I feel a bit sheepish writing this post.
I’ve been writing stress-related articles for five years and wondered whether you might think, “there are three guiding principles and she’s only revealing this now?”
It’s not that I’ve been holding back on you – in fact I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve shared to date. And from this big-picture, reflective standpoint, I reckon that all you need to know about being wise with stress, all that you need in order to be a master of stress, comes down to three principles.
They are the key to coping well with stress.
All that I’ve written so far is in the service of these principles: whether it’s proven methods and resources to calm yourself; guaranteed ways of improving your mood; harnessing mindfulness and meditation; or perspectives and research to inform your approach to stress.
To be in control, or not to be in control
The first principle has to do with control and your relationship with it. And it makes all the difference to how you are effected by stress.
At stressful times we are susceptible to feeling out of control.
In a short but illuminating Yale podcast called This is your brain on stress, Dr Amy Arensten explains that feeling in control, even if it is an illusion, counters the impact of stress. Let me explain…
Stress activates chemical and physiological reactions in your brain and body, that make up the fight, flight or freeze reaction. This is life saving if it means fighting off, fleeing or freezing when confronted by a predator or attacker. Your muscles and body are primed for survival.
But it’s disastrous if you need to retain higher-order thinking to write a paper with a tight deadline, make a presentation or engage in conflict resolution. Primed muscles are no compensation for judgement, reasoning and critical thinking.
Yet, if in the face of stress you retain a sense of control, your prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for high-order thinking like problem solving and decision making) continues to function and neutralises the stress reactions in your brain and body.
Yes, some aspects of life are beyond your control, but you can always do something constructive in a tough situation, even if it is simply to pause with intention and take a deep breath.
It’s as simple as that.
Imagine. Something goes wrong. Stress hits you like a ton of bricks. Your day looks set to spiral out of control. Your heart pounds, nausea rises, for a moment you’re lost…
But wait, you know you must keep ahold of the wheel, you must ease on the breaks and pull to the side of the road. You know how to calm yourself. And no matter how dire things are (and how limited your capacity to make things better), you can do something. You will get through the day somehow.
And presto, with that awareness, and in that split second, you keep control. You begin to recover from your stress reaction and you retain access to complex cognitive functions that you need in order to get yourself through okay.
Principle # 1: Take thoughtful action to feel in control
• stop and breathe
• pause and take a sip of water
• call for advice or support
• reschedule or cancel
• excuse yourself and/or apologise
• manage expectations (yours and theirs)
• go for a walk
With each of these actions you retain a measure of control. You switch off stress reactions and preserve your capacity to think straight.
You can’t control everything but you can always take control of something. And to do so is to master stress.
Is stress really the enemy?
You know those people who always rise to a challenge, always step up in the face of adversity? They seem to have a quality of invincibility about them. An inherent sense of confidence that they can cope.
Turns out they do have a powerful secret, and it does enhance their capacity to deal with stress, and indeed, to potentially live longer.
It’s their mindset: they don’t believe stress is harmful, and they do believe they can cope. This belief makes them perform better under pressure, and it protects them against damaging outcomes to their health.
Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk, nudging up towards 11 million views, makes this powerful argument. She cites a US study of 30 000 people tracked for eight years. It concluded that those who experienced high levels of stress had a 43% increase in their risk of dying.
But that was not true for those people who did not believe that stress was harmful. Stress did not increase these people’s risk of dying.
She explains that stress poses a threat to health when blood vessels constrict. But this doesn’t occur for those with an adaptive view of stress, who aren’t fearful of it’s effects or their capacity to deal with it. Their hearts still pump harder but their blood vessels don’t constrict.
They are more confident, less likely to buckle under pressure…and won’t have an increase in stress-related risk of dying, even if they do experience significant life stress (like financial or family crisis).
Principle # 2: Learn and remember that stress is only harmful if you believe it is harmful
Train yourself to view stress as a challenging but unavoidable part of life. Skill up so that you can be confident to face pressure — the more confident you get, the better you’ll perform, and the healthier you’ll be.
I often talk and write about the benefits of hugging and helping others, and being hugged or helped by others. Oxytocin is a powerful feel-good hormone released in the body when we connect in these ways. It’s an excellent antidote to stress.
McGonigal lends weight to this idea. She spells out how oxytocin is part of the stress response and motivates us to seek support, and when we do connect with others (as carer or cared for) it boosts our stress recovery. She points out that oxytocin protects the cardiovascular system, is a natural anti-inflammatory, and helps heart cells recover from stress.
Again she cites research that points to an increase in death rate for those who experience high levels of stress. But there was no increase in death rate for stress victims who spent time caring for others. Caring for others (and seeking care from others) is stress relieving and life prolonging.
Enough of the solo steely stoicism. No more independence at all cost. Lean on others and be leant upon.
Principle # 3: Give and receive help and care — it protects you and speeds your recovery from stress
Help makes sound stress sense.
The bottom line in stress mastery then is: Learn to take control, trust yourself and trust others.