Stress is something we all feel at times - but as the man who defined stress, Hans Selye, said, “it’s not the stress that kills you, it’s your reaction to it.”
This week, I give you three quick and easy tools you can use to help you manage your stress and find your calm.
1. Pre-empt feeling stressed
It really helps if you can pre-empt or short-cut feeling stressed.
This is because of “neuroplasticity”, which I mentioned in my first stress blog post.
The more often you think a particular thought, the stronger that specific neural pathway becomes.
It’s like if you have a field with two gates - people will walk between them, and the grass will become more worn away on that particular pathway, the more often people walk on it.
However, if one of those gates is moved, a new path will be created.
And grass will grow back over the old path.
And the amazing thing is that happens in the brain too.
If you can learn to stop yourself going down your stressed neural pathway, over time it will get weaker, and instead, your new calm neural pathway will get stronger.
They’ve actually taken videos of this happening in the brain: the synapses moving closer together as the path strengthens, and further apart as the path weakens.
So it really makes a difference if you can reduce the times when you feel stressed.
But how can you do this?
Here are two steps you can take.
First, you need to understand what makes you feel stressed.
Think about moments when you have felt stressed.
What do they have in common?
What kinds of situations do you most often feel stressed, or with which people?
Identify the most common or frequent situations when you feel stressed.
Next, think about what preparation can you do before you go into those situations.
What can you do to pre-emptively calm yourself down?
Is it go for a short walk outside
is it to take some deep breaths
is it to say a positive affirmation (“I am calm and can handle anything with balance”)?
What would work best for you?
Anything that involves breathing and getting perspective are is likely to help.
If you reduce the opportunities for you to feel stressed by pre-emptively taking action to find your calm, it will make a big difference.
2. How to calm down quickly when you feel stressed
How do feel when you are stressed?
Do your shoulders go up?
Does your jaw clench?
Does your breathing get faster and shallower?
We all recognise that stressed feeling, however we personally experience it.
And it’s not fun, healthy, or productive.
But there is a way you can quickly calm yourself in that moment.
It’s a very easy and discreet method, called box breathing.
This uses the breath to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the system that calms you down).
And it also introduces an element of concentration, which helps as a distraction from the stressful thoughts.
It’s very simple. All you need to do is:
breathe in for a count of four
hold for a count of four
breathe out for a count of four
and hold for a count of four.
In for four
hold for four
out for four
hold for four.
Do this a few times, and you will be amazed at how quickly you feel much calmer.
3. Build your resilience to stress
Stress is a fact of life.
It is impossible to be in the world of work without feeling stressed at times.
But what matters is not whether or not you feel stressed - it’s how you deal with it.
And you can build your resilience to stress.
As I explained before, the brain’s capacity for “neuroplasticity” means you can change the biological make-up of your brain.
Studies have shown that the parts of the brain dealing with our emotions are larger in people who are repeatedly stressed, while their “logical brains” are smaller.
Conversely, the opposite is true in the brains of meditators.
And brain scans on meditators show more activity in the “resting state” areas of the brain in comparison with non-meditators, in the face of stressful inputs.
So meditation is one obvious way you can train your brain to build your resilience to stress.
But there is another way, and that’s called “self-regulation training”.
This is where you activate and build parts of the brain that help your resilience to stress through consciously regulating your actions.
Any form of action where you make a choice works (for example, choosing fruit rather than cake for pudding).
But a really good option, especially relevant to the workplace, is to practice ignoring notifications on your phone or computer.
One caveat - I don’t suggest trying this when you are doing Deep Work - ie the type of thinking where you need to be deep in what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow”.
Then you need all notifications to be off, to prevent disturbing your flow.
But at other times - when you are doing admin, replying to emails, or just sitting on the train, practice having your notifications on, but ignoring them.
Every time you choose to ignore that “ping”, rather than giving in and having a look at your exciting new message, you are stimulating the self-regulation centres of the brain.
With the power of neuroplasticity, those centres will gradually get stronger over time.
And that will build your resilience to stress!
I hope you’ve enjoyed these three blog posts on stress.
If you'd like to learn more about how to achieve “Success Without Stress”, my new online course is now open!
This is a series of easy, bite-size training videos, relaxation audios, actions and inspiration to help you transform your approach to stress...
...so that you can learn to avoid its terrible impacts on your health, your brain, and your career - in only a few minutes a day.
There is a special launch price available to those who buy the course by Friday 22nd November.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this series on stress.
Let me know in the comments!
p.s. don't forget, if you want to learn more ways to relieve your stress symptoms, and manage stress better, click here!
p.p.s. and if you want to see these tips on video, click here!