Achieving a “stress-free life” has become a modern mecca. Access to books, apps, training and courses designed to help us reduce stress is unprecedented, and for good reasons—stress can literally kill us. Yet stress is a natural and important physiological barometer, an evolutionary necessity that has kept us safe for millennia. We all experience stress, and not all stress is bad for us. Stress is information, and can be used to motivate us, as well. So why is it that some people—high achievers with demanding jobs—seem to sail through crises and conflict, while others wither on the vine? The operative word in the title of this post is manage. When we put ourselves in charge of how we manage stress, we too, are able to sail through crises and conflict, calmly and confidently. To understand how to manage stress, we first have to understand its purpose.
Imagine that you’re a gazelle grazing happily on the tundra. Suddenly, you perceive a threat—a new scent on the current of wind wafting gently by you; it’s the scent of a lion. Your brain registers danger, and your body responds to that stressor (the lion) by releasing a cascade of physiological responses (the stress response). Your nervous system activates and goes on full alert, your endocrine system pumps out hormones like crazy (think: adrenaline). Glucose, fats and proteins come streaming out of storage in your fat cells to fire up your muscles and give you energy for a quick get-away. And because rapid delivery of oxygen and nutrients is immediately critical now too, your heart rate, blood pressure and breath rate increase for accelerated delivery to your muscles. And off you go! A few wild minutes later, you’ve eluded the lion. You are safe again. Your body returns to normal (homeostasis) and you go back to happily munching on leaves and grass.
The good news is that humans, like all mammals, are perfectly primed to handle this type of stressor-stress response scenario. You’re driving your car, a cyclist swerves in front of you, your body immediately responds as above, and you slam on the brakes. Danger averted, your heart rate returns to normal, your breathing slows and your tensed muscles, relax. Whew! That deep sigh of relief signals your breath and body normalizing.
But we humans are not the live-in-the-moment type. Unlike most of our mammalian relatives, humans are uniquely gifted with the ability to anticipate the future and ruminate about the past. The upshot? We’re able to trigger a stress response—that cascade of stress hormones, rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure and shallow breathing—without the presence of an external stressor, without the presence of a real threat or danger; we can simply think our way into it. We sit in traffic and worry about mortgages, taxes, student loans and being late; our jobs, our lack of a job, our elderly parents, our teenage children; the things we said and did yesterday, last week, last month and even years ago. Feeling stressed yet? Unlike the situation in our story above, in which we spike and return to homeostasis, this constant drip, drip, drip of cortisol leaking into our systems, damages our brains and bodies, interferes with our thinking, and diminishes our health and well-being.
What can you do right now?
Stop the leak. This article began by noting that stress is a normal and necessary physiological function. Like our other physiological functions, stress has a physiological counterpart. Nutrients alleviate hunger, rest alleviates fatigue, water alleviates thirst, and breathing alleviates stress. Breathing is by far the most important, yet underrated, physiological function in our human operating system. Breathing acts as our on-off switch, and helps us regulate the leak of stress hormones into our system. Most of us worsen our stress by stressing about feeling stressed. Breathing intentionally and deeply into the lower lobes of our lungs (unlike the automatic breathing you’re doing now while reading this article), oxygenates our blood, balances our pH, lowers our heart rate, increases our focus, and triggers our brain’s relaxation response, to name just a few of the immediate and important calming impacts. Deep breathing is natural, simple and can be done anytime, anywhere: in meetings, while driving, before any stress-inducing situation such as a pitch, examination, in a legal forum, presentation—or whenever you experience unwanted stress.
If we’re breathing deeply, why are we still experiencing stress?
Take charge of self-generated stress. Remember that gift we talked about? Our ability to anticipate the future and ponder the past can also be an impediment. To paraphrase Mark Twain: “I’ve suffered a great number of catastrophes in my life, most of which never happened.” We tend to think that our thoughts are credible. The reasoning is, if I thought them, they must be real, right? Maybe not. Simply put, don’t believe everything you think. When we recognize that not all of our thoughts are credible, and that much of the stress we experience is self-generated, we’ve taken a major step toward successful stress management. Our nagging “what if” thoughts arise to protect us from harm. We “self-generate” stress when we buy into that thinking without stepping back to examine it critically. Research shows that how we perceive stress influences how we experience it. Taking charge of our thinking mitigates the stress response. When unhelpful or other types of stressful thoughts arise, rather than following them down the rabbit hole to their disastrous conclusions, consider questioning their veracity and examining other possibilities. While a healthy dose of skepticism may be warranted, successful stress managers evaluate their thinking which places the focus on the sought-after outcomes, and bypasses undue stress caused by spiraling, or habitual responses to triggering events.
Rest your brain. It’s not uncommon for us to come up with our best ideas in the shower, solutions to problems just as we’re drifting off to sleep, and to remember that name we were “trying” to remember, when we’re not paying attention to anything in particular. Studies have found that periods of non-directed thought—daydreaming, mind-wandering, zoning out or meditating—are critical to brain health, stable emotions, and fresh thinking. Giving our brains a break from thinking embeds learning, increases memory, improves problem solving, and generates new brain cells. As kids, we did this naturally. We regularly got “lost in thought,” oblivious to the world around us. Healthy high achievers still do. They disconnect from their devices. Take walks. Let their minds roam. Or meditate. (And yes, there is enough time, but that is another topic.) Much has been written about the impact of stress on our brains, and none of it is good. Consider getting back to what we all do naturally, and take a daily brain break.
Keep moving. The human body is designed to move. Modern-day immobility is a major contributor to our current excessive levels of anxiety and ill health. Hunching over desks or computers raises cortisol output. Sitting for long periods creates counterproductive metabolic changes that are directly linked to stress-related diseases and physical decline. Moving and breathing keeps our physiology functioning properly and optimizes our problem-solving and decision-making abilities. Among the many ways to incorporate movement and breathing into our days at the office are to stand or pace while on the phone, move or stretch every hour, walk down the hall to communicate with a colleague, use stairs instead of the elevator whenever feasible, work standing periodically, and hold walking meetings instead of sitting in conference rooms. These incremental actions go a long way toward managing physical, mental and emotional stress impacts and producing better outcomes.
Be a healthy high achiever. To mitigate stress and its impacts, and maximize productivity, health and well-being:
- Breathe deeply to return to homeostasis when experiencing a stress response;
- Evaluate your thinking to ease self-generated stress;
- Rest your brain—zone out or meditate—to optimize cognitive function, reduce stress, and improve brain health;
- Move at intervals throughout the day to lower damaging, immobility-related stress impacts.
For links to information in this article, feel free to reach out to me directly.
Judith Gordon is a principal of Organic Communication providing innovative programs for organizations and high-achieving professionals driven to thrive professionally and personally, and a lecturer at UCLA School of Law where she teaches stress management and creating a values-driven life. She is the co-author of Successful (Happy) Lawyering: Increase Your Bottom Line and Well-Being One Insight at a Time.