By Dr. Sadie Phillips, reflect's head of therapy
Have you ever found yourself waiting at a bar with your heart racing in anticipation of a first date? What about those sweaty palms before a big interview or presentation? Then you know first hand that you can experience mental stress in both your mind and your body. They're connected. Your brain serves a signal to your body to indicate that you’re under pressure, or nervous, or maybe even excited.
Understanding this connection helps us better manage our stress and improve how we interact with others.
“FIGHT OR FLIGHT"
Our automatic sympathetic or involuntary response serves as one of our most primitive ways to protect ourselves from danger. When faced with a potentially threatening situation, our brain tells our body to react and floods it with hormones that elevate our heart rate, increases blood pressure, and boost energy (like an adrenaline rush). We call this phenomena the “fight or flight” response, and it’s your body’s natural alarm system.
This hardwiring certainly serves an important purpose to protect us from real harm. As it turns out, the common threats we face on a daily basis are more often things like a demanding boss or a hyper-political Facebook post from that friend you haven’t seen in 10 years. These are hardly life-threatening, but it doesn’t stop our bodies from reacting the same way. The problem is that sometimes we get stuck in this “fight or flight” mentality -- maybe because of a stressful job, an unhealthy relationship, or just a few repeated interactions during a morning commute. Our response can last a short period (in which case we’re just being “snappy”) or become extended. Over time, in addition to manifesting in the form of anger issues, this tension can create negative consequences on your health including heart disease, high blood pressure, risk for stroke, and immunosuppression. That’s bad.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
The good news is that research consistently shows that doing some proactive interventions can really help to improve your health, lighten your mood, and lower your risk for serious medical concern. We become more equipped to deal with stresses and are less likely to get stuck in “fight or flight.” And as a result, our quality of life can dramatically improve.
Some interventions involve individual behavior changes around eating, sleeping, and exercise better. We’ll address these in other blog posts since each deserves specific attention.
In this post, we wanted to focus on social changes we can make to improve how we handle stress. Evolutionarily, when threats that endanger us cause our body’s natural alarm system to go off, it’s only natural that we seek out situations where we feel safe. Sometimes our natural response is to isolate ourselves and lick our wounds (i.e., flight). Some alone time can be good, but too much of it can have a negative long-term effect if we become too disconnected from others. We lose out on the positive benefits and safe feelings we can get from being around those who support us and make us feel safe.
The science supports this: positive social interactions are proven to help quiet our alarms, improve our mind-body connection, and help us reduce our overall stress levels. When we’re feeling stressed, it’s important that we seek out interactions with those who make us feel safe and supported.
What’s even more interesting is that choosing how we have these social interactions can have an amplifying effect. This goes back to our understanding of how the mind and body work together. Our brains are interconnected with our emotions and facial expressions, so laughing or smiling can also help relieve tension. After a bad presentation with your boss, grabbing coffee with a witty work friend can help lighten our mood. Physical activities that bring joy can help reduce the levels of cortisol release in your body. Combining those with social activities can be even more beneficial: so instead of getting on the treadmill and listening to Spotify, maybe go on a hike with a friend next weekend to help you de-stress.
HAVING SOCIAL SUPPORT IS IMPORTANT
One-off interactions can help brighten our mood and help us deal with one or two stressful situations, but what happens when our “fight or flight” responses become more prolonged? Or if we have to deal with more stressful situations like career changes, weddings, or starting a family? Sometimes friends aren’t always readily available. It’s still important to have social support, and that’s one of the main reasons we started reflect. Our therapists bring deep experience acting as a sounding board to help busy professionals deal with stress, identify insights, and create a plan to navigate changes. Plus, our unique matching algorithm ensures that you find someone well-suited to your needs. If you're finding yourself in a prolonged “fight or flight” mentality or wanting additional social support, click on the link below to learn more.
Understanding the symptoms your body presents and seeking out positive social interactions can help reduce stress levels, make you feel better right now, but also protect your health long-term. We encourage you to try out these tips and let us know how they’ve worked for you. And remember, not all your body’s responses are bad -- after all, that first date could lead to a second or third! That’s another effective way of finding social support.
Helpful tips for managing stress, incorporating mindfulness, and promoting a healthy lifestyle