But what if you’re having similar feelings when you’re about to graduate, get married, or reunite with friends you haven’t seen in a while? These are generally thought of as happy moments, but you find that nerves and anxious thoughts are taking over instead. If being stressed over something like this is, well, stressing you out, know that you’re not alone. This reaction is totally normal. Here’s why.
What happens to your body under stress
For starters, it’s helpful to know that not everyone deals with stress in the same way. Some people thrive under pressure, while going to a job interview might leave you tongue-tied as you experience what’s known as the “fight-or-flight” response. When this happens, your body releases hormones like adrenaline that cause a cascade of physical effects. “The fight-or-flight response prepares you for emergency situations by increasing your heart rate, widening your airways, and pumping blood to your major muscle groups,” says licensed psychologist Lienna Wilson, PsyD.
During the 1950s, endocrinologist Hans Selye proposed general adaptation syndrome (GAS) to explain the physiological changes that occur in response to stress. The three stages of GAS are the fight-or-flight response, a resistance or recovery phase, and a period of exhaustion.
Physical symptoms during the first stage include muscle tension, rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, headaches, and dizziness. “As you move through the stress response, you may experience emotional changes, such as sadness, anger, restlessness, anxiety, fear, or dread,” says Michelle Felder. LCSW, founder and CEO of Parenting Pathfinders. It might be difficult to think clearly or make decisions. These symptoms tend to decrease during the recovery phase and then return again during exhaustion. The more often you go through these three stages, the more likely you are to experience long-term negative effects like headaches, depression, and sleep problems.
What triggers the stress response during happy moments?
While it may seem counterintuitive to feel anxious during happy events, there are several reasons for this, starting with how our brain responds to stress. For example, you’re likely to duck or cover your ears when you hear a loud noise. This is because “the sympathetic nervous system is activated before you can process whether you’re in danger or not,” Dr. Wilson explains. Moments later, you might realize that what you heard was someone popping a balloon, but your first reaction is to retreat from the sound. Similarly, crossing the stage at graduation with everyone looking at you and taking pictures might make you jittery. Your sympathetic nervous system might interpret this as anxiety, and trigger the release of stress hormones.
Another reason you might feel stressed during joyful occasions is due to a fear of the unknown. “Most of us like stability and predictability,” Dr. Wilson says. You hope that everything will go according to plan after spending months preparing for a wedding or moving across the country to start a new job. Still, you can’t help but feel stressed because so many factors are beyond your control. Maybe the wind will pick up when it’s time for your outdoor ceremony, or your new promotion might come with unreasonably high expectations.
Any heightened emotions have the potential to trigger the stress response. When you’re happy or excited, your brain may interpret these feelings as stress because it can’t immediately distinguish between positive and negative. It's why we laugh and cry at the same time when we're happy. (And if you struggle with anxiety, your nervous system is hardwired to perceive threats and you may have a bigger stress response than someone who doesn't have the same level of anxiety.)
Fortunately, this stress reaction isn’t an all-or-nothing process. “There can be variations in the intensity and duration of the response, depending on the nature of the stressor and how we interpret it,” Felder says. For example, you might be looking forward to a vacation; as you’re boarding a flight, you start thinking about how you only have three days left before you have to go back to work, but are able to forget about that once you’re having fun. Likewise, your initial excitement about moving in with a partner may be dampened when you’re bombarded with questions about starting a family.
Even the social pressures to be happy—and stay happy—during life changes or celebratory moments can stress us out. We might think we’re supposed to feel a certain way, so any conflicting emotions could become stressors.
How can you prevent stress from ruining good times?
Although it might seem like we don’t have much control over the stress response, “our emotions and internal dialogue can influence how this response manifests and ultimately affects us,” Felder says. “Reframing a stressor as exciting or challenging, rather than negative, harmful, or threatening, can help decrease the intensity of the stress response and minimize the adverse effects on our well-being.” For example, if you’re anxious about getting a new boss, you can reframe it as a fresh start rather than focusing on how much you dislike change.
Dr. Wilson agrees, explaining how you can train yourself to manage stress through something called cognitive restructuring. “One of the ways to do this is by observing and describing what is happening in your body,” she says. If your breathing gets faster, you can tell yourself that you’re getting more oxygen to your brain. When you get those nervous jitters, you can say you’re feeling excited rather than anxious.
In addition to reframing your thoughts, practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques can also be helpful. “Because each of our bodies is different, it’s important to become conscious of how you respond to stress,” Felder says. Try taking a few deep breaths and noticing the physical and emotional symptoms you experience. She suggests repeating to yourself a statement like: “I’m feeling knots in my stomach. My palms are getting sweaty. My body is giving me clues that it’s experiencing stress.” Naming these feelings and sensations can make them feel less threatening and help you feel more in control of your body. It gives you some distance from your anxious thoughts and feelings to observe what's happening in a matter-of-fact way.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, Felder suggests saying something kind or compassionate to yourself like, “This feeling will change. I’m safe.” Continue breathing and reminding yourself that you’re not in any danger in the present moment. You may also find it beneficial to practice gratitude—think about how thankful you are for the opportunity in front of you. Cultivating this mindset can help you savor positive experiences and reduce the impact of stress.
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