Modern-day stress response is a habit!

Habits have been “learned”. If so, they can be changed!

Stress is about survival. The Stress Response Mechanism, which is inbuilt into the autonomic nervous system and is an automatic function was originally designed to warn us of pending danger when a dangerous animal was nearby and was threatening to kill us. We would: sense the danger and then make a very quick decision: would we stay and fight, or would we run and flee or would be so overcome with fear that we froze and did nothing.

When the danger has passed or the event that triggered the stress response mechanism eventually subsides, our bodies then get back into balance and can function normally.

Because we do not have many “real” threats impinging on our lives nowadays, generally the threats or stresses we have are “perceived”.

The problem is that your body/mind, your subconscious, cannot tell the difference between an event which is “real” and an event which is “perceived”. So, what this means today is that most of our stress triggers are imagined or not real.

This means that we have been training ourselves how to respond to those “perceived” threats and have developed an habitual response to those “perceived” stress triggers.

I believe that how you respond to stress is a habit. And, if it is a habit that has been learned over time it can be unlearned.

What is a habit and how does it arise?

A habit is a sequence of elements strung together which, if repeated over time becomes embedded within our psyche and which you do not have to think about at all. The sequence and response and behaviour are all triggered by something and you go into automatic response.
Charles Duhigg in his book titled: The Power of Habit talked about habit being comprised of 3 elements.

A habit is comprised of three elements:

– A cue – trigger – which could be a thought, a feeling, a belief an attitude.
– A routine – a general way of responding to the cue – which could be described as a behaviour, and
– A reward– such as a feeling of relief or satisfaction that having performed the behaviour, this then satisfies the critical urge. It could be food or alcohol, cigarettes or drugs.

So, we have some trigger setting us off, we then go through a routine or go into a specific behaviour and after the behaviour has been completed for a satisfactory amount of time we then reap the reward. Now the reward could be tied to the event, e.g. when the stress event is over the reward could be the relief that comes when the event is over. The reward could be a thing such as chocolate, alcohol or cigarettes, or some feeling.

So, if these triggers happen often enough then the chances of that trigger developing into a habit sequence is high. Let’s look at an example. Say, someone chews their finger nails. They might be sitting watching TV and suddenly they start the routine/the behaviour of chewing the nails. They do this until the quicks do not have any hard pieces sticking out. So, what would be the reward? Simply put, it could be a feeling of satisfaction that there are no quicks left. Or it could be a sense of relaxation. Who know. Rewards can be hard to identify and distinguish.

So, the habit might be:

  • I am bored – watching TV – the cue
  • The routine – chewing the nails – the behaviour
  • The reward – a sense of satisfaction that there are no hard pieces still sticking out.

So, over time if this sequence is practiced sufficiently often, the brain begins to anticipate the reward, so eventually the reward + the cue becomes the trigger.

Now. In our stress response situation, whereby the cue could be a thought/feeling of being threatened in some way, our routine/behaviour is we gasp for air, and the reward could be relief that the event is over.

When we want to change a habit, there are many ways to do this.

You can:

  • try to change the cue,
  • change the routine or the behaviour or
  • change the reward.

Habits are built via a collection of neural pathways over time. It has been verified that a habit takes approximately 31 days for those neural pathways to be built. It has also been found that you cannot get rid of old habits. You have to install new ones because you have to build the necessary synapses, the pathways to the brain that will install the new habit.

How you respond to stress, the routine/the behaviour, is part of a habit which has been learned. If it has been learned you can unlearn it.

Originally published in Thrive Global:

Previously published