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Healthy Responses To Stress

05 November 2019

Healthy Responses To Stress


We have all experienced stress at some point in our lives, be it exam pressure, giving a speech or being stuck in a traffic jam before an appointment. The stress response is the body’s unconscious “Fight-Flight” response to a threatening situation. This can occur when we feel we do not have the mental, physical or emotional resources to meet the demands of the day ahead, or the task in hand. It can also be triggered when we perceive that something we care about is at risk of being compromised. This can be our relationships, our family members or our value system, including how we feel about ourselves.


When we become overwhelmed in this manner we tend to think less and act more. By this we mean the rational, planning, goal-directed part of the brain switches off and our automatic routine-led patterns of behaviour come into gear. Recent research published by University of Southern California (USC) by Professor Wendy Wood, indicates that the brain favours routine or habit orientated behaviours when under stress. The brain does not distinguish whether this stress-induced default habit is nourishing or depleting to our energy levels. Professor Wood claims we are just as likely to create positive, energy fuelling habits, such as going for a run to cope with difficult days, than we are to reach for that less healthy bar of chocolate when it all feels too much. 

When we are regularly stressed and feeling our resources are under even more demand than usual, it makes sense that we would rely on habits more. Falling back on eating chocolate after a tricky day makes us feel we are treating ourselves to make up for all the hard moments. It is a learned emotional response to feeling pressure. However, unhealthy habits such as these can deplete our energy levels and negatively impact our sense of wellbeing.

It makes sense for us to develop an underpinning of healthy habits to support our resilience and wellbeing for the ups and down of life. If stress is ubiquitous to all of us, we need to experiment with ways to respond in nourishing ways. 


Why bother with healthy habits?

Good foundational healthy habits will not only fuel our tank of personal resources but will also promote restorative healthy activity when we are in the storm. Current research indicates at least 45% of our behaviour happens on autopilot. This autopilot behaviour is cognitively efficient, as we do not need to take time, willpower or energy to think about cleaning our teeth before bed for example, it just happens.

When trying to create a healthy habit remember to be patient with yourself, as some habits become ‘automatic’ more easily than others. Research indicates that drinking a glass of water before meals takes an average of 18 days to become a habit, whilst going to the gym four times a week can take up to 66 days.