How suppressing emotion intensifies our stress

adult anger angry angry face
Resisting or avoiding our automatic stress response tends to exacerbate it.

Stress is a state of arousal.  It is usually underpinned by a sense of threat, which generates the emotion of fear (anxiety).  Fear is often veiled by a secondary, defensive emotion of anger.  So how can we best respond to an experience of stress, in the moment?

In many Eastern languages the word for heart and mind are the same. In Sanskrit (the ancient language of yoga), this is ‘manas’; literally meaning ‘heartmind’.

Mind and emotion are indivisible. Emotions are neurological responses in the mind, which produce physiological effects in the body.  They are triggered by cortisol and other hormones, part of our innate, primal survival strategy and the core of our human nature. In yoga we train our ‘buddhi’ mind in discernment: not ignoring emotion but rather skillfully observing and recognising our emotions and responding effectively to them.

‘Controlling emotion’ is a misnomer and in fact a physiological impossibility.  Usually this actually means conditioning ourselves to resist, suppress or avoid our basic human emotions and instincts.  Doing so can be harmful to our mental and physical health and cause stress and tension to manifest and refer in our bodies.

Equally, our reflexive stress responses – anger (fight), avoidance (flight) or inactivity (freeze) – are often not acceptable or helpful strategies, particularly in a work environment.  Next time you experience stress, try this Hack.

Stress Hack: Tune In

For mild stress, take 5 minutes to pause and listen to your stress:

  1. BODY: What physical sensations are occurring?  Can you feel tension anywhere? What messages and signals is your body trying to give you?
  2. HEART: What feelings are arising in response to the trigger that has occurred?
  3. MIND: What thoughts are arising in your mind? Steady your breathing and listen to the thoughts.  With time, more rational thoughts and responses will emerge.

For severe stress, try first moving for 20 minutes to help ease the stress response.  Walking outdoors is the ideal, but any form of physical movement that is appropriate to your body and the environment can help to ease the state of arousal.

In a work environment, you may need to excuse or explain yourself in order to do this.  It needs to become the norm for people to feel comfortable to do so, particularly when faced with severe stress.

These practices are recommended for healthy people who are experiencing everyday stress experiences.  People suffering more significant issues may require adaptation and should therefore seek individual advice from a suitably trained and qualified professional.

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