I’m writing this during the coronavirus, which is stressful for all of us. This is on top of all the other stresses that happen to us in our daily lives, so this article is a ‘how to deal with stress’ for all times as well as these times.
This article is about how we as individuals can start to try to deal with our own stress. But it’s also important to think about how we can prevent stresses for other people in our relationships but also globally.
Firstly we are going to learn about the biology of stress and how it works. Then we’re going to look at how we can best look after ourselves when we’re recovering from stress and how to do self care. Lastly we’ll look at how, when you’re not stressed, it’s important to get accurate information about the thing stressing you.
How stress works
It’s probably useful for you to understand the biology of stress and I now wish I paid more attention in biology GCSE in 1992. I’ve done some reading about it though and this is a very basic version of what happens. We have an autonomous nervous system, which regulates all of our bodies’ responses: heart rate, breathing, digesting, peeing, boners, that kind of thing.
There are two parts of this: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Think of them as friends who are totally opposite characters. One of them is super hyped, jacked, and ready to respond to things at a drop of a hat (sympathetic nervous system). The other one is slower, has all of the chill, and is just a rock in all situations (parasympathetic nervous system). We stan a legend.
The stressy thing happens
Here’s the really sciencey bit so I hope that it makes sense. When the stressy thing happens the body sends danger signals to the thalamus, the amygdala gets involved or something. Then it’s like ‘hey hypothalamus we need you to call your pal’ and then hypothalamus nods and says to the sympathetic nervous system ‘hey sympathetic nervous system GO GO GO’.
Then the sympathetic nervous system jumps off their sofa and starts bounding around the room just yelling a lot. SNS is reacting and responding and not thinking at all. Adrenalin (which maybe you’ve heard of) and cortisol (they’re like chemicals I guess) get pumped into the body really quickly. This means the autonomous nervous system starts to do a lot of things all at once: breathing gets faster, eyesight changes, muscles tense up, we lose some hearing, boners get killed, that kind of thing. SNS makes us stressed the f**k out and makes us ready for whatever danger is out there.
It might sound like the sympathetic nervous system is a bit of an uptight d**k, but actually it’s there to keep us safe, so stop being so judgy. The brain errs on the side of caution, so even if it senses danger it says to SNS ‘GO GO GO GO’.
We can sense danger all of the time and loads of things can put us in that place depending on how our brain processes the danger. It could be someone popping a balloon behind you, or a phobia you have, or something someone said to you on social media, or you being attacked by someone. When there danger SNS is there for us, but when there isn’t SNS can be annoying and difficult to live with. When SNS is really pumped, their friend PNS just gets ignored.
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Recovery from the stressy thing
Once the danger has gone away (or it’s clear it wasn’t a danger) then the parasympathetic nervous system steps in. This is where PNS really shines. It gives the sympathetic nervous system some space and time to calm down. Then after ‘someone’ gets some backrubs and their favourite biscuit (look they were just trying to help, okay?) they chat about what happened and SNS agrees to try to learn for next time. Then they cuddle up on the sofa to watch Brooklyn 99 (again) for at least 20 to 60 minutes.
How we react when our SNS totally kicking off is pretty personal and if you’ve ever had a stressful moment (likely) then you might have some idea for what goes on for you. You might get loud and aggressive. Maybe you just want to get the hell out. Perhaps you just freeze in place hoping that the danger won’t see you? You might do everything you can to keep yourself safe. Or you might experience feeling detached from your body. The point here is that you’re not getting a choice. Your sympathetic nervous system is jumping up and down on the sofa whether you want it to or not.
There’s a good chance that you might not even realise that you were stressed about something. For a lot of people, the on-going stress or trauma in their lives means that it’s difficult for them to spot when they are stressed at the time. So you could try to work backwards and when you notice that you are having a reaction think ‘oh, something has triggered a stress reaction in me.’
Sometimes it’s quite obvious when we are reacting to stress (like if you are having a panic attack for instance) but often it’s not that obvious. So try to notice what’s going on in your body more. Are you breathing more rapidly? Have you got a bit of stressy tunnel vision? Are you finding it difficult to hear? Do you need to pee more or have a knot in your stomach? You could be reacting to stress.
If this doesn’t happen super often then it’s okay, PNS has enough chill to keep calming SNS down. However if it keeps happening over and over again then it gets harder. If SNS starts jumping up and down on the sofa before PNS has finished with the backrubs then stress can kick off again.
Stress on top of stress can be too much for the parasympathetic nervous system to handle. This is also true when very stressful events happen in our lives. Just like if you are having a pregnancy scare and you are also stressed about coronavirus. This means that SNS is constantly reacting and PNS can’t deal anymore.
Really stressful events (either recent or from childhood) can give also us trauma which our brains and bodies remember. These memories can later get triggered by something later on which puts us back into that tensed up, reacting mode.
As you can see, you don’t get much choice of how your body reacts. It just does. But the important thing here is to use the 20 – 60 minutes (or longer) after the stress stops to give yourself your own version of backrubs, biscuits, and Buffy.
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Self care after stress
I’ve written about self care, but after dealing with a stressful event it’s a good idea to practice emergency self care. A lot of people also refer to this as grounding yourself. Once the sympathetic nervous system has done it’s thing protecting you from danger (again, thanks SNS, you broke my favourite mug but that’s okay) you need to give your parasympathetic nervous system the time and space to soothe SNS the f**k down.
I don’t like telling you what to do, but you should really do this. Your parasympathetic nervous system needs you to do it. If you don’t allow yourself to recover then your PNS will get burnt out and it will be harder for you to manage stress in the future.
First of all make sure that you are away from the thing that is causing the stress. If it’s a person, try to find a safe space away from them (a separate room, somewhere outside, somewhere inside, a friend’s place, wherever feels safe for you). Or if it’s something on your phone, put that down for a bit, or close the app. You need to give yourself some time in safety.
Then once you are safe the best thing to do is to try to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’ or ‘think’. This means getting comfy AF and to soothe yourself as much as you can. Only you’ll know what really works for you, so try to become an expert on what you need in these situations. Just like everyone needs different kinds of self care everyone needs different kinds of emergency self care. Once you practice doing this kind of self care you can get really good at gathering together the things you need, or asking a friend to do it for you.
Emergency self care
- You might just really need to go to the loo, so do that. The bathroom might be a good place to recover actually. If it’s comfortable enough and it’s safe (and everyone else can leave you be for a few minutes)
- Sit or lie down and try to feel as heavy as you can. With every out breath see if you can sink into the floor a bit more. Notice your contact with what you are lying on or siting on.
- Once the adrenalin slows down a bit you might notice that you get a bit chilly. Grab whatever is around: socks, cardy, blanket, panda onesie.
- You might also get a bit hungry, so perhaps having some chocolate or something would be good.
- Stressful events can cause a dry mouth, so try and sip some water.
- If you’re shaking maybe give yourself a hug, or hug a teddy, or wrap yourself up in a blanket.
- You might be breathing more, so try to just gently notice your breathing. Feel your stomach fill up as you breathe in and feel it contract as you breathe out. Instead of holding your phone put it on your belly and watch it go up and down.
- You might feel a knot in your stomach because your digestive system was affected for a bit there. So a hot water bottle might come in handy. Or just gently massage your belly while lying on your back.
- Your hearing might have been affected when SNS was yelling. Notice what you can hear as you come back to normal. You might notice sounds from outside, birds, traffic. What’s your favourite soothing track to listen to?
- Tunnel vision is a thing during stress, so just gently notice what’s going on in the room you’re in. Look around and see if you can see things that aren’t just in front of you. Notice all of your senses as they slowly return to normal.
- It’s totally okay to have a cry now too. Just breathe and give yourself time.
Once you’ve done the emergency self care you can then just go back to regular self care. Try to avoid doing anything that might result in stress for the rest of the day. Get to bedtime, soothe yourself to sleep as best as you can, and get up tomorrow.
This is all true for whatever stressful event you might encounter, even if it’s one that you actually wanted to experience (for example like a scary film). Or something which you could at least plan for (like a job interview, or a deadline). We all need a bit of downtime after this part of our nervous system has been stimulated. It’s important for all of us to be aware of this so we can build it into our day.
Information you need
Stressful events are triggered by some information. Sometimes that is accurate and useful, and sometimes (often) it’s inaccurate and full of s**t. So it’s important that we try to get the right information and try to process it in the right way.
For example, with coronavirus there’s a lot of news and a lot to be stressed about. It’s important to get some useful enough information, but just enough to keep you and everyone else safe. Know the difference between facts and hot takes. Facts are bland and tell you what the situation is and what you need to do. You might only need to get your facts once every day or so and it would take you a second. For example if I just want facts I go to Dr Ranj Singh’s twitter feed and scroll down. Find someone you trust in this way and just get your news from them. If you want hot takes about how governments have messed this up then fine, but try to pay attention to whether that is stressing you out or not.
If you’re visiting this website because you are having a pregnancy scare, just calmly go here and read the information about pregnancy risks and what you can do. I get many panicky comments on here from people who are freaking the F out and just haven’t been able to take the information in. So sometimes it might be better to try to get calm first and then take the information in. A friend or partner might be better placed to do this than you.
So that’s how we as individuals can deal with stress by ourselves. However we can’t just rely on making ourselves less stressed. Many, if not most, of the things that stress us can be prevented. Stress is not fairly distributed in society so some people get more of it than others. Look out for another article soon which addresses this.
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You might also want to check out this page about anxiety and how to deal with it. It’s well good.
Thanks to my Instagram followers who gave me excellent advice on cultural references!
For adults, Meg-John Barker and me did a podcast and blog about Stress and Coronavirus. MJ also did this excellent blog post about Trauma which I found really helpful. Also I found Dean Burnett’s book The Idiot Brain really useful to help me write this. Also Love Uncommon have some really great blogs about this stuff, like this one on emotional temperatures.
Comment below if you like (I moderate all comments before they go live, so no being cheeky!)
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.