How reactions to stress affect your state of mind

Wall art showing cartoon faces with varying emotions

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

How do you react to stressful situations? Do you have a go-to response you fall back on most of the time? Or are you flexible, and react according to what’s going on? Learn how various reactions to stress can affect your state of mind, and in turn, your behaviour. 

1 Body reactions in different situations

Firstly, imagine you’re at home, watching an exciting movie. Or perhaps you’re going out with that special person you’ve had your eye on.

Notice how your body reacts in these positive types of situations. 

Your heart may beat faster, you breath more quickly, your face may flush, and you may have butterflies in your tummy.

Now imagine you’re listening to footsteps behind you as you walk down a dark alley.

What are your body sensations now?

Heart beating faster, breathing faster, butterflies in the tummy? In other words, similar sensations to when you were excited or happy.

But the second scenario is scary, not exciting.

Strangely, the body sensations of excitement, pleasure, anger, fear or worry are similar. They may differ in intensity, or how quickly they appear. But it doesn’t matter which emotion you’re feeling, the body reacts in much the same way.

Your heart pounds, your breathing gets faster and maybe more shallow, and you may feel shaky, dizzy or faint. You often can’t think straight. And your body may tense up, so you feel agitated and want to move around or even escape.  

So different emotions all lead to similar basic physical reactions in our bodies. 

And yet no-one would claim the emotions that we feel are the same as each other. So what’s going on?

2 Fear vs. excitement 

If the bodily reactions are similar, why do fear and excitement feel so different?

Surprisingly, the answer is how you interpret what’s happening.

For example, Jenny loves horror movies. She thinks the exploding blood and gore is hilarious.

Her friend Jane hates violence, and is disgusted and terrified. For her, these movies glorify mankind’s worst features.

3 We all react to stress differently

And we all react differently to the same situation when we’re under stress. What about this example?

Jack the thrill-seeker is jumping out of his skin with excitement at the top of a ski run. Meanwhile, his partner Jill feels panicky and frightened. All she wants to do is sink into the ground and disappear.

Same situation, different perceptions

Same situation, different interpretations of what’s going to happen. And therefore, different reactions to stress.

Jack anticipates the thrill of whooshing down the slope, and predicts he’ll feel like a bird flying down the hillside. Jill anticipates feeling out of control, and predicts a catastrophe.

Your predictions affect your behaviour

So what you predict might happen can affect how you react and behave. And in turn, that affects what does happen. 

Jack tells himself he’ll be fine, it’ll be a blast, and nothing will go wrong. Before he starts, he visualises himself flying down the slope with perfect technique. 

During his run, he’s relaxed and alert. He focusses all his mental energy on correct body positioning, and scanning ahead for hazards. 

On the other hand, Jill does the exact opposite.

She’s dreading her turn, and tells herself she’s going to get killed. Her mind goes blank, and she forgets everything she learned about skiing. Her state of mind sabotages her ability to reach her goals

Because she’s talked herself into believing she’ll fail, she acts in ways that make it more likely she’ll have problems. She tenses up, holds her sticks rigidly, and forgets to breathe properly. She focusses narrowly on the ground right in front of her, and visualises herself crashing. 

And guess what happens? 

Jack glides down in a perfect run, and Jill crashes out half-way. 

Self-talk is important

So self-talk is incredibly important. What you tell yourself about a situation can influence what happens to a great extent. And many of your reactions to stress can be affected by negative self-talk. 

Negative self-talk doesn’t help

The above example helps us see that negative self-talk isn’t helpful.

If you’re sure you’re headed for disaster, you’ll send yourself messages about how terrible it’s going to be. You persuade yourself you won’t cope, and that you’re going to fail. You then tense up and act awkwardly, or can’t focus on what you’re doing. 

And then things probably don’t work out as well as they could have. 

In contrast, if you’re more confident, you tell yourself that it’ll be OK. You know you’re well prepared and can overcome most obstacles. This allows you to focus on what you need to do to succeed. And you’ll probably do reasonably well. 

So you can choose to view something as an opportunity or a threat. Or as fun or annoying, exciting or boring, or scary or silly.

(NB: Of course there are some situations in life that involve extreme behaviours, and that everyone agrees are disturbing. Here we’re talking about everyday situations within normal behaviour.)

4 A more complex situation

Let’s look at a more complex situation now.

Imagine four different versions of yourself reacting to an identical stress.

The story is that you get up late, after having overslept. You’ve lost the car keys and will be late for work on an important day.

For each scenario, notice the slightly different slant that your negative self-talk takes. Part two of this article describes how the way in which we construct our own reality can lead to unhelpful ways of behaving.

Scenario 1

You rampage round the lounge, throwing cushions and magazines onto the floor. You rant and rave at your partner and the kids. Why can’t they help you?

You can’t afford to be late; the boss is cracking down on everyone.

And today is that important meeting. You can’t slip up – you know the boss wants to sack you. Yesterday he was breathing down your neck while you checked those figures on the computer.

Typical; once he’s decided you’re no good, he’ll look for any excuse. He’s such a *%^&#*!

Your heart pounds as you stomp around the room. Glancing in a mirror, you see you’re red-faced. Veins are bulging in your neck, and your teeth are jammed together.

Now your chest feels tight.

Why do these things keep happening to you? Everyone treats you badly and it’s not even your fault.

Finally! The keys are on the hall table. Someone must have hidden them under those papers.

You hurl the front door shut, scramble into your car, and roar off. Five minutes later you’re pulled over and given a speeding ticket.

Scenario 2

Where on earth are those keys? What if you can’t find them? This is the worst thing that could have happened right now. 

You fling aside the cushions on the sofa as the panic attack takes hold.

As you struggle to breathe, you collapse on the couch and clutch your chest. You just know your heart’s going to burst out of your body. And there’s that pain down your arm.

How will you drive, even if you do find the car keys? You might be having a heart attack.

And everyone will be furious with you for missing the meeting. The boss has been watching out for your mistakes. Yesterday he looked at you weirdly while you checked your figures. You were so nervous, you could hardly see the computer screen. You just know he’s going to move you on.

This’ll be the last straw. You’re about to lose your job. 

The walls press down on you. Everything swims before your eyes. You grope for the phone to call the emergency services.

Scenario 3

You’re so stupid, you can’t even find your keys. Such a simple thing, and you can’t even get that right. No wonder everyone thinks you’re so pathetic. Why don’t you ever learn to put your keys where they belong?

If you can’t even get to work, you don’t deserve this job. Everyone thinks you making a hash of it anyway. Even the boss doesn’t really believe you can cut it. He’s always checking up on you, because you’re not up to scratch.

It’s not fair – he doesn’t do that to anyone else. 

You may as well give up now. If you’re late for that meeting you’re done for anyway. Nothing you do ever goes right. 

Scenario 4

You realise you’re late and don’t know where your keys are. You’re annoyed, but tell yourself to focus on solving the problem. First, you make a quick call to the office to let them know you’ll be 15 minutes late.

Then you stop to think where your keys could be. No, can’t remember yet.

Now you focus on calming yourself down, by breathing slowly and steadily as you get ready for work. 

While you’re dressing, you realise your keys are probably near the front door, as usual. And sure enough, they’re hidden under some papers on the hall table.

You eat your muesli quickly, to ensure you’re not hungry during the meeting. Since you’d packed your bag last night, you whip out the door in good time.

While driving at the speed limit on the highway, you mull over your boss’s recent behaviour.

You’re aware he’s been uptight about this meeting for weeks. He was buzzing round yesterday, checking everyone’s work. Usually he’s supportive, but lately he’s been quite brusque to everyone. With luck, he’ll settle down after today.

You greet everyone as you stride into the office. And you’re only five minutes late.

Same situation, four reactions

So given the same situation, it’s possible to react in many different ways. Did any of the scenarios above seem familiar?

Which of these reactions to stress would set you on the path to success? Which one(s) would make life harder for you? Did you pick up any examples of skewed thinking?

Of course, the version of you in scenario 4 was an idealised version. Few people manage that level of calm in stressful situations. 

However, it’s an ideal worth striving for. And you can do this by learning to manage your self-talk, and also by applying calming techniques.  

So is it possible to reduce unhelpful interpretations of what’s happening around you? Fortunately, once you identify your unhelpful self-talk, you can change how you react to difficult situations. And that will make your life run more smoothly.  

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