How To Handle Stress Well: A 4-Step Process
What is stress?
Stress is both universal and personal. The universal experience is defined by the physiological cascade of hormonal, neurochemical, and physical responses that we experience when we perceive a threat. The more individualized experience of stress and, according to this study the most powerful component, is our appraisal of the event or thought.
What’s the problem with stress?
The fields of neuroscience, psychology, and genomics have proven that stress can have grave effects on our mental and physical health, our social connections, and our productivity.
In addition, studies have shown that 75- 90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints. The struggle with stress is real, but the solution is not eliminating stress from our lives, which is impossible, but rather in managing it better.
The initiation of the stress response is incredibly beneficial because it helps initiate motivation, learning, attention, and movement. The challenge is how we narrate what stresses us, and our inability to manage our response — i.e. what we tell ourselves about the thing that is stressing us out.
What do we do to stress better?
The goal is to learn how to train one’s perception of stress. Stressing well is about building self-awareness about your relationship with stress. It is about being accountable for the way you talk to yourself about stress and finding support to help yourself through stressful situations. Here are 4 steps to stress well so you can do better, by thinking better.
1. Use Your Mind
The mind’s ability to question, rearrange, and generate a more healthy response is remarkable. This power, however, can only be fully realized with training.
I often say, the brain is a muscle, and so we must train it daily. The more we train the mind this way, the better it becomes at producing useful narratives steeped invaluable, meaningful, and motivating thoughts. You have the ability to talk to your stress, understand it, and decide how to work through it.
- What value do my current thoughts add?
- What is my ideal outcome?
- A year from now, how would I have wanted to act?
- What would change if I believed this situation is my greatest teacher?
- Who do I admire? How do they inspire me to act?
2. Use Your Body
The body governs the mind as much as the mind governs the body. They work together to optimize each other’s performance. Our bodies can help us during stressful situations. When we learn to pick up on the subtle changes in breath, muscle tension, fluttering sensations in the stomach, or increase in heart rate, we can start taking corrective measures to empower our stress response.
- Breathwork: Learning to breathe right is perhaps the most effective and free tool there is! When you learn how to manage your breath your nervous system very quickly sends calming messages to your brain helping you to think more clearly, maintain focus, and come up with better answers to the challenge at hand. Try taking 5 – 10 comfortable, but slow breaths before asking yourself the questions above.
- Walk around: When you notice stress is creeping up, it’s time to get up and take a hike! Even a 5-10 minute walk around the office can have profound effects on your ability to combat stress and improve creativity. If you have the time to step outside, even better! The emotional and cognitive benefits of being in nature are outstanding!
- Stretch: Again, you don’t have to spend very long doing this. Just get up, take a moment, and do 3-5 stretches, holds, and breathe through them. If you need proof, here’s a study on the effects of yoga on your brain!
3. Use Your Space
Your space is sending your brain messages whether you ‘see’ it or not. The piles of papers on your desk, sink full of dirty dishes, loads of laundry are not helping you manage your stress.
Understanding how your space influences your thoughts is an important step in working through stress.
Clutter can trigger the stress hormone cortisol. This increases tension and anxiety. Studies show that those who describe their home as “cluttered,” or full of “unfinished projects,” have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and a lower capacity to think clearly, make decisions, and stay focused. Use your space to empower your thinking and promote your productivity.
- Declutter: Take the time to make your space work for you! By physically cleaning, moving, letting go, and organizing you are teaching your brain how to move through stress and create new outcomes.
- Set up your space for productivity: Don’t make your brain work harder than it needs to. Use take steps to optimize your surroundings for calm, productivity + creativity!
- Use Your Support Network: There is no underestimating the power of social connection. Through millions of years of evolution our brain has been formed by social groups. When we have a trusted source to confide in, we do better mentally and physically. The power of these relationships comes in the form of quality, and not quantity. What that means is, it is more important that you cultivate meaningful relationships and that you can share your vulnerabilities with someone, than the amount of ‘followers’ you have.
- Use your real connections to support you through stress. When you feel stress, ask for help, we are not meant to do this alone!
- Is there someone I can call in the middle of the night if I am in trouble?
- Is there someone I can talk to to help me work through my challenges?
- Do the people around me help me be the best version of me?
- Would I benefit from seeking professional support to help me master my mindset and increase my fulfillment?
The goal isn’t to avoid stress or to never experience being stressed, which isn’t possible or beneficial. The goal is to increase your emotional intelligence. That means getting better at identifying when you are moving towards stress, better managing your response, and to optimizing your resources to maximize your ability to overcome your challenges.
Train your muscles to process stress better, use the opportunity to learn and grow so you can do better, by thinking better.
Dr. Yashar Khosroshahi, ND, ACC is the Chair of the Medical Advisory Board (MAB) for Relyf and co-founder of MINDSHIFT NINJA, a Leadership Development company.
- TED Talk: How to make stress your friend
- The effects of arousal reappraisal on stress responses, performance and attention.
- Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality
- The Association Between Perceived Stress and Mortality Among People With Multimorbidity: A Prospective Population-Based Cohort Study