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More PsychNotes: Stress and Coping

June 5, 2017       
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Your Body Reacts Even When You Don't Think It Should
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

It's not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.
Many people are surprised that positive events can be stressful. Or, they don't understand why they are reacting even though they have successfully reappraised the event in the past. For instance, a man trying to control anger when his spouse points out a mistake has been able to tell himself (and believe) “She's not trying to criticize me but is trying to help me” still reacts with a flush of anger when the event occurs.

Research shows that as people age they are able to reduce the effects of stress more quickly most likely due to experience and the use of strategies. However, their initial reaction to a stressful event is not different from someone who is younger (Scott et al., 2017). This supports the idea that the body has a mind of its own even when the brain believes everything is okay.

Why does this occur?

1) Change. The body is programmed to respond to change. The brain is able to assess change and determine whether it is a threat or not. But before that occurs, the body has already responded by kicking in the autonomic nervous system and releasing adrenalin and cortisol to help cope with the change. This is an automatic response and is not based upon whether the person considers the change bad or good.

As a result, too much positive change in too short a time can keep this system on high alert and cause the person to feel stressed. For example, a person who is planning a big wedding, honeymoon, and moving into a new home has numerous positive events occurring but the body is experiencing many changes over a relatively short time (perhaps a year) and so the person feels stressed.

2) Conditioning. Experiences in childhood can condition the body to react to certain events. These experiences have occurred repeatedly until the body's reaction is automatic. So the man who is still reacting with anger even though he has reappraised the situation may have a conditioned automatic response from childhood experiences with his father who criticized him repeatedly for making mistakes.

An automatic reaction often does not respond immediately to reappraisal but needs repeated efforts to recondition the body to a different response. This is why cognitive strategies require repetition. Even though a person believes the challenging thought, the body still reacts until it is reconditioned to respond in a different way.

What can you do?

So, this is not to say you don't have a choice in your behavior. Instead, it is to explain why you react even when you may not want to. And that you can still make changes and condition your body to react differently over time for many situations. By using the CBT strategies and learning from your experience you can reduce the length of your reactivity. In other words, even though you may have an initial physical reaction for a few seconds or minutes, your brain can step in with strategies to help you cope more quickly.

In particular, recognizing that an initial reaction is normal can help prevent a secondary reaction. Often people take the initial reaction as meaning that they "should" feel stressed and then react further with stressed behavior. For instance, if you are afraid of snakes you might have an initial reaction to a picture of a snake. if you think "How horrible! See, I can't even stand looking at a picture" then you are likely to prolong the reaction and reinforce the fear. But if you reappraise this reaction and say to yourself "It's only a picture. It can't hurt me" you are unlikely to have any further reaction.

Scott, S., Ram, N., Smyth, J.M., Almeida, D.M. and Sliwinski, M.J. (2017). Age Differences in Negative Emotional Responses to Daily Stressors Depend on Time Since Event. Developmental Psychology, 53, 177–190. DOI:10.1037/dev0000257


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