult to actually physically do what you are supposed to be doing at those times when stress or anxiety hits hardest and deepest. As this is obviously the time when controlling your breathing to keep your stress or panic under control is most critically important, this can be a major downside of having to make a conscious effort to breathe deeply.
For this reason, my favorite method of learning deep breathing is to follow a training method that was first used around 100 years ago with dogs! You may have heard of Pavlov’s dogs, a phrase which refers to an experiment carried out by an eminent Russian scientist named Ivan Pavlov. He wanted to establish whether it was possible to prompt what might otherwise be seen to be involuntary reflex reactions on command. Hence he carried out his experiment into what he called “conditioned reflexes” with dogs. After ringing a small bell, he would feed the dogs and he continued this process of ringing the bell, then feeding them for some time.
One day, he rang the bell but did not feed them. Nevertheless, the dogs became attentive, began to salivate and Pavlov noted that the digestive process also seemed to start at the same time. In effect, by ringing the bell he had conditioned their automatic reflexes to react in a certain way on command. By following this adaption of the Pavlov method, you can teach yourself to do the same thing with deep breathing and stress. Through a process of self education (which is explained in detail in this article), you can condition your reflexes so that every time you’re faced with a stressful situation, you have already trained your metabolism to slow down your breathing as an automatic response.
In effect therefore, by learning this version of the Pavlov method, you put yourself in a position where you will automatically avoid almost every stressed situation without even having to think about doing so. Not only this but just having the knowledge that whenever stress appears to be imminent, you are capable of banishing it automatically has another significant advantage. As you know that your Pavlovian conditioned reflexes will “kick in” whenever stress raises its ugly head and that through deep breathing, you have the power to neutralize stress automatically will make you a far calmer and more relaxed individual. Hence, by adopting this particular deep breathing training idea, you reduce the possibility of stress in two different highly effective ways.