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Break Down Stress and Identify Your Stress Response

Stress is a word that can be thrown around haphazardly. “I’m stressed.” “You look stressed out.” But do you know what it is, how to use it to your advantage and how to keep it from controlling you?

What is stress?

Stress can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry or nervous. Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or imbalanced. In small doses, stress can help you get things done. But stress may become crippling in large doses. It is important to keep in mind that everyone perceives stress differently and that it does not affect everyone the same way.

What is the stress response?

When you sense danger, whether it is real or imagined, the body’s defense kicks into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight-or-freeze” reaction, also referred to as the stress response.

The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic and alert. The stress response can help you rise to meet challenges. In emergency situations, stress can save your life by giving you extra strength to defend yourself or causing you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.

Stress is what keeps you on your toes during the workday, quickens your reaction time to step back on the curb to avoid the speeding car and drives you to finish a project at home when you’d rather be watching television. However, like many things in excess, stress beyond a certain point may stop being helpful and start causing damage to your health, mood, productivity, relationships and quality of life.

How do you respond to stress and how should you manage it?

A car analogy using the gas and brake pedals illustrates the three responses to stress. The table below provides information on each of the three stress responses, including a description, possible physical reaction and suggestions for ways to manage stress according to your stress response.

Type of Stress Response


Physical Reaction

Ways to Manage Stress

Foot on the gas Agitated or “fight” response Heated, overly emotional, unable to sit still
  • Do things that calm you down
  • Relax your muscles by stretching or taking a warm shower
  • Take several slow, deep breaths
Foot on the brake Withdrawn or “flight” response Shut down, pull away, show little energy or emotion
  • Do things that make you more energized
  • Explore your artistic or creative side
  • Give exercise a try – a sport, jogging or a fitness class
Foot on both Tense or “freeze” response Appear immobilized but are extremely agitated under the surface
  • Do a combination of things that energize and relax you
  • First, focus on the inward feeling by doing something that requires physical exertion
  • Then, focus on the outward feeling by doing something that requires you to be mindful
  • Try brisk walking and deep breathing

As you are reflecting on your reaction to stress, you may find yourself identifying with each of the three categories, depending on the situation. It’s common to react differently based on the setting you are in and where the stressor occurred. Review all of the techniques to manage stress and use the appropriate method based on the type of stress response you are experiencing.

[Emily Smith is the LHSFNA’s Health Promotion Division’s Wellness Coordinator.]

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