What you need to know about stress!
In this article, I want to share my learnings and offer you some perspective and practical solutions to deal with stress. I totally understand that you might not have much capacity to take on anything new when you’re more than busy already. That’s why I like to focus on relevant information and effective tools. They are largely based on scientific research and have proven to be most effective in my own experience.
I had to learn the hard way during my corporate career. In fact, I had to have a severe burn-out because I simply did not know how to handle stress properly. Now I am grateful for the signs, as it feels great to know how to be in control and it improves my life on all levels.
Why you are stressed
Firstly, I want to debunk the myth that stress is a negative thing.
In fact, stress helps you perform best in challenging situations – it is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you sense danger, the stress response of “fight-or-flight” kicks in to protect you.
However, stress can be caused by as little as trying to do more than you have time for and you start feeling overwhelmed – like having to run errands, going to the gym, meeting friends and preparing for a meeting the next day, all in the same evening.
Seemingly small things like constant interruptions, also self-induced ones, like checking emails or social media every couple of minutes, put you in a state of pressure and stress. The simple circumstance of working in a hierarchical environment is already enough to add to the level of stress.
You see, the nervous system is not very good at differentiating between a real threat or just an imagined one. A raging bull charging at you or your boss screaming at you basically triggers the same stress response.
Picture yourself going to work in the morning, and your boss frantically orders you to put together a new presentation for his Management Meeting one hour later – boom!
In these situations, your sympathetic nervous system releases a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action. This is the part of the nervous system responsible for controlling unconscious bodily actions like breathing. So your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, sweating occurs and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed your reaction time, and enhance your focus.
In life-threatening emergency situations, stress can save your life – giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.
The trouble is, when stress becomes a constant state at work and your private life, it stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships and your overall quality of life.
The impact of stress on body & mind
Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can suppress your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke and speed up the aging process. It can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.
Furthermore, the part of the brain that helps process threatening situations (amygdala), grows in people who are chronically stressed. And the areas of the brain involved in rational thought and planning (hippocampus and prefrontal cortex) shrinks – or in other words, people under constant stress have less capacity for decision-making and are more trigger-happy when faced with a perceived threat.
Quite an important detail when you consider that the most influential decision-makers in politics and business often operate under serious amounts of stress.
Bear with me now when it gets a little more technical as it is so important to understand the mechanisms in order to create a shift in dealing with stress.
The biological hardwired „fight-or-flight” response is beyond the ability to rationally control in the instant it occurs. Our primal part of the brain (the brainstem) controls emotional experience and biological response. And when the brainstem is activated by the „fight-or-flight” response, it overrides the more developed part of our brain (prefrontal cortex). It is therefore practically impossible to be in the primitive state of „fight-or-flight” and at the same time think rationally and critically (as the prefrontal cortex would have us do) when we get triggered.
When the biological process of this „fight-or-flight”-response is overwhelmed and a person is unable to release or process the stressful event, it leads to dissociation or immobility and becomes a traumatic event. And if the stress response is not processed, it gets stored and accumulated in the cellular memory of our body – just to resurface over and over again even by minor, present day triggers and stress responses.
Understanding what is happening in our body and mind, gives us compassion because we can meet the stress response with kindness. Learning why our body responds the way it does, leads to awareness and empowerment. It puts us back in charge and out of the victim role. The stress response is basically trying to protect us but simply shoots over the top a bit.
So you can’t think yourself out of the trigger of this primal bodily function.
However, it is possible to process and resolve a recurring traumatic response by discharging the energy generated or stored in your cellular memory – by shaking, crying, and screaming, for example.
Now, when you start becoming more aware of your stress response, you will soon realize that very often, situations themselves do not cause stress – your perception and responses to those situations do! Even though you can’t think your way out of the stress trigger, you can very well choose a different response to a seemingly stressful situation afterwards.
How to become aware and shift
We are strongly driven by our subconsciousness, where unprocessed emotions, limiting beliefs and traumas are stored. And in stressful situations, we then often get triggered in our vulnerability of fear, shame, guilt, unworthiness, etc.
When this happens, we get literally hijacked by these emotions which can impact our life for hours, days or even longer. So basic ways to become more aware and shift out of these stressful triggers are the following:
Observe and label your emotions
By entertaining negative thoughts and perceptions about seemingly stressful situations (judgments, complaints, worries, etc.), you create emotions that make you feel bad and your body releases stress hormones – so negative thoughts directly impact your physical body.
Furthermore, about half of our time we are distracted and mind wandering mainly through emotions, typically self-focused and in a negative mood – we complain about the past and worry about the future.
A wandering mind is an unhappy, and obviously quite an unproductive mind. So watch your thoughts – because thoughts create emotions, and emotions create body sensations, like stress.
Now, by simply noticing and describing what your are feeling, emotions lose their threat and power to hijack you subconsciously.
So next time you feel very emotional or stressed, simply acknowledge how you feel (i.e. „I am very angry right now”) and describe it as well as you can (i.e. „I am angry because I feel treated unfairly”). The emotions might still be there for a while, but you won’t be knocked off center by them anymore.
Or in other words: take a breath, take a step back, detach from the drama and chose a different response to the situation.
Now, for some of you, the above might still be hard to achieve as you are untrained in staying present and aware in the moments when you most need it. And that’s where practicing conscious breathing helps tremendously.
Your breath is a subconscious, automated function of your body. And by consciously taking control of your breath, you create a gateway to your subconsciousness.
So pause, right now – breathe in and out through your mouth: into your belly, up to your chest and let tension just fall away on your exhale. Do this for a couple of minutes and you will already feel a difference. Just observe your breathing – anytime, anywhere!
Because by observing your breathing, you can also check-in with yourself and how you are feeling in those moments. And the more you do this, the more aware you will become in situations when you really need it.
Connecting to your breath is probably the most effective and simple way to shift. When you breathe into your belly, for example, you automatically activate a nerve called Vagus nerve, which is directly linked to your nervous system. So by breathing into your belly, you can actively tell your nervous system to calm down.
But there is so much more to the breath as the perfect tool to de-stress. You see, your breath is the most immediate and powerful self-healing tool, as oxygen is the most essential resource required by your cells. In fact, you take in more than 2/3 of your life energy through your breath. While breathing deeply, you oxygenate your blood so bacteria and pathogens can’t thrive and detox your body at the same time, creating an alkaline environment, harmonizing hormones.
It is just that many of us suffer from restricted breathing patterns due to polluted air, unhealthy and stressful work environments (i.e. sitting all day in air-conditioned offices), etc. and we only use about 1/3 of our lung capacity. Now, when you know that your brain alone uses about 25% of all oxygen that you breathe in, imagine what improved breathing can do for you?!
Act to manage stress
I totally understand that you might not have much capacity to take on anything new when you’re stressed. I can still feel the overwhelm, the stuckness and lack of orientation that I had during those times. The following recommendations are therefore simple, practical and effective – they are largely based on scientific research and more importantly, on my very own experience. They have worked for me and I hope you find some of them simple enough to start with. Because when you are trapped in a dark room, finding a small crack of light can make all the difference in finding your way out again, right?!
It is absolutely crucial to get a good night sleep in order to recover from states of high alertness and to regenerate your health. But when you are under constant stress this might seem almost impossible. So here are some simple tricks that might help:
- avoid blue light (phone, computer, TV) 1-2 hours before going to sleep
- avoid light in general in your bedroom when sleeping
- establish a regular rhythm
- breathe into your belly to help you fall asleep (place a hand on your belly)
- eat light food for dinner
- early sleep is more healthy so try to sleep around 10 pm and get up around 6 am
- make sure you have 6 hours of sleep
- use a pleasant alarm sound
Please know, even a wrong decision is better than no decision! Because then you at least know what hasn’t worked and can choose a better option. And by that time you already came out of being paralyzed by indecision. Decisions not taken are like a weight anchoring your stuckness.
Use active ways to unwind
Inactive ways to manage stress – such as watching television, surfing the Internet or playing video games – may seem relaxing, but they increase your level of stress over the long term.Active ways lower the stress hormone Cortisol:
- Breath exercises
- Walk in nature
- Relaxation exercises like stretching
- Massage/Cranio Sacral Therapy (puts you in parasympathetic state)
I am certainly not a nutrition expert and good diets are very individual depending on your body type and circumstances. But I feel great effects when doing at least the basics right as the right food detoxifies the body and improves digestion. So do yourself a favor and get informed or at least reduce the really bad stuff (s/below).
When overwhelmed, many of us turn to (over-)compensation which might seem like a valve to release pressure in the (very) short term but in fact adds to the long term stress level as we lose energy and good health through them. And I am sure this is nothing new for you, so consider it as a friendly reminder to cut the following:
- Drugs of any kind really
- TV, Video Gaming, Social Media
- Sex (esp. masturbation is great loss of energy)
Social and physical contacts are happy-makers so spend quality time with people that you really like, that you feel comfortable with. Learn to say no to social obligations that drain your energy. Laugh as much as you can and create moments where you feel happy.
Or simply receive a hug from a loved one, which releases Oxytocin, a natural hormone that balances out the stress hormones and promotes bonding and connection.
Listen to some music
And I mean, really listen to some music. Take the time for your favorite albums, lay down undisturbed and sink into them. Or as an alternative, try using Binaural Beat music which uses specific frequencies to entrain your brain into either Alpha (relaxed), Theta (healing, repairing and even asleep) or Delta (meditative) state. There are many free phone apps available or simply find what you like on youtube.
Eliminate main stressors
In case you are simply overwhelmed with very little capacity to apply anything new, then at least make a list of what is currently costing you most energy in your life. Really ask yourself, „what makes me unhappy – what costs me most energy – what am I really frustrated about”? And take some clear cut decisions.
In the end, there is nobody else than you responsible for how you feel. If you don’t do it, nobody will.
You can do it!
It is so easy in our business lives to get lost in demands, pressure, time management, career and money aspirations. We often like our job even if it is very demanding and challenging – it gives us a sense of pride, achievement, and belonging. But watch out, if your job becomes the only functioning pillar in your life, it will still drain your energy as the balance is lost.
If you can view stress as challenges that you can control and master rather than as threats that are insurmountable, then you will perform better in the short run and stay healthy in the long run. They are basically reminders that you are doing something wrong. Simply learn to accept negative thoughts and emotions as a gentle reminder to come back to positive thoughts which spark uplifting emotions. Your life will change significantly – as you attract what you feel!
You have practiced being stressed for long enough – it’s time to practice being more relaxed now…