The world moves so quickly. It’s not surprising that our minds and bodies can sometimes struggle to keep up. Evolution takes a long time. A really long time. We often forget because our brains are wonderfully plastic and constantly adapting but some parts still remember the stone ages like it was yesterday!

Whilst we are capable of assimilating new information at a fantastic pace, the area of our brain that was used to dealing with ‘that shadow looks like a bear’ can find it hard to interpret messages. The input becomes conflated and distorted, from ‘nice headphones’ to ‘everyone else has those headphones’ to ’if I don’t get those new headphones I’m in trouble’. We are left on high alert, our senses primed for danger, watching for the threat our brain tells us is out there.


Stress Is Normal

We don’t always notice the daily stressors we encounter because they are a constant low buzz in the background but coming out of lockdown offered me occasional moments of clarity. I noticed the discomfort created by motorway rush hour traffic or being back in an office. These things generate a strain on the nervous system and require some effort, heightening our stress response system.

Let me be clear, these are not bad things. We were born for stress, effort and challenge, they fire us up and teach us skills. The problem comes when we stop acknowledging stress and forget to do the things that help us come back down again afterwards. Without the self-awareness it also gets harder to connect the resulting anxiety with its origin.


Balancing The Sympathetic and the Parasympathetic Nervous Systems

The sympathetic nervous system gets us ready to act. It increases our heart rate, diverts energy from digestion and other less pressing tasks so that we are all set to do whatever is required.

The parasympathetic nervous system is our reset button, it calms us down afterwards, reassures us we are safe, that everything is OK again and we can relax.

A healthy nervous system needs this action/recovery, our yin and yang, in balance.


The Fight, Flight or Freeze Response

Fight, flight or freeze are all useful, valid reactions to threats. But if our modern brain forgets to send the memo that the stressful event has passed in a way our primitive brain can understand then we can get stuck in these action modes. Fighting, running or being curled in a protective ball are not meant to be long-term solutions. They are not the most rational or creative places from which to live.

And the negative cycle deepens because the communication works both ways. Our head tells our body there is trouble afoot and our body dutifully gears up to respond, the danger passes but our bodies carry on acting out – not digesting, tense muscles, blood pounding, senses strained – and our brains think, ‘well there must be something bad out there because my body is tense’ and starts looking for things to hang the worry on. So it continues.

We become hyper-alert, always on the lookout for the next threat, wary of everyday activities. We are left feeling jumpy, anxious, over-vigilant, impulsive, depressed, defensive. We stop living our lives.


Re-Learning to Self-Sooth

We regulate the threat response by letting the nervous system know it’s safe. If we are out of kilter, then some conscious approaches can support this resettling and reassuring of our bodies. Try giving some of these suggestions a go…

  • Learn to re-engage with your body so there is communication flowing both ways. The body is a sensory system so things that involve sight, touch, taste, sound and smell are all good ways to connect. Use breathing exercises, sound exercises like consciously bringing your voice into a low calm state, use movement to change up your energy, give yourself a cuddle.
  • Reframe everyday stresses and anxieties as just that; challenges for us to tackle and then come back down from. They are not life threatening and we don’t want to eliminate them.
  • Agree some physical actions or activities with yourself that help your mind and body recognise a change in state. Close off a task with an acknowledgement or a thank you as a prompt that it is over and any effort it required can be put down. It doesn’t need to bleed into the next part of your day. A thank you for the tube that got you to work, a fast jog on the spot after a difficult customer (maybe somewhere private), some slow breathing after a disagreement, a mental pat on the back after a deadline.
  • Look for assurance in your environment. These are cues that things are safe. You can do this by connecting with a colleague, share a joke or a cup of tea. Make eye contact. We are social animals and nothing reassures us as much as someone else looking relaxed. (Remember to dodge a bear you only need to be able to run faster than they can!)
  • Is there anything in your environment that makes you feel anxious? Work on noticing when and what makes you uncomfortable and see if you can figure out what the association is. Simply making this conscious might be all you need to do about it.
  • Practice frightening yourself and then calming down, moving in and out of difficult states. This is what babies are learning when they play peek-a-boo. I do this by looking in the mirror in the morning but if you are younger or better looking try a rollercoaster.

Remember these won’t necessarily work if things have gone too far. Like a coiled spring, there is a point where we don’t just bounce back into shape after the pressure is off. Sometimes we need the time to recover, to grieve or talk through our pain first.

And that’s ok too.


Audio Version



Read more about Tracy Bevan and her other articles HERE


‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’

Find out more about positive psychology courses and training at 

Share This