• Nicky Dye

Understanding Your Stress Response

It's Mental Health Awareness Week and there's no better time to take a look at your own stress level. What's in your stress bucket this week? Are you sleeping well? Do you have fun and do you laugh? Are you making choices, or reacting and getting drawn into other people's emotions? We are all perfectly capable of operating well with a certain level of stress, but it becomes a problem when the slightest thing tips you over into anger or tears.

It helps to understand what's going in the brain. Stress switches on our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). When we are stressed, the body secretes a hormone called cortisol from the adrenal glands. This sends energy into our muscles and our mind into Fight/Flight/Freeze response, ready to spring into action for our survival. Stressors are not just physical, they can be threats to our self-worth or feelings of shame, or a continuous input of information (social media ring any bells?). The SNS is good for focus and motivation, but we are not designed to be in this state for prolonged periods of time.

We need to switch on the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) - the rest and digest mode, so that we can come back into a state of balance. This is a good state to be in for quality sleep or doing exams with a calm, undistracted mind. Your breath is your best tool to self regulate your mood. Come back to the present moment by bringing your attention to your senses, your breath, your body. When you take your seat in your exam or arrive for an interview, take 5 long, deep breaths - it's good for memory recall and decisions. Or if you're feeling anxious, breathe out for longer than you breathe in.

Sleep is very important for managing stress. 9 hours is the recommended amount for teenagers, not helped by the body clock moving later, and having to get up early for school. Less than 6 hours puts you into sleep deprivation and your system into the sympathetic state i.e. stressed. So turn off your devices 2 hours before sleeping, and enjoy some chillout time - write 3 good things that happened to you, do some origami/drawing/art, chat (face to face) or listen to music.

It can take time to explore what your personal coping strategies are, but as you do, write them down or make a mood board. You don't have to go to the gym if it's not your thing, you could listen to music or take a walk in nature. It's empowering as you become more and more resilient and in control of your own emotions. Let me know how you get on.

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