Stress has gotten a bad rep over the years.
In this TED Talk, renowned health psychologist Kelly McGonigal admits to unfairly demonizing stress.
And in almost every article on stress, you’ll read a variation of this:
The stress response is this carryover from our prehistoric days when we were chased by wild animals, and we relied on the stress response to keep us alive. Our environments have changed, but our primitive brain hasn’t caught up. So we respond to an angry e-mail the same way we used to respond to a tiger jumping at us. Stress is an unfortunate reaction; something we no longer need in modern society, where we don’t need to fear for our lives on a daily basis.
It’s not wrong, but it misses an important point:
Stress is not the enemy.
It’s possible to take what would usually be considered negative, corrosive tension and transform it into something positive and energizing.
In this post, I’ll present a defense case for Stress.
We’ll also look at the underlying mechanism to help us understand what’s happening in our body when the stress response hits.
Finally, we’ll discuss 1 simple technique considered the “fastest physiological tool for managing the stress response in real-time.”
Stress Is Not the Enemy
Stress, at its core, is a survival mechanism.
It’s a biological system designed to focus you.
To get you moving.
Not to make you uncomfortable or nervous.
Those are cognitive interpretations we’ve come up with.
And — I’ll speak for myself here — but I used to see feeling stressed as some kind of personal failing. A weakness. I’ve always admired people who are able to stay calm in stressful situations and assumed they’re just more capable than me, with my pounding heart and clammy hands.
But here’s the thing:
We have very little control over the stress response, and it happens to everyone.
The hardwired fight-or-flight response was designed to recruit almost all of our being in just half a second.
It’s incredibly fast, even before we realize what we’re stressed about.
Like a devoted bodyguard: shoot first, ask questions later.
All the meditation (or self-criticism) in the world won’t prevent the acute stress response from happening to us.
So, don’t beat yourself up when it does.
Now, to fully appreciate the beauty of this stress reaction, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of how it works inside your body.
There’s Good and Bad Stress
Before we move on, there’s one important distinction to make:
In this post, we’re talking about acute or short-term stress.
You know, the moment right before a meeting when your heart starts pounding and your palms get sweaty.
Or the feeling of blood rushing to your face during a difficult conversation.
Heights. A fast-approaching car. An endless to-do list.
Yes, it feels terrible, but these reactions are good for you. They make you move, pay attention and achieve. Without them, you wouldn’t get much done (or live for very long).
Long-term or chronic stress, however, is unhealthy and needs a different approach from what is shared in this post.
Rule of thumb: when you can no longer achieve a good night of sleep, you move from acute to chronic stress.
The Underlying Mechanism of the Stress Response
Stress is one position along the continuum of what is called the ‘autonomic arousal’:
- At one end of the continuum, you’re in a coma.
- At the other end of the continuum, you have a full-blown panic attack.
- In between, there’s a range of stress levels and different states of being, like alert/focused, sleepy/asleep.
Your arousal levels naturally rise and fall throughout the day, driven by your individual temperament as well as various factors in your environment.
Now, your arousal levels are managed by your autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is a complex network of cells that controls the body’s internal state.
It regulates and supports many internal processes like blood pressure, heart and breathing rates, body temperature, digestion, etc.
This mechanism operates largely without your conscious assistance to keep your body running and has two main channels:
- The sympathetic nervous system
- The parasympathetic nervous system
Think of these channels as a group of neurons working together, specialized in activating a particular state:
The sympathetic nervous system activates the stress response (‘fight-or-flight’).
The parasympathetic nervous system creates a state of calm and relaxation (‘rest-and-digest’).
There are some exceptions, but generally, when one channel dominates, the other is dormant. Specific internal systems get activated while others get deactivated.
Now, let’s hone in on the sympathetic nervous system.
As part of this system, we all have a specific collection of neurons called sympathetic chain ganglia.
They sit in the middle of your body, starting at the front of your neck and running down to your navel.
When something stresses you out in your mind or your physical environment, this chain of neurons becomes suddenly activated. It happens super fast.
They’re like the Special Forces. Highly trained and ready to be deployed at all times.
When that happens, these special neurons release a neuromodulator called acetylcholine in various sites in the body.
Acetylcholine has several functions. When released in the brain, it’s involved in focus. When released in the body, it’s responsible for muscle movement.
Other neurons will react to this release of acetylcholine and release epinephrine. Epinephrine is to the brain what adrenaline is to the body. It’s designed to create a state of increased attention, alertness, and agitation.
This cocktail of neuromodulators sets in motion a series of reactions in your body:
- Increased heart rate and force of heart contractions
- Dilated pupils
- Widened airways (to make breathing easier)
- Blood rushing into your legs (increased muscular strength)
- Sweaty palms
- Hair to stand on end
It will also temporarily shut down certain body processes that are inessential in emergencies, like digestion and urination.
That sense of agitation and discomfort?
It’s not designed to make you feel bad but to make you react. You are activated in ways that prepare you for action and movement.
I have noticed that having this basic understanding helps me observe the reaction in my body with curiosity instead of panic.
And while we can’t stop the stress response from happening, we do have physiological tools at our disposal to put a brake on stress when needed.
How To Put a Brake on Stress
Okay, so the stress response hits. A last-minute urgent request comes in.
A client sends an angry e-mail.
Rationally, we know we have the ability to deal with this situation, but still, our heart starts pounding.
To reduce the magnitude of the stress response, the best thing to do is to activate the system in your body designed for calm and relaxation — the parasympathetic nervous system.
Although it’s not quite as straightforward as the flick of a switch, it’s close.
There are several ways to do this, but most tools require you to move away from the stressful situation — like meditation, taking a bath, going for a walk, etc.
There’s one tool that allows us to activate the parasympathetic nervous system in real-time, wherever we are.
And it’s something we already naturally do.
The Physiological Sigh
In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to forget we can leverage the very real relationship between the brain, body, lungs, and heart.
The Physiological Sigh is a technique discovered by doctors in the 1930s. It has recently been brought back into the spotlight after research was done at UCLA and Stanford University, and further popularised by Andrew Huberman in his podcast.
Huberman calls it the “fastest tool he’s aware of for reducing the stress response in real time”.
The beauty of this technique is in its simplicity.
It’s something we do all the time involuntarily- around every 5 minutes including the moments before we are about to fall asleep, during sleep, and when we cry.
Now, you can do this voluntarily — whenever you’re feeling agitated or stressed and want to calm down.
Here’s how it works:
- 2 short inhales through the nose
- 1 long exhale through the mouth
- 1–3 times
Try it to feel the difference:
When you inhale, the skeletal muscle inside your body moves down. Your lungs expand, and the diaphragm moves down. Your heart gets a bit bigger in that expanded space. Because of the larger space, the blood in there is now moving slower than it was before you inhaled.
Neurons in the heart pay attention to the blood flow rate, and they signal to the brain that blood is moving more slowly to the heart.
The brain sends a signal back to speed the heart up.
Your heart starts to pound.
When you exhale, the exact opposite happens.
The diaphragm moves up, which makes the heart smaller. Blood moves more quickly through the more compact space. The heart neurons register the blood is moving faster, sending a signal to the brain. The brain sends a signal back to slow the heart down.
So, if your inhales are longer than your exhales, you’re speeding up your heart.
To slow your heart rate down, you need to do longer exhales.
One or two times is enough to bring the level of stress and alertness down.
So if you remember just one thing from this: if you want to calm down quickly, you need to make your exhales longer and more vigorous than your inhales.
Here’s a quick demonstration by Huberman:
🎯 Key Takeaways:
- The short-term, acute stress response is good for us. It’s designed to focus us and get us moving.
- Life will keep coming at us, and we can’t pick and choose the stressors. Instead, we need to learn how to function at a higher capacity and reframe stress as positive and energizing.
- We have the hardwired ability to switch between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, activating feelings of stress or relaxation.
- The physiological sigh is the best tool to reduce the stress response in real-time. If you want to calm down quickly, you need to make your exhales longer and more vigorous than your inhales.
💡 I’m working on a Master Guide with insights, tools and techniques learned from The Huberman Lab Podcast.
Similar to this popular post on 15 tools and techniques, but much more exhaustive.
I will only share this with my newsletter subscribers (aiming for December, I want to make it great!) so if you’d like to receive this, make sure to sign up.