“It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” – Hans Selye
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 political and financial uncertainty, health or relationship issues, and an overflowing inbox, means life can become quite stressful. Without proper stress management techniques, this can have serious implications for your physical and mental health.
In the article, I’ll explain the three most useful approaches to managing stress, but first let’s have a look at what it is and how it affects your brain.
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). 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 start 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. Have you ever noticed you said or did something in the heat of the moment that you subsequently regretted? 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.
MANAGING STRESS: REGULATING YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM
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
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, check out the free resources from The Brain Book.
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.
HOW TO DEVELOP YOUR EMOTIONAL RESOURCEFULNESS
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; and this requires emotional resourcefulness. I believe the best ways to develop this is to prioritise your emotional recovery, or things that increase your energy levels.
Exercise: Increasing 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?
Exercise: Develop your ‘locus of control’
Borrowing from the Stoics, it’s also important to examine how external conditions may be outside your control, but how you respond to things is within your control. As Marcus Aurelius wrote in his meditations: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.”
To turn this into a practical exercise, write down the top five things, activities, or people that frustrate you or drain your energy reserves. How can you challenge how you respond to them, or react in a way that affects you less?
HOW TO MANAGE COGNITIVE OVERWHELM
Most of the stress my clients suffer with comes from cognitive overwhelm from increasing workload and perpetual ‘busyness’. 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 sweep’. 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.
Exercise: Brain sweep
- 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 sweep 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.
Giving your brain sufficient downtime
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. I love tech – but I can’t help feeling our relationship with our smart phones is contributing to our sense of busyness, overwhelm and inability to switch off. If you want to manage stress effectively, you can’t ignore how you use your devices. So if you feel stressed:
- 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 your phone first and last thing. If you check your email before you get out of bed in the morning, don’t be surprised when you feel it hard to ‘switch off’. Similarly, if you’re still on your phone in the hour before bed, don’t be surprised when you wake up feeling unrested.
Practise meditation or mindfulness
The final technique I’ll recommend for managing your mental state is to practise meditation or mindfulness. One of the best ways to calm your ind, and even train your brain to respond better to stress, meditation and mindfulness I’ve explored in another article and video you can find here.
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.
- 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:
- 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.
- Reframe your relationship with your ‘drainers’
- Finally, manage your cognitive state:
- Do regular brain dumps and create a working system that prevents overwhelm (and that you trust!).
- Give your brain downtime and be more conscious of your relationship with your phone and other digital technology.
- Practise meditation and mindfulness.
Best of luck, and please share this with anyone you think would find it useful.