One very important step in taking control of your life is the management and mastery of the stress response. The stress response, also known as the “fight or flight response,” has been a major part of our make-up since the cave man days. It serves the vital role of compelling us to fight fiercely or flee quickly when a dangerous situation puts us in jeopardy.

When a person perceives that a circumstance is perilous, that message is swiftly conveyed to the hypothalamus, a non-thinking part of the brain that activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Many changes occur in the body when the SNS is engaged. Blood pressure and heart rate increase, breathing moves from the diaphragm to the chest and blood flow shifts to the large muscles and to the brain, away from the stomach and the extremities, restricting digestion and causing the hands and feet to become cold. Muscles tighten in readiness to run or fight. Pupils dilate, the mouth becomes dry and erections become inhibited. The immune system and tissue repair are restricted.

This is nature’s way of ensuring the survival of the species. By redirecting and heightening the body’s activity, blood flow and energy, the person in crisis has the resources to run fast or fight hard, increasing the likelihood of staying alive. The changes that occur put the body into a very uncomfortable and demanding state. Should this huge drain become chronic, serious physiological and psychological problems often manifest.

Just as nature equipped us with a nervous system to survive calamity, it also equipped us with a nervous system to maintain a state of calm: the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The characteristics or actions of the PNS are largely the opposite of the SNS, and for all intents and purposes, when one is engaged, the other is disengaged. Thus, the goal of stress management is to harness the methods that promote a state of calm and that inhibit the stress response. The following strategies have been widely researched and shown to be effective:


What you do to manage the world outside you can go a long way in reducing your susceptibility to the stress response. These techniques include:

Practicing assertiveness
Reducing, eliminating or learning to react differently to stressors
Improving communication
Eliminating self-defeating behaviors
Having clear goals
Managing time in positive ways
Internal Psychological
Keep in mind that the message sent to the hypothalamus may be one about an actual threat or about a perceived, benign threat. You are served well by the stress response when you are actually in danger. You are not served well when you trick yourself. So the following strategies help you make the distinction:

Cognitive Restructuring
Having Rational Beliefs versus Irrational Beliefs
Appropriate Expectations
Internal Physiological

There are calming techniques that tell the brain you are not in trouble. These can be used to disengage the response or on an ongoing basis to prevent it from being elicited:
Imagery Relaxation
The Relaxation Response
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Insight Meditation
Recommended Readings

Davis, M., Eshelman, E.R.,McKay, M. and Fanning, P. (2008) The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook
McKay, M., Davis, M. and Fanning, P. (2007) Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life

More information on managing stress can be found in my book on Positive Psychology, It’s Your Little Red Wagon… Six Core Strengths for Navigating Your Path to the Good Life (Embrace the Power of Positive Psychology and Live Your Dreams!).

Copyright 2009. Sharon S. Esonis, Ph.D.
Sharon S. Esonis, Ph.D., has spent close to three decades helping individuals thrive and improve their lives through her work as a licensed psychologist, author and life coach. An expert in human behavior and motivation, Dr. Esonis specializes in the burgeoning field of Positive Psychology, the scientific study of optimal human functioning and the core strengths that can lead to the achievement of one’s personally-defined goals.

Her most recent book, “It’s Your Little Red Wagon… 6 Core Strengths for Navigating Your Path to the Good Life (Embrace the Power of Positive Psychology and Live Your Dreams!),” is Dr. Esonis’s contribution to the field of Positive Psychology, presenting proven success factors and strength-building techniques that can lead individuals to a life of purpose, motivation and happiness. It is available on

Dr. Esonis earned her doctoral degree at Boston College and currently maintains a life coaching practice in the San Diego area. She also teaches Positive Psychology in the Extended Learning Program at California State University San Marcos. To learn more about the power of Positive Psychology and to order her latest book, visit her website at

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