“Let’s talk about stress, baby. Let’s talk about you and me, let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things stress can bring. Let’s talk aboooouutt stresss.”
Alright enough with the funny business, let’s get down to the business of stress. It’s no longer a surprise to anyone that stress has been running rampant across the U.S. and most of the western world. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO), has dubbed stress as the health epidemic of the 21st century; reducing our quality of life and sending many of us to an early grave – not cool. Stress is a broad topic area, so in this post I want to get specific and focus on why stress has become such a big problem today and provide you with a few easy tools and strategies to manage the stress in your life.
First, let’s get a baseline understanding of stress because it’s pretty misunderstood…
People often refer to “stress” as a terrible thing but stress, in and of itself, is actually not the problem. As a matter of fact, stress is an amazing physiological response that our age-old brains developed to keep us safe.
Let’s take a look at what happens to our physical body when we get stressed:
When we experience a stressor, the nervous system triggers the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol – these hormones make the heart beat faster and raise blood pressure. As our heart rate increases, our blood vessels dilate which increase the amount of blood that gets pumped to the heart and large muscles. We breathe harder and more rapidly to get more oxygen to the muscles. Our muscles contract to prepare us for an impact and the liver produces more glucose (blood sugar) to give increased energy to support the fight or flight response.
When you think about it, the stress response is actually pretty friggin cool. Stress is meant to be an ally – we basically become super-human for a moment to deal with the stressor before our rational brain even fully grasps what is going on – it’s pretty much our spidey sense. People often say they want to eradicate stress from their lives completely, but the truth is; our ancestors probably wouldn’t have done too well against their predators or hunting prey had it not been for the stress response. Even in many present day contexts, we’d be screwed (or at least at a big disadvantage) without it.
So why has stress become such a problem?
The issue with stress is more often the lack of recovery from the stress than the stress itself. Back in the day, the way it would go is that once the crisis or stressor passed, your body systems returned to normal. The hunter tracking his prey gets this super-human burst which subsides once the prey has been caught. That same hunter later gets ambushed by a predator and gets that same super-burst to fight or evade the attacker until the threat is gone. In this context, stress was the best thing that could have happened for them.
But we don’t really experience stress like this anymore…why?
Our brains didn’t get the memo that times have changed… it’s 2019 and in our normal day-to-day we’re no longer evading danger or hunting prey in the present moment…we still do this but in our mind. Our brains have this amazing ability to visualize and rehearse things, which allows us to plan for and imagine a future or reflect on and learn from the past, but it also means that we can re-live or imagine stressful experiences that can haunt us. It’s a brilliant little catch 22: our greatest asset (the mind) can produce the same physiological response to stress based on an imagined event that will likely never happen, or be much less stressful than the idea itself.
Take dogs for example. If you were to kick a dog, the dog would quickly learn to avoid you to not get kicked again. He’ll avoid you whenever he sees you, but once you’re out of sight, he’ll rest again. Humans however, will replay a situation, past or future, time and time again reliving it as if it were happening in the present moment – therefore the stress response never subsides and that is why we have CHRONIC stress. Those physiological responses were never meant to be held over an extended period of time, and when they are, they can wear us down physically, mentally and emotionally and lead to a slew of unwanted conditions such as hypertension, headaches, depression, anxiety, weight gain, etc. the list goes on and on and on…gastrointestinal, reproductive, and cardiovascular…oh my…
So, what can we do about it? For the rest of the post, my goal is to share some simple yet effective tactics to manage the different types of stress in your life.
There are a few ways I think about categorizing stress management tactics:
- Strategies to prepare for stress (preventive)
- Strategies to deal with stress in the heat of the moment
- Physically-focused tactics
- Mentally-focused tactics
Note that there are both physical and mental tactics that can be used to prepare for stress, others that can be employed in the heat of the stressful moment, and some which can be used for both. Regardless of your preference, to effectively manage your stress, you will need to incorporate all of these different strategies to some degree.
Let’s start with the physical.
I believe that when we are stressed, the first thing we should do is check in with our physical bodies. While stress often stems from the mind, it shows up in a very real way in the physical body and can instantly change our state. Breathing, exercise, sleep and rest, are the first things I look at when I feel that I am in a state of stress.
- Breathing: What is my breathing like? The breath don’t lie! You can’t be calm when your breathing is short and tight, and you can’t be stressed when your breath is slow, calm, and steady. This is why the first thing I do when I feel the onset of stress is check-in with my breath and begin deep breathing. It can instantly change your state in the heat of the moment.
- Exercise: Have I been exercising? This is another baseline check in my stress diagnostic. Regular exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, and improve sleep – all which reduce stress. While regular exercise is critical to build general resilience to stress, a single session is also a really good way to release stress in the heat of the moment by pumping you with endorphins
- Sleep and Rest: Am I getting adequate sleep and rest? I’m sure we can all remember a time where we were well rested, feeling great and something that would normally bother us became laughable. Alternatively, I’m sure we’ve all experienced a time when we were worn down, and something seemingly meaningless set us off. Trying to manage your stress when you are constantly tired is like treading water with a 100lb backpack on…you’re setting yourself up for failure.
I love these physically-focused strategies because they are simple and can be used to change your state in the heat of the moment. They can also be practiced over time to build a strong foundation to help you to deal with future stressors that will inevitably come. That said, while deep breathing might cool you down in the heat of the moment, it doesn’t get to the root cause of the issue and that same event may stress you out the very next day. In these cases, we need to go a bit deeper to resolve the core issue.
In these cases, we can look at some of the mentally-focused tactics to deal with some of the repetitive stressors in our lives. This is where it gets interesting…
First, consider the question: how much of the stress in your life is caused by external events vs the internal narrative you attach to that event?
Think about the biggest stressors in your life at the current moment: Is it school exams? A deadline for work? A big presentation coming up? A tough conversation you need to address?
When you really think about it, none of these things are stressful in and of themselves. It’s the stories we attach to it…”What if I fail? Will I get fired? Will people judge me?” We create these stories in our mind about the event and THAT is what causes the stress response. I hate to tell you but there are other people in the world faced with the same “stressful” situation who aren’t losing any sleep over it because in their mind, they have a positive relationship with the stressor.
Consider this: You’ve been doing your breath work, you’ve been exercising regularly, and you are well rested…but the stress has not subsided…
You can now explore 3 options that will enable you to manage that stress
- Change or remove the stressor
- Change your relationship with the stressor
- Change your relationship with the stressful thoughts and feelings the stressor triggers
Let’s take a deeper look into what these mean and provide a bit of guidance into when each strategy might be most appropriate. We can use an example of public speaking to illustrate each strategy.
Imagine that you have an important presentation coming up. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work on something you care about. There will be many big names in the audience who have substantial clout in your industry. People are counting on you. You are STRESSSINNN
Change or remove the stressor – you could change the stressor by switching the presentation to a phone call or creating a video to convey your message. You could also have someone else on your team present the content instead of you or even cancel the presentation altogether. Doing this would likely alleviate a good bit of the stress coming from the presentation but I don’t think it would really solve the problem. In this case, removing the stressor would probably not be an action aligned with your values. This is something that is important to you and avoiding the situation would only make things more difficult in the long run.
Change your relationship with the stressor – This strategy has saved me many times. Our relationships with people, places, and things can often become a source of stress. One need only to change their relationship with the stressor to alleviate the stress. This is best done through cognitive reframing (aka – shifting your perspective). In the case of the presentation – you can start to think of it less about “I have to crush this, the stakes are so high, if I fail all is lost” and more like “I’m so thankful I’m getting this opportunity, I get to share my passion with leaders in the field today, imagine what could happen if I crushed it.” Moving from an “I have to” to an “I get to” mentality can really change your world.
Note: This strategy may not be very effective in the case of a stressor such as a toxic relationship. In that case, changing or removing the stressor may be a better strategy and one that is more aligned with your values.
Change your relationship with the stressful thoughts and feelings the stressor triggers: Finally, you can change your relationship with the stress response itself. When you get on that stage and your heart starts pumping and your breathing speeds up, rather than think “omg I must be nervous” you can remember “Wow, my body is preparing me for this challenge, I am getting more oxygen to my brain to lock in and focus…let’s f***in go!” Learning to recognize this physiological response as an ally rather than an indicator of anxiety will enable you to embrace it and use it to your advantage rather than try to get rid of it to no success.
So there you have it – my perspective on stress management 101 – it’s done wonders for me. I hope you now understand that stress can be your ally, it’s when it becomes chronic that it turns into a problem. You have the tools, now it’s time to put it into practice.
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