Many of us spend our working lives in a state of perpetual overwhelm. The feeling that there are more things to do than we have the time or resources for, combined with financial uncertainty, health concerns, relationship issues, and an overflowing inbox, means life can be pretty stressful. And it can have serious implications for our physical and mental health without proper stress management techniques.
In the article, I’ll explain in detail the three most useful approaches to managing stress.
‘Stress’ is an overused and under defined term. We use it to mean physical tension, emotional worry, and mental overload. It refers to all these things as each is inextricably linked. Your mind and your body act as a system; to deal better with stress we need to explore each part of this system:
- We’ll start our discussion exploring what the stress response is, and how it affects you at the moment and the long-term.
- Next, we’ll look at the first step to managing stress: how to regulate your physiology. We’ll explore the best way to regulate your breathing and relax your body. Specifically, we’ll look at using progressive relaxation technique and meditation to calm your body.
- From there, we’ll look at the emotional aspects of managing stress, and why stress affects people differently. We explore how you can develop your emotional resilience though increasing your energy levels, developing your perceived control, and improving your sense of wellbeing.
- Finally, we’ll look at the cognitive side of stress management. Any discussion on stress would be lacking without addressing mental overload, inbox overwhelms, and how to better manage your mind.
Stress can make you stupid. Sure, if you feel apathetic or bored, moderate stress can increase your attention and your subsequent performance. But all too often stress levels go beyond a useful level and lead to cognitive impairment. The relationship between pressure and performance is therefore represented by an inverted ‘U’:
To understand your stress responses, it’s helpful to see it in its evolutionary context: a response to a ‘perceived threat’. When humans are confronted by a threat, a complex phenomenon rapidly takes place. So imagine a bear walks into your room right now.
- Your body’s response
Cortisol (your stress hormone) and adrenaline production increase, your heart rate elevates, your blood pressure increases, and your liver releases more glucose into your blood to prime your muscles for action. Your sympathetic nervous system prepares your body for ‘fight or flight’.
- Your brain’s response
High levels of stress cause a reduction activity in your prefrontal cortex (PFC). This is important. Located in your frontal lobe, your PFC is the area in your brain you use for ‘executive function’: decision making, reasoning, and other higher level cognition: typically ‘slow’ thinking. If you’re under attack you need to react instinctively and impulsively, so in this context, there is an evolutionary advantage to inhibit thinking. After all, you rarely escape bears by reasoning with them.
Now imagine you’re at work. You’re yet to started on the important presentation for tomorrow, and your boss lands a pile of unexpected work on your desk. Your nervous system can’t make the distinction between physical and mental stress, so it responds as if another bear’s walked in. Your heart rate and blood pressure elevate as your body prepares for a fight, and once again your critical thinking and reasoning are inhibited. Only this time it’s when you need it the most.
Have you ever noticed you said or did something in the heat of the moment that you subsequently regretted? You may have realized, retrospectively, it was a bad call. Now you know it’s because your ancestors needed their capacity for executive function to be inhibited when they were under attack. What was once an evolutionary advantage to getting you out of trouble, has become a modern day disadvantage more likely to make your troubles greater.
- Long term stress
Chronic stress really messes you up. Your fight or flight response is designed to last a few seconds. But our present day threats are more likely to be intangible worries that persist over days, weeks, or even months. Your nervous system is not built for this and the affect on your immune system can be catastrophic.
According to the Health and Safety Executive in 2014/15, nearly half a million people in the UK reported work-related stress at a level they believed was making them ill. Chronic stress has even been associated with brain shrinkage, changes in genetic expression, and the onset of dementia.
MANAGING STRESS: REGULATE YOUR PHYSIOLOGY
The fight or flight response is a good illustration of how your brain and body work as a system. To keep your brain working at its best under stress, you need to somehow regulate this system.
As William James, the father of modern psychology noted: “The great thing in all education is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy”.
To do this, see your nervous system as a three-part interconnected system: your physiology, your emotions, and your thoughts. The system works both ‘top-down’, and ‘bottom-up’:
- Your thinking affects how you feel, and that influences your physiology (top-down).
- Similarly, your physiological state affects your mood, and that influences your thoughts (bottom-up).
To regulate this system, you need to influence at least one part of it.
How to regulate your physiology
Most of the people I work with acknowledge that stress is a regular part of their life, and it often has adverse affects on their performance. And yet, if I ask what they do about it, so few people have an answer. It’s funny how we can be so aware of a problem and its cost, and yet have no strategy to moderate it.
Physical exercise is good for managing stress and developing resilience as it engages in the ‘flight’ your system is expecting. But exercise alone is insufficient to regulate you physiology; you also need to make time to relax. This can be done through mediation or mindfulness, (discussed in detail in The Brain Book), or a simple progressive relaxation exercise.
By relaxing your muscles and deliberately slowing your breathing, you can directly influence your physiology. You’ll bring your cortisol levels down, activate your parasympathetic nervous system, and put your body into a state of rest and repair. As your body relaxes, you start to feel calmer and more in control, and this helps your thinking become clearer.
Exercise: Progressive Relaxation
- Get comfortable in a chair, with your feet flat on the floor and your hands on your lap.
- Close your eyes.
- Spend just 5 minutes relaxing your whole body, each muscle group in turn.
- Start with focusing your attention on your toes and then consciously them. Some people like to tense the muscles first and then let them loosen.
- Once your toes and feet are relaxed, move your attention to your calves, your thighs, and so on all the way to the top of your head. For a free guided audio recording to help, visit: www.brainworkshops.co.uk/brainbook
You can do this simple and quick exercise at the end of a busy day, before you go to sleep, or whenever you feel you might benefit. If done regularly it will help improve your physical health, your immune function, and your sleep. It will also help you maintain your access to your higher order cognitions, your reasoning, and decision-making. The more you practice the more skilled at relaxing you will become.
MANAGING STRESS: DEVELOP YOUR EMOTIONAL RESILIENCE
Everyone responds to stress differently as people have varying degrees of resourcefulness or resilience. Resilience, like stress, is a poorly defined term, but in a work context, I see it as the capacity to sustain performance under pressure.
There are three approaches to developing your resilience, or emotional resourcefulness, and we’ll briefly discuss all three:
1. Consider how to increase your levels of energy. The more energy you have, the easier it will be to deal with any kind of stress.
2. Develop your sense of control. If you feel in control you become more resourceful.
3. Invest in your wellbeing. If you feel positive, you are more likely to be able to convert pressure into elevated rather than diminished performance, i.e.turn ‘bad’ stress into ‘good’ stress.
A formula for subjective stress might therefor look like this:
- How to increase your energy
Write down a list of the activities that you feel increase your energy. You may be aware of people or tasks that drain you – so what are the things that energize you? Perhaps it’s physical exercise or time with friends? Maybe it’s the less tangible things like positive feedback, or achieving your goals.
Try to think of at least 5, and then consider how can you engage with these things more. How specifically can you spend more time doing the things that give you your energy?
- How to develop your ‘locus of control’
American psychologist, Martin Seligman, made a name for himself studying, amongst other things, perceived control. He ran experiments on mice and dogs, and studied how they respond to electric shocks. He found that if an animal is administered a shock, irrespective of their behavior, they learn that their behavior is inconsequential: they experience “learned helplessness”.
Through these unpleasant experiments, he demonstrated how much someone’s ‘locus of control’ affects their stress response: the greater your perceived control, the greater your resilience, and the higher your average performance.
So now create a list of your top five to ten ways that decrease your energy. What drains you? What saps your energy reserve? Perhaps it’s certain people, seemingly unnecessary tasks, or even the traffic on your way to work?
Now how can you challenge how much you let them affect you? It may not be as simple as doing them less, but can you influence how these things affect you? External conditions or things that happen may be outside of your control, but you can influence how you respond. Or as Maya Angelou more succinctly put it “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
How to improve your wellbeing
If you feel positive, you are more likely to be able to convert pressure into elevated performance (turn bad stress into good stress). We can look to Seligman’s work here too, as he created a model of wellbeing and happiness,
The PERMA Model:
P. Positive Emotion.
We need positive emotion in our lives. We need enjoyment, optimism, positivity. The more of these we feel, or the more regularly we feel it, the happier we are likely to become. This may sound obvious, but do you spend as long as you would like doing the things you love?
We feel good when we’re fully engaged in a task when we experience flow and lose our sense of self. We need absorption, presence, flow, immersion.
Positive relationships are core to our emotional wellbeing, and it’s not the quantity, but the quality that matters. We need connection, love, intimacy, support. A Harvard professor, Dr. George Vaillant, has spent his life studying adult development. In an article he wrote summarizing his 70 years of research, he said “our relationships with other people matter, and matter more than anything else in the world”.
We feel good when we have a purpose, for example from helping others. We need to feel we make an impact or have significance. Altruism is now understood to be a pillar of emotional wellbeing and happiness. Despite our fondness for material wealth, the research is clear: happiness comes from giving, not from having or buying.
We feel good when we achieve goals or feel we’re making progress. We need achievement, goals, pride, fulfillment. If you feel you are growing and developing you will feel happier than if you are more developed but you stop making progress.
Go through the PERMA model, and consider where you are on each. If you were to give yourself a score out of 10 for each of the five factors, what might it be? Then consider what could you do to increase your score on each factor by at least one point. If you do increase your wellbeing, you will feel happier but will have also notice that you respond better to stress.
MANAGING STRESS: REDUCING COGNITIVE OVERWHELM
Most of the stress my clients suffer with is cognitive overwhelm. Given the interconnectedness of the system, by regulating your physiology, improving your energy, and developing your emotional wellbeing, your mental stress will reduce.
But without adequate management of your inbox, your projects and tasks, and your daily commitments at work, your cognitive overwhelm will quickly put your system back into a state of stress.
One of the simplest ways to reduce your sense of cognitive overload, is to do what I call a brain dump. It is a simple exercise that helps you to empty all the unattended clutter and miscellaneous ‘to-dos’ that are in your head. See it as a ‘purge’ for anything that’s not already on your calendar, written down, or in a task- management system. “Email Judy; chase Matt; arrange a call with Nina; send niece a birthday card; renew travel insurance; pay utility bill; clear out kitchen drawer; back up laptop…”
Exercise: Brain dump. Do this now:
- Find a pen and paper (or if you prefer, a task manager or electronic notepad).
- Write down all the unattended stuff, tasks, things that are on your mind or that you need to do. Consider both work and non-work tasks; empty it all onto the page.
- Do not try to sort, prioritize, or do any of it right away.
Clear your mind and free up your mental energy and attention. A list of prompts you might find useful:
- personal: home, friends, family, admin, insurance, bank, holidays, events, birthdays, books, films, leisure, creative projects, learning, errands, to fix, to buy, to clear, to sort…
- professional: email replies, phone calls, meetings, things to follow up on, things you’re waiting for, stuff to chase, project next steps, projects to begin, business development, things to communicate, ideas to capture…
Because your brain is now clear, it is now in a better position to work on anything. Do this brain dump once a week. Don’t be tempted to do it every day or it’ll turn into a daily to-do list, which it is not. It’s a regular clear out that helps prevent the accumulation of unattended and incomplete stuff.
It is the easiest and quickest way to clear your head. It helps you sleep better, work better, and think clearer.
Monitor how you use your smart phone (and another tech)
Did you check your email before you got out of bed this morning? According to a major mobile carrier, the average person checks their smartphone approximately 150 times per day. And then we wonder why we feel a bit overwhelmed and why it’s hard to switch off at night. If you want to manage stress effectively, you cant ignore how you use your devices and in particular, your phone.
If you feel that one of the primary sources or causes of stress is your phone or your email inbox, try the following:
- Turn off your alerts, especially your email alerts. Each time you see or hear an alert (an email, a text, a ‘like’, ‘retweet’, status update, and so on) your attention is compromised. Think about it from an evolutionary perspective – an unexpected auditory or visual stimulus could be a threat. It will consequently create a state of stress.
- To turn off your alerts: iPhone: Settings > Notification Center. Android: Settings > Apps.
- Stop checking email first thing. If you check your email when you’re still in bed don’t be surprised when you feel it hard to ‘switch off’.
Managing Stress: Summary and key takeaways:
I hope you now feel better equipped to deal with any stress that life throws your way. Stress will always be there – but now you have what you need to cope better, and even transform pressure into performance. And remember: “It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” – Hans Selye
- Appreciate the costs of stress: physical, emotional and mental, and acknowledge stress sometimes needs managing.
- Look out for symptoms of stress: feeling overwhelmed, making bad decisions, impulsivity, tiredness, disrupted sleep, elevated heart rate, stiffness, indigestion, or craving sugary foods.
- To manage stress, begin by regulating your physiology:
- Notice and regulate your breathing. Notice your rate of breathing and where you are breathing from. Stressed breathing tends to be quicker and from your chest. Relaxed breathing is from your stomach.
- Practice progressive relaxation, before bed or when you get home after work or at the beginning of a stressful day.
- Then develop your emotional resilience:
- Notice what gives your energy and do more of it.
- Develop your locus of control, and challenge how much energy you give to things that currently frustrate you.
- Appreciate the importance of emotional welling and make time for things you love
- Finally, manage your cognitive state:
- Do regular brain dumps and create a working system that prevents overwhelm (and that you trust!).
- Be more conscious of your relationship with your phone and other digital technology.
If you found this post useful but would like to know more about working smarter, have a look at The Brain Book – How to Think and Work Smarter.