Feeling overwhelmed? These tips are a total game-changer.
Are you stressed? I'm not going to tell you to “relax.” Instead, I'll actually show you how to regulate it.
For many people, stress is a daily occurrence. When stress overruns your life, you’re left feeling “stressed out” and depleted. You can’t get enough rest, life “comes at you” super-charged, and your ability to bounce back or be resilient to the everyday challenges of living becomes harder.
Under too much stress, chances are you're not coping well. You're not performing as well as you wish, and as a result, you're not meeting your goals in your professional and personal life. That’s what many working adults think, and, unfortunately, many fail to see seek help until it's too late.
It's certainly true that stress can cause people not to function well. But let’s consider the reverse: Does a certain amount of stress actually help people function well and be successful? The answer might surprise you.
Different Kinds Of Stress
As a human being, the stress you encounter daily is persistent and in some cases, insidious. To the extent that your stress is “chronic” and of the “never-ending” kind, it can wreak havoc on your health and functioning, leading to stress-related illnesses such as heart attack, ulcers, and various cancers.
Here lies perhaps the greatest difference between the stress that lower animals face, and the stress that humans face in their daily life.
As explained by Robert Sapolsky in the book “Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers”, the zebra does not get sick when they are under intense stress because of how the Zebra’s life is structured. For him, whenever he's chased by the lion, he has to run for his life. If he succeeds, he survives for another day. If he fails, he's the meal for the lion.
Similarly, for the lion, when he's hungry, he has to run for his life for his next meal. If he succeeds, he lives for another day. If he fails, he goes hungry and if too many days goes by without a mean, he will not survive. Truly a fight and flight situation.
Living in a civilised society, you face the constant streams of events and challenges happening daily. You face the pressure of demands from people in your life and the pressure to perform for them. These everyday occurrences include things like performing at work, being there for your kids, along with seemingly mundane yet highly annoying things like traffic being at a standstill, a broken down train, bus or car, or inclement weather.
This kind of constant stress is relentless and gives rise to the experience of living with chronic stress. Herein lies one of the biggest challenges you have to face. For people living with chronic stress, the moments of NOT being under stress are few and far between. The psychologist Lazarus called this the “hassles” as contrasted with “uplifts,” which are pleasurable moments in this constant stream of life events. For a lot of people, “hassles” are a constant reality and “uplifts” not frequent enough to break the constant barrage of “hassles.”
Without breaks in the stress, life becomes harder to manage. Your reserves of “good times” and “happy feelings” do not get replenished, and that can have a meaningful impact on how you view the world and your place in it.
Certainly, from time to time, traumatic stress will occur, which is different from your average day-to-day stress. We all have to confront the big challenges when they occur: natural disasters, terrorism, plane crashes, and other modern day atrocities. While these events will overwhelm your body and provoke the body’s acute response to stress, it's not a state that most people live with every day. When it initially occurs, the result is a hypersensitive state that wears off over time. But for some, this kind of stress can be incapacitating and clinically leaves the person with the psychological condition of PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The Neuroscience Dimension And What's Happening In Your Brain
As you experience the different kinds of stress, your brain is highly activated. Each event signals specific nerve pathways to light up and to get to work. We know now that your experience of stress is due to the activation of the amygdala.
When danger threatens as in the zebra/lion scenario, the amygdala is activated and the sympathetic nerves are stimulated. Together with the secretion of adrenaline (or epinephrine) from the adrenal glands atop the 2 kidneys, you have the full-fledged stress response with all the physical symptoms added in. These symptoms include breathlessness, rapid pulse, raised blood pressure, release of sugars in the liver, muscular stimulation and the remaining physical responses that prepare the body for the classic fight or flight response.
As you can imagine, this reaction only takes seconds to go into full tilt. The problem lies in experiencing this reaction in moments when you’re not really under such a treat. Psychologists have worked with clients for decades in an attempt to help overly anxious people learn to calm down. It was believed that in order to reduce stress, the body’s “relaxation response” had to kick in to balance out the stress. In other words, in order to combat stress, you need to learn to relax.
However, my opinion is that relaxation may NOT be the best thing to stop stress.
In fact, it may be the very reason why you're unable to perform well, because you're too relaxed.
The amygdala shares a connection to other animals because its function is to help manage threats and danger. On some level, it’s a very simple part of your brain and is commonly referred to as your "reptilian brain" because of its basic functioning. It’s also something we share with other animals — monkeys for instance.
Take it out, and we become fearless. But, that puts us deeper at risk.
The problem for humans is when this basic part of our anatomy takes over, we’re not fully thinking; our brains aren't fully on. If all we have to solve our problems is our reptilian brain, we start to function like lower animals. This behavior doesn’t work for the long term, and certainly not if you want to thrive instead of merely exist.
The answer is to learn to work with your stress — so you manage it instead if it managing you.
What you face daily are not threats to your physical survival or danger, but instead the social and psychological pressure from people around you.
Because such pressures are persistent, stress takes on a chronic dimension that goes beyond the basic fight or flight response. As you confront your daily challenges, not only is your amygdala activated, but your body also begins to release cortisol.
Cortisol is the chronic stress hormone that courses through your veins when you feel stressed. Prolonged affliction by cortisol on the body produces heart disease, strokes and various cancers.
When your amygdala is activated, it will always interpret stimuli in terms of danger and threats. To control stress levels, you need to learn to dissociate stress from threats and learn how to regulate it. What this means is that you have to adopt a cognitive approach to dissociate yourselves from stress and do something to change your reaction. One very successful approach involves practicing mindfulness.
In a mindful state, you actively focus on what's being received through your senses. You can regulate your emotional response by taking control of physiological function such as breathing, which then lowers the pulse and blood pressure and indirectly calms you down.
Think about this: when you’re stressed, your mind is focused on the external world, taking that in, and causing that stress to live in your body. When you practice mindfulness, you are deciding what you want the internal state of your body to be and creating that reality instead.
In fact, when you're mindful, you're likely to be more productive. You're more likely to be efficient. You're more likely to achieve more and to do more.
So if your goal is not to just experience less stress, but to also achieve greater success in your life (be it at work, home or in your community), learning mindfulness skills will teach you to manage your response to stress and use stress to your advantage.
Here are my 8 tips for managing your stress level so it doesn’t get the best of you:
1. Learn and practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a state of alertness that's relaxed and usually induced by deep breathing. Traditional methods of relaxation training, breathing exercises, biofeedback, alpha rhythm, different forms of meditation all serve the same purpose, and that is to calm the sympathetic stimulation of your nervous system. If you deepen the relaxation, you can end up sleeping, but while maintaining such a relaxed state and incorporating more active activities at the same time, you will find that you're in control and can get more done.
2. Always tell yourself that you're not in danger or under threat.
If you experience stress symptoms, control it by doing a simple breathing exercise, then take a problem solving attitude to what's harassing you. Almost all issues are resolved by you changing your perception or taking some action. Clarify your mind by talking to someone, perhaps a professional coach or counselor.
3. Focus on your body.
If you're rushed and under pressure to perform, do the breathing exercise and focus on your body at the same time to regulate the stress sensations. Take control of yourself and ask what you have to do. Focus on what you need to do and relax, let go. You will definitely do better. The letting go is important as well as the sense of deliberation.
4. Pause when you're overwhelmed.
When you're stressed by the demands of your work, especially in competitive situations, at some suitable point stop what you're doing momentarily. Then look at what you're doing, focus your attention, and examine them closely. Breathe deeply, slow down, and focus. New insights and understanding will soon come to you. Even in competition, a deliberate action is more effective than reacting wildly to stress, which can prove counterproductive.
5. Spend time with your social network.
Those who you care about and who care about you are a great stress reliever. Do fun things together, and when things are bad, give support to one another. The knowledge that we have social support does help us to regulate and control our feeling of being threatened by circumstances. If you feel that your support network is stressful (and it should not be), consult a therapist or a family counselor.
6. Appreciate the small stuff.
Take a break if necessary, pay attention to other objects in the environment, experience the positive qualities of these objects like their beauty, wonder, amazement, etc. Do anything that may enhance your enjoyment of the environment. Do something different, have a drink, or listen to pleasant music. Or spend some time with friends and enjoy the social interaction. When you do this, you're being mindful, and that allows you to reset your body and mental tone.
7. Check your self-talk.
Those statements that you constantly make to yourself as you face situations, people and circumstances play a big role in your outlook. Are you voicing negative statements or statements tinged with fear? If you are, reverse them to be positive but stay true to reality but be as optimistic as you can. If you encounter difficulties, get professional help to change your negative thought patterns.
8. Take frequent breaks if you can, every hour or half hour.
Different people can tolerate different amount of intensive work. As mentioned earlier, this allows you to reset and to start being more productive again. Your efficiency actually increases because you're no longer stressed out and that’s how you prevent yourself from burning out.
During your break be mindful and pay attention to the environment. This interrupts the cycle of stress and allows you to resume control of yourself and your body. And when you get back to your work again, you're ready to activate your prefrontal cortex and prepare yourself for creative and diligent work.
The balance you need to achieve in stress management is not between stress and relaxation. It's between the reptilian brain and the human brain. This balance is important because you are human. The mark of that is that you're capable of the kind of productive work which is intellectual, strategic, innovative, and creative. For that, you need your entire brain online and working for you. If you're functioning at this level, you're truly expressing the greatest of your human potential!
Dr. Douglas Kong is a retired psychiatrist who specialized in stress management, psychological treatment and self-help. Download his latest Ebook on Conquering Panic Attacks, along with his free video course, here.