In Conversation With Katie Couric: How To Manage Stress & Experience More Joy

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Three women hanging out together and smiling

Did you know that 77 percent of Americans regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress? It's also estimated that stress costs the U.S. $600 billion every year!

Learning how to manage stress is an important and often overlooked necessity in life.

RELATED: How To Be Happy: 5 Easy Steps To Finding True Happiness & Joy

While everyone manages life’s tensions and traumas differently, true joy — that deep, heartfelt feeling that comes from a connection to purpose, people, or the world around us — is the ultimate stress antidote.

Here's how to manage stress in your life, according to a conversation between Dr. Cynthia Ackrill and award-winning journalist Katie Couric.

Katie Couric: There seems to be this feeling that we’re more stressed than ever before given the pace of the world and technology. Do you think we are actually more stressed in this day and age than previous generations?

Dr. Cynthia Ackrill: That’s really hard to know and complicated to answer.

Since one of the key determinants of stress is perception of the demand on our system versus our capacity to handle it, the context of culture and the expectations we set greatly affect perceptions of experience.

Stress and modern culture.

It’s only in recent generations that happiness became more of a talked-about goal. Several generations ago, it was more accepted that life is hard and full of challenges. And life had more natural rhythms, more obvious work-life boundaries.

Have we shifted to expect life to be easier and that we deserve happiness? If so, then the gap between our expectations and our perceived reality gets wider. That said… Some key factors that naturally set us up for resilience are being challenged in recent years.

We have a culture that covers up vulnerability and teaches us that failure is shameful. For many people, their definition of success is more financial than the well-rounded metrics of real health and joy.

Social connection is a key determinant in resilience, and yet social structures have changed. Loneliness is on the rise — one of the key players in burnout. Making matters worse, stress can make us withdraw at the very time we need connection most.

Studies show we're less-active than our ancestors. Movement is critical to healthy brains, emotional regulation, and resilience.

As a culture, our diets became less-nutritious, as did our food sources. We sleep less than ever, work longer hours, take fewer breaks during the day, and Americans take less vacations than most other developed countries.

This all adds up to demands exceeding our capacities. Stress became a badge of honor in the pursuit of success. It’s time to change the focus to health, joy, productivity, effectiveness, and connection.

Stress can be a good thing.

It’s really important to know that while bragging about stress has not served us, stress is not bad. Without it, we'd be unmotivated and bored.

We need to watch how we talk about it as a challenge, demand on our systems. We are highly adaptable, and we can use the energy and information of stress to make the adjustments we need to fuel better lives.

We must create systems to regularly replenish that energy.

Can we be addicted to stress?

Katie: Do you think sometimes we can develop an addiction to stress? Why would this happen?

Cynthia: Yes! Many of us have used stress to activate our brains and bodies to get through school, meet deadlines, and push ourselves to reach goals. We wind up chasing our tails and running out of energy.

The adrenaline rush designed to handle acute stress can feel like a reward to some folks, but repeatedly activating the stress system leads to chronic stress, which interferes with health, happiness, and the ability to craft a resilient, effective life.

You know how slow it feels when you get off the highway where you were zooming along at 70 mph and try to go 45 mph on a regular road.

It’s easy to adjust your perception of an over-stuffed, over-cranked life to be the norm, then any version of slowing down in any way feels foreign, like you might lose your edge. You don’t trust yourself to produce, unless you are cranked up.

But if we were to measure health parameters or productivity parameters, we would see that this is not a sustainable way to handle life challenges.

Differences in how the genders handle stress.

Katie: What differences do you see in the way that men and women handle stress?

Cynthia: Women have more connections across their brains, differences in hormonal patterns of their stress responses, and tend to have greater social support.

There are multiple reactions to stress “flight/fight,” “freeze/faint," and "tend and befriend.” This last one is more prevalent in women who secrete more oxytocin in response to challenge.

This doesn’t necessarily mean women are better at stress — we just tend to handle it differently.

Katie: Realistically, certain stressors are unavoidable. What’s your advice for people who must live with their stress? What can they do to make the best of a stressful situation?

How to live with stress in healthy ways.

Cynthia: Most of us would benefit from adjusting some unrealistic expectations that cause us to “should” on ourselves! “I shouldn’t have to deal with this. I should be better at handling this. Etc, etc!”

  • Build awareness: create a system to check in on your energy and stress levels. Learn how you brain processes stress. Learn to articulate what you need.
  • Learn tools to adjust your stress in the moment: “Cool down to power up." Practice regularly. Breathwork is probably the fastest, easiest reset. Breathe in to five or six, out to five or six, and bring a positive feeling to mind. You can ask what you know for sure, what you need right now to be at your best, and who you want to be in this situation. This will help you find your best self.
  • Create strategies to build resilience and regularly renew energy: Physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually (including socially). Exercise, rest, sleep, eat healthy nutrition, etc.

RELATED: 3 Tips On Finding Purpose For A More Joyful Life

Sometimes it’s good to do a "stress dump." 

Write down everything that's overwhelming you, draining you, demanding your precious energy and time. Then look at the “dump” with your values in mind.

Get clear about what matters most and set priorities of how to spend your precious time and energy and how to renew it more.

How can you better nurture yourself during this hard time? Drink more water, call a friend, get outside each lunch, or take a walk. Every little contribution adds up!

Stress and joy live on a continuum.

Katie: Why do you say that stress and joy live on a continuum?

Cynthia: We're these amazingly adaptable organisms, processing billions of bits of information a day with our 80 billion brain cells sorting out the internal and external signals into “threat or non-threat.”

Part of that sorting is hard-wired — your amygdalae takes in the signal of heat on your fingers, and you withdraw your hand before you can even say, "hot." This is the acute stress reaction at its finest.

But much of how you sort out signals depends on your perception, and that depends on your genes and your experiences, especially during childhood — the stories you were taught and modeled, and the lifestyle, thinking, and behavior choices you routinely make.

You're naturally negatively biased, some more than others, and can practice seeing signals as mere challenges or opportunities for creating joy.

This is working to build positivity into our lens on the world. We can watch the words we use, look for opportunities in challenges, practice gratitude, reflect more on what went well and why, connect more to others, as well to purpose and meaning.

These practices of filtering our world lead to more joy — that deep-seated inner satisfaction with the world. And we can take care of ourselves well, so we have more capacity (frontal lobe power) to respond with positivity, rather than react with negativity.

You know when you are overtired or emotionally depleted, it is much harder to find the good in something or to make wiser choices to support your health or joy.

Katie: So often, we’re our own worst enemy and let the stories in our head dictate our emotions.

You have some great steps for helping us all conquer those thoughts, so that our stress doesn’t block out our joy. Take us through some of these thoughts and give us some advice on how to not let them get the best of us.

Cynthia: "I don’t deserve it." This is go-to thinking for some folks for so many reasons (childhood “lessons,” poor self-esteem, martyr syndromes, overactive inner critics, etc.) 

This can be such an automatic or subconscious thought that you don’t even realize you need to challenge it.

Look at yourself, as you would your best friend or child — and answer back to this silly thought with a kind, compassionate heart. This is not self-indulgent, it’s just more rational and effective in the long run.

"I shouldn’t indulge in it — it won’t last."

Your brain is wired for safety first, and that will override all other wiring. But you need to find a balance between being aware, vigilant, and prepared, versus relaxed and reflective enough to savor and trust the positives. This can take practice, for sure!

"I can’t have joy until…" You've been rewarded and have “succeeded” by creating goals you must achieve to feel complete or satisfied.

That’s not a bad thing… Until you don’t allow yourself to capture that sense of completion and the joy of feeling effective. Or until you miss great opportunities for joy along the way.

And we often falsely believe that taking time for the joy would disrupt or decrease our effectiveness or productivity, but this isn't true.

Just as you learn more about your relationship with stress, ask yourself about your “story” or relationship with joy. What gives you joy? What “rules” do you have about it? How do you get in your own way?

"My joy depends on someone or something else."

Setting up parameters for your own sense of well-being that depend on the actions or choices of someone else or specific circumstances is a recipe for stress. Part of feeling able to handle the demands of life depends on your capacity to handle the demands.

It’s natural to want your family and loved ones to be happy, but thanks to mirror neurons and the power of modeling good choices, your ability to take care of yourself and your emotional well-being helps them, as well.

This doesn’t mean you give up compassion or take real challenges lightly, but that you learn ways to recharge your own energy and find broader perspectives and hold to values that serve you.

Healthy emotional and mental practices together with healthy boundaries can help you learn to create your own happiness and joy. Personally, I also love the saying, “Not my circus, not my monkeys!” Much like the serenity prayer, sort out what is in your control and be the best at that.

"I can’t focus on joy if I'm serious about my competitive edge."

When you look at the real science of peak performance, it's clear that learning to regularly replenish your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy is critical. The study of positive psychology has shown that savoring success wires you for more success.

We have learned a lot about how humans thrive, but there's so much more to learn! And there are no one-size-fits-all answers.

You can challenge cultural norms that don’t support your best performance, health, or happiness, and sometimes that takes courage!

Use curiosity. Learn to actively calm your physiology and mind. Get creative — that feeds brainpower and joy.

The more you learn about your unique relationship with stress and joy, the quicker you'll learn how to manage stress. You can train your brain and physiology to find health and happiness, no matter how chaotic the times.

RELATED: 7 Ways You Choose Unhappiness (Without Even Realizing It)

Cynthia Ackrill leads stress and leadership workshops in many settings from coaching and leadership programs to women's conferences. Want to learn more strategies to tackle your stress and put more "you" in your future? Contact her or visit her courses and resources on her website.