How to control your body's stress response

How to control your body's stress response



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By Sarah Laurie

Stress is the health epidemic of the 21st century, says the World Health Organization. Sarah Laurie found our biology causes it – but can also solve it.

When I first began researching stress and its devastating effects, I was doing it on behalf of lawyers. The levels of stress, depression, and suicide in law are devastating. 

However, very quickly, my work led me to other areas hit equally hard – farming, construction, health, and finance. 

I started to see that stress doesn’t discriminate. But why is this happening in the 21st century, when we live in a time when technology is supposed to be making our lives better?

The stress response

The daily lives of lawyers, farmers, and interns are vastly different, yet they’re all experiencing devastating stress. What’s the common factor? 

It’s our brain – deploying its stress response.

So the way to manage our stress better is not to try to fix every stressful thing that happens in our lives – it’s to fix our stress response to those things.

Neuroscientists at UC Berkeley, confirm that’s the case. Dr Daniela Kaufer runs a stress laboratory there. I asked her: “If we could switch off our stress response, would our stress ease?” 

Her answer was a categorical yes. If our stress response doesn’t engage, we won’t experience the effects of stress. That means despite all the challenges, pressure, deadlines, and rush, if we switch off our stress response, we won’t get stressed. 

In fact, all the things that we think cause stress might not be the reasons we feel it at all. 

Biologically, our stress response is supposed to kick in when our life’s in danger. Yes, deadlines, to-do lists, the IRD, mortgagee sales, hectic schedules, and back-to-back meetings are exhausting, draining, even life-changing – but they are not life-threatening. 

Here’s our challenge – a massive change in thinking for the entire western world. But how can we switch off our stress response?

The role of biology

There are three fundamental changes we need to make, and each of them is part of our physiology. We’re designed this way.

1. The breath switch

Breath sends two critical messages to the body. The first, our diaphragmatic (belly) breath, is designed to tell our body’s nine biological systems, such as digesting food and sleeping, to function as they should.  

The second, our thoracic (chest) breath, is designed to disengage these functions, and to switch on our stress response: fight or flight. 

Put simply, your breath is the switch. Chest breath switches your stress response on. Belly breath switches it off. Full stop. 

It’s thought that more than 40 per cent of us breathe mainly into our chests, giving us an ongoing sense of agitation and anxiety. We’re operating with our stress response always switched on.

Solution: Practice breathing into your diaphragm, so that it becomes natural – even when you’re working at speed.

2. The thoughts switch

The human is the only one of the world’s mammals whose thoughts trigger the stress response. 

An optimistic, constructive thought triggers critical thinking, decision-making, memory, and information processing. You can manage your emotions and take control.

But a negative, worrying thought triggers your stress response, so you feel wired, tired, and easily frustrated. If you stay this way, your brain automates these thought patterns, making them hard to break.

Solution: Try making your thought patterns more constructive, rather than thinking about how challenging things are.  

3. The digital switch

Your brain uses ‘in-between’ moments to make sense of things, for example while you’re waiting for a meeting to begin, or for a taxi to arrive, or when the traffic lights are red.  

However, we’re reaching for our phones and devices in every spare moment. We’re not giving our brains the chance to make sense of what’s happening. So, we add to the daily pressure, and over time, when there are challenges, we become overwhelmed.

Solution: Avoid reaching for your phone in spare moments, and relax instead. Try a digital detox.