A psychologist’s guide to coping with stress

Dr Amber Johnston – a clinical psychologist specialising in neuropsychology, reveals her guide to coping with stress, including how understanding and feeling compassion for little triggers will allow us to better deal with stress
By viewing stress through a neurological lens, we can better equip ourselves with personalised tools to manage it. Remember, stress is an imperative adaptation response for survival and safety. Our aim is not to eradicate all stress.
We need stress signals to alert us to potential dangers, both physical and psychological, that help us escape peril or motivate us to maintain safety within our social pack and get resources.
Instead, our aim is to reduce unnecessary stress based around immaterial goals or learned experiences that are not relevant to the current context. Most importantly, we are aiming to be better at identifying our triggers, the source of the alert, and ways to gain confidence dealing with that alarm and disarming it so that it doesn’t get stuck on indefinitely.
stress is an imperative adaptation response for survival and safety
When we notice that our body has been triggered, out first step should be to identify the alarm’s message. If the alarm does not signify immediate danger (i.e. stress about an upcoming work presentation), we should work to practically disarm the body system.
We call this working from the bottom up, influencing the signals in the body below to help the brain above cool down.
We can interrupt the sympathetic nervous system activity with breathing, mindfulness or muscle relaxing techniques. The turning down of the body response will communicate to the brain that danger has passed.
READ MORE: Stress responses are a learned trait says clinical psychologist
We can interrupt the sympathetic nervous system activity with breathing, mindfulness or muscle relaxing techniques
So how should we respond to stress?
Visual relaxation exercises are also an option to foster a sense of safety within the body by using your mind to keep its attention in the lovely, calm place you focus on (a beach, a library, a favourite childhood memory).
Mindfulness exercises are for tuning attention into the present moment to become very aware of the calmness of right here; remember, normally our threat system is activated when we time-shift to problems of the past or worries of the future. But right now, we are normally very safe.
With many exercises available online, find what suits you best.  It will take practice to get familiar with the benefits, so please commit to trying this over a period of time.  Also, begin practicing when you’re not overly stressed; you cannot learn a new skill by only trialling it when you need it most.
For those struggling with the seemingly minor but exhausting stressors (the microstressors we encounter daily), we need to harness self-compassion for these struggles.
They are real and meaningful, and possibly from the source of early learnings in life that may not be in your consciousness. Yet. The way to identify the triggers and sources of these stresses require skills of reflection, which can be most successful when practicing mindfulness, journaling your thoughts, speaking with trusted friends, or engaging in therapy.
Many typical thought errors include assuming the worst will happen, believing we know what will happen in the future based on past experiences
Identifying triggering scenarios and tracing them back to early messages or experiences can help one review their current relevance. Like updating Windows 2.0 to new 16.0, we can see how valuable 2.0 may have been in previous life experiences, but it’s no longer fit for purpose in our current adult life.
When reflecting, we may be able to notice our tendency to use many thought errors and biases, which are simply over practiced neuronal pathways of thought. It may have been valuable to always be a ‘good girl’ in the old family environment as a child where kids were expected to stay quiet.
However, in the current work environment, those with innovative and disrupting ideas are the ones who get rewarded- how can our brain update what behaviour is required in the new scenario to help us succeed?
Many typical thought errors include assuming the worst will happen, believing we know what will happen in the future based on past experiences, assuming a much more personal role in other people’s behaviours, or failing to see our successes by only focusing on our mistakes.
Can you relate to any of these? Can you see how they may not be accurate thinking about the reality of the situation?  And when you’re down these paths of thinking, how is your body responding? I’d imagine it’s getting stuck in stress cycles!
READ MORE: Neuro-divergence and mental health: the expert view
socialising and exercise are known to help restore the system and improve the body’s chances of dealing with internal threats
Health as a stressor
There are important ways that you will have heard of to make sure your body is optimised to handle stress. Physical stressors are more than bears and hot pans. We can also be impacted by internal stressors such as viruses, inflammation, toxins, and poor diet.
These stressors also cause the body to need energy to respond and minimise damage, and we know this can create strain and fatigue on our system when over-taxed.
This is one of the main reasons there is so much buzz about the importance of a healthy diet, but also sleep, socialising and exercise are known to help restore the system and improve the body’s chances of dealing with internal threats.
Mental health as a stressor
In terms of psychological threats, let’s be clear that this society has many, too many, demands for people, with very real stressors that cannot easily go away.
Whether that’s overworked employee culture, cost of living crisis, social media and tech pressure/addiction, racial and sociocultural discrimination, or even aggressive politics and war, we are navigating true threats daily.
it’s less about eliminating the stress and more about finding breaks and self care strategies to manage in the long run
For those with Big T’s, we have learned traumas to manage also.  The key here is to feel validated that times are tough and there aren’t always answers. When the answers aren’t clear, it’s less about eliminating the stress and more about finding breaks and self care strategies to manage in the long run.
Using the above principles for body intervention and lifestyle alterations can help, or it may be valuable to ask for help from professionals to get the rightful support you deserve.
These articles have intended to give you a whistle stop tour of some of the neuroscience affecting our wellbeing. Hopefully this gives some new insight into how to work with our brains to reduce or manage the stress we encounter daily.
Tools take practice, and change takes time. But getting to know your brain will put you on a new pathway, both within your neurons and within your life.
Dr Amber Johnston is a clinical psychologist specialising in neuropsychology (healthymindpsychology.co.uk) 
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