What Sparks Your Stress Response?


When’s the last time your stress caught fire?

One moment you were humming along in your day, and the next, something just happened—sparked—and it became an all-systems-go situation: blood boiling, head buzzing, muscles contracting from head to toe. Once you’re in that stressed state, it’s hard not to see everything around you as contributing to that stress—an insensitive comment from a coworker, a missed call, a stain on your shirt. Once something has lit your fuse, every little thing seems to fuel the fire, and your mood, your productivity, your good sense, go up in flames.

While it’s easy to assume stress happens out there, independently of you, fire needs something to feed on. And your response to stress is like oxygen—and thus the more we react to stress, the more we breathe life into it.

Since all emotionally reactive states begin with a thought, part of rewiring your stress response involves identifying exactly where it started. So do a rewind: What incident, comment, or other external thing gave rise to a thought and what was that thought? Replay it for yourself in slow motion and ask yourself how that reactive thought caught fire: Did it make you feel misunderstood, rejected, disrespected, overwhelmed? Did it remind you of an unresolved problem you have yet to deal with?

Then, write it down (what we call “trapping” the thought) or, at the very least, say it clearly and distinctly to yourself why this particular event has caused a cascade of emotions. When you can identify the moment the match was struck, you can deal with it directly and objectively—rather than fan the flames until your stress rages into a wildfire.