Updated: Apr 15, 2021
How often do you stress? What are your stress triggers? Work, family, financial problems, health or slow internet.
Most people feel stressed sometimes. Though in some environments, stress is part of the job description: consultancy job and parenting are just two examples I know well.
We tend to think about stress as a bad thing and that we are better without it. But is it possible to completely remove stress? Would it be a good strategy? And what are the effective ways to deal with stress?
Your first step to managing stress
Understanding the anatomy of stress explains a lot about your stress response and managing your stress levels.
When you spot a perceived threat, the following happens almost instantly:
Your amygdala sends a stress signal. The amygdala is the part of our brain responsible for identifying threats to our wellbeing, it's a library of our life experiences (hint: habitual stress responses are stored here). The amygdala is so fast at sending warning signals that we often react to a supposed threat faster than our cortex (the part of the brain responsible for thought and judgment) is able to assess our actions and their consequences.
Fight/flight/freeze response is activated.
Stress hormones get released: adrenaline (flight), noradrenalin (fight) and cortisol (an on/off switch).
Neurotransmitter chemicals get released so that you experience a spurt of energy.
Physical changes: Heart rate increased. Breathing increased. Fats and glucose released for energy. Blood flow diverted from non-essential body areas to muscles and the brain. Perspiration increased. The immune system suppressed. You are able to laser focus (reminds me of late-night work before deal closings).
You are now ready to fight/flight/freeze.
Hormones/chemical levels lower.
The body goes back to normal.
Next time you experience a stress response, notice what physical changes happen to your body and work backwards to identify what your amygdala considers as a threat. This is your first step in managing stress.
Stress is not a bad guy
A few thousand years ago, stress was helping our ancestors to deal with danger. Their stress was about life-threatening events, like extreme hunger and running away from sabre-toothed tigers. The stress-induced, instantaneous preparation for a fight/flight/freeze response allowed humans to survive, and thanks to that we are still here.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Many people feel severely stressed over situations that are far from life-threatening, and it is when this happens that problems occur.
Of course, there are true stress triggers, like health issues, redundancy, a car driving at you. But those do not happen often, and most of the time we are bombarded with fake stress signals.
Due to our fast-paced lifestyle, multiple responsibilities and information overload, we are exposed to fake stress triggers more often than arguably any other generation before us. We live in the superhero culture (think of the modern movies and cartoons, picture-perfect Insta-mums-who-manage-it-all, glossy magazines) which leads us to create unrealistic expectations of ourselves, tempts us to compare ourselves to others which inevitably makes us feel like a failure.
Stress is used and even abused in workplaces as a performance trigger. Stress is not the same as pressure. Working under pressure is healthy and provides the opportunity for individuals to stretch their abilities and grow. The difference is that under pressure, individuals still feel in control. While under stress, you feel out of control and stress response kicks in depleting your health and ability to perform effectively.
Ironically, we stress about experiencing stress.
The volume of the triggers becomes overwhelming. The amygdala does not remove its hand from the alert button. Real and fake stress signals trigger the same response, making small and big stresses feel the same (i.e. always big). The stress cycle does not manage to finish itself naturally. Stress accumulates and becomes hard to shake off, so we often use unhelpful stress release tools to manage it; alcohol is a top suspect here.
The stress itself is a healthy reaction to certain situations. What is out of tune is our adequate use of the stress response.
There are two sides to a stress situation: there is a stimulus, and there is your reaction to it.
You guessed it right. You can reduce stress stimuli. Stimuli can be internal (e.g. expectations we put on ourselves, perfectionism) and external (e.g. work, family, social media).
Review the self-imposed expectations, standards, deadlines. Are they realistic in the circumstances? Review the external stimuli that you allow in your life. Information diet is a topical tool in reducing external stimuli. For example, I am a very visual person, and checking the Insta thread was leaving me drained. I have now put limits on my Insta use to 10 min on Fridays for work only. I have put a note on my social media that calling me is better than texting me – hearing someone's voice and catching up in a live conversation is hugely energising for me while chatting steals a lot of my time for zero connection. I also allow myself 10 min a week to check the Covid news, and it's proven to be more than enough.
However, there are many external stimuli you cannot control (a global pandemic is a good example). What is always within your control though is how you manage your internal response to the stimuli, focusing on (i) your overall health, (ii) relaxation and (iii) inner-resilience. These three make up your bank of resources.
(1) How to maintain overall health
All of these are proven to work:
Sleep. Get enough & good quality sleep. Maintain good sleep hygiene habits
Food. Eat food that is delicious and nutritious
Nature. Get outside
Movement. Stay active
Help. Get support
Interaction. Socialise (safely)
Sun. Take vitamin D
Laughter. Have five portions of fun a day
Relax. Practice relaxation
Enjoy. Choose/create a pleasant working environment
Sounds familiar, or even boring? Well, traditional and alternative medicine, neuroscience, psychology and coaching, supported by a massive amount of research, all come to the same conclusion that these simple things make the foundation of a balanced life.
According to the Private Eye, these measures will also help you prevent Covid-19. I concur.
We tend to think that being busy-busy, doing things all the time makes us achieve more. It might make us look like high-achievers. However, neuroscience shows that our brain needs quiet time to process our experiences. This integration is one of the most productive places for our brain function.
Here is what you can do:
Walk slower. Nursery drop-off, school pick-up, work commute - walk slower. It's a very simple and effective brain hack. It sends your brain a signal that there is no need to run, there is no danger, that your brain and body can relax.
Get lost in play! Whatever brings you joy in a healthy way: going for a run, playing a board game, taking a bath, playing an instrument, reading a good fiction book (Denise Mina’s crime stories is my recent discovery), trapeze - schedule it in your day. When you are lost in play, your brain jumps off the stress loop and your body goes back into no danger mode and both your brain and body recharge.
Try breathing techniques. When we stress, we often hold our breath and this in itself is stressful for our body. Breathing techniques remind you to breathe! Yoga breathing, square breathing or just simply three deep breaths.
Try “sitting practice”, otherwise known as mediation. Some people when they hear "meditation", start to feel the pressure to achieve something (an enlightening, an illumination), try too hard and quickly get disheartened because nothing like this happens. Calling it “sitting practice” removes the pressure. The whole point of sitting practice is to train the monkey of our brain to be able to calm down while awake, to relax. Here is how to start a sitting practice:
Sit on a chair, feet on the floor, or sit on the floor; hands relaxed on your knees, palms up. Take three deep breaths, then gently close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. It helps to count the breaths to 10 and then restart from 1. At first, the monkey that your brain is will go nuts, it is used to many stimuli and just sitting and counting breaths will seem boring, your brain will start to think of the to-do list, of things it saw in the news, of the Insta feed. When thoughts come in, imagine you have a very soft feather, gently touch the thoughts with the feather and go back to counting your breaths. The secret to this practice is - do not try too hard. Counting breaths is it! Start with 5 minutes a day, mornings are better to start off your day in this mindset. Put an alarm with a gentle wring to remind you of the time. The Headspace app offers free guided sessions and cool video explanations for newbies.
Try presence (mindfulness) practice. Read here The three-word guide on mindfulness for working mums.
(3) How to build up your resilience
Resilience is not about being blocking stimuli, it’s about how we respond to them. Here are some powerful tools you can practice at home:
Learn your stress response. What are your common stress triggers? What thoughts come to mind? Where do you feel the stress in your body? Stress is trying to tell you something, to save you from danger. Ignoring it will just make it worse. Reflecting on your usual stress response creates a relationship with stress, makes it feel heard. Next time you experience a stress response, you will not be facing an unknown enemy but having a discussion with an old friend.
The top tool of resilient people is to control what you can and let go of the rest. Make a list of things that stress you. Seeing them on paper will already reduce their hold on you. Then use the Resilience Tree tool to assess each one in turn. It takes time, but it trains your resilience muscle and releases stress.
Gain a perspective. Often, crises situations (like illness or loss) give us a perspective on life, on what is important, and make our daily worries feel trivial. But even such strong experiences wear off. Ask yourself what is important to you in life? Might you be overdramatising things? We all sometimes can start to drown in a glass of water. Life is a balancing act.
Notice the good things. Most people see the negatives before they see the positives; that was the caveman survival response - notice the sable-tooth tiger before the rainbow. Nowadays, we don't have many tigers roaming our neighbourhood. In 2005, a 6-month study showed that tuning into the good brings higher levels of happiness and reduces depression. At the end of each day, find the three good things that had happened to you that day. Introduce sharing the three good things as a family practice. As a bonus, watch this moving TED talk on building resilience.
What doesn't work
The NHS use this image of a bucket for stress management which many people find quite helpful.
Problem-solving, building up your resources, worry management through relaxation/distraction reduce the stress level in your bucket.
While quick stress release tools, like alcohol, neither resolve the cause of stress nor strengthen your resources. Stress released that way comes back into the bucket. It does not mean you can't enjoy a glass of your favourite beverage, just do it responsibly, for pleasure and do not expect it to resolve your stress.
If you take away only three things:
The formula is simple: if the demands that are made of you in everyday life are matched by resources, you are unlikely to suffer from stress. Review the demands and build up your resources.
Start low, go slow. We love the “how-to” tips, and this article has many. But having too many tools can be overwhelming and add to the stress. Choose one baby step you can manage and own it. Pat yourself on the back! If you are looking for a deeper change in life, reach out to me for a chat about how coaching can help with stress and overwhelm.
If you are hijacked by stress, start by rebuilding the basic safety needs (see the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs below) and reach out for help. Your GP, BACP and MIND are good places to start. In an emergency, go to your local A&E, or call the Samaritans on 116 123 for 24/7 confidential emotional support.
Overwhelmed professional woman?