Show of hands – who has complained to someone in the last week that they felt stress?? Anyone, anyone? I’m going to go ahead and assume that most everyone would say that they had felt stress in recent history.
Most of us have a laundry list of stressors, big and small, that we experience every single day.
But if we’re so used to experiencing stress every day, why is it so difficult to react to life’s situations with ease and grace?
This post is the first in a series all about stress. We’ll talk about acute versus chronic stress, the physiologic mechanisms behind it, how stress can affect your health (negatively and positively), and most importantly…what to do about it.
Today, let’s get started off today with a primer about stress, and an action plan to find stress relief for the everyday situations that can be difficult to deal with.
Why do we feel stress?
Why is it that we feel stress when we get a difficult email from our boss, we find out a meeting has been cancelled, the restaurant is out of our favorite dish, or we are stuck in traffic? In all of these situations, the present moment isn’t living up to our expectations. We had made assumptions about how situations would play out, and they went differently. Ultimately, we feel stress because we want things to be different than they are.
Experiencing stressors is inevitable.
Newsflash – most of us, unfortunately, cannot predict the future, so we will inevitably come into contact with stressors when unexpected things happen. The bus will come 2 minutes late one day, or we will have a disagreement with a loved one, an illness, an interruption when we’re at work. We live uncertain lives.
This form of stress is essentially fear.
When we are faced with an unexpected situation or surprise, our body starts a cascade of biochemical reactions known as a stress response. We send a surge of hormones throughout our body, creating the commonly-known “fight or flight” response. These hormones include cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and manifest physically as increased blood pressure/heart rate, sweating, shallower breathing, tensed muscles, and decreased rational thinking. What I find interesting is that we have the same physiologic response whether the stressor we experience is a physically threatening situation – like accidentally put our hand on a hot stove, or a mentally threatening situation – like getting bad news about a project we worked on. In both of these cases, our stress response is reflecting the fear we feel in that situation.
So what do we do about it?
The way I see it is that if we’re going to continue to have stressors, all day every day, if they are inevitable, we better have a way of dealing with them. Because if we know the cause, the effect, and how to buffer it, we can take actions to reduce to tidal wave of hormones and emotions that happen the next time a tough situation comes up.
It’s time to work with our body’s biochemistry and feelings to stop stress in it’s tracks.
I have a set of practices I use for everyday, acute stress relief. These steps are a great framework to make sure you respond appropriately and smartly (is that a word?) to the stressors you face, so your actions work to ameliorate the situation, rather than exacerbate it. Take a second to determine what one of your most common stressors is, and keep that stressor in mind as you read through this stress relief plan. Then, next time you are faced with that stressor, put it into practice!
Step 1. Receive the initial shock.
This is when the new information comes in that you would normally perceive as a stressor. For example, you receive an email asking you to stay late at work, your subway arrival time is 10 minutes late, or a loved one broaches a difficult subject with you.
As soon as this “scary” information hits your ears, eyes, nose, mouth…your body is going to go into overdrive. Hormones WILL be released, and there’s really nothing you can do to stop them.
Up above I listed the physiologic effects of the stress hormones. Most of these effects (increased heart rate, shallower breathing) are physical, but the stress response has a mental manifestation as well. It turns out that when your body is in the middle of a stress reaction, your brain is unable to make the best decisions (some of the more recent literature on this topic can be found here and here). This mental effect of stress on decision making leads us to step number 2:
Step 2: No decisions for 90 seconds.
If your brain isn’t in prime thinking mode during your stress response…what should you do during that time? The chemical surge from your initial stressor will last approximately 90 seconds. So receive that initial information, and then take a minute and a half to actively NOT RESPOND to it. During this time: no shooting back quick emails, coming to conclusions, or making important decisions.
Instead, use your 90 second hormone surge positively. One option is to do what is called “habituating” to the stressor – that is, getting used to the fact that the stressor exists, so you don’t respond to it physiologically anymore. You can habituate yourself to the stressor by repeating the information about the stressor to yourself.
Alternatively, you can work to do what is known as cognitive reframing. In cognitive reframing, you acknowledge that the stressor exists, but then put it into context. For example: “yes, I did perform poorly in this race today, but I am still highly ranked in my division, I still love to run, and my wife still supports me in my career”.
If you are able to take that time to habituate or reframe the stressor, it is a great way to allow your body to return to a more normal state before making any big decisions. Most importantly – resist the urge to tune out or to distract your brain with your phone, computer, or TV during this time, which would just temporarily dull the stress sensation. If you do so, the next time the problem comes up, it will be just as stressful as the first time you heard it. With the strategies of habituation or reframing, however, you’re working through the stressful information more quickly and efficiently.
What if you’re in the middle of a conversation and can’t take 90 seconds to go sit alone? Still ask the other person for a few moments to think about what they said. They will say yes. And during that time, take a breath, and then take another, and then move on to step 3.
Step 3: Revisit the initial stressor.
After you have felt your muscles relax again and no longer feel that surge of emotion and fear, revisit the stressor. Say it to yourself in a calm way that is not judgmental – meaning – don’t say “I was stupid and left my papers at home so I’m going to be late for my meeting”. Instead – just say to yourself “I’m going to be late”, or “The project failed”, or “Shiela is upset with me for going out last night and not calling her.”
Restating the initial stressor in a non-emotional way is important, particularly if your initial stressor came from someone who did not position their opinion neutrally. By positioning the stressor in a neutral, non-emotional way, you’re normalizing the situation for your brain and making it easier to separate yourself from the situation, which is ultimately what you need to do to make the best decisions going forward.
Step 4: Formulate the action plan.
Finally! You are ready to respond to the stressor. Now you ask yourself two important questions:
- What would be the ideal resolution for this situation?
- What is my next step?
It’s important to ask both of these questions so you put both long-term and short-term strategies in place.
With the first question, you determine a long-term strategy: what is your end goal? Often we jump into a response or building solutions without actually knowing what our desired outcome is. But if you know what outcome you want, you can make better decisions along the way to get you there.
Once you know your endgame, you can move onto the second question, and figure out your next step. And it’s okay if your next step is “nothing” or to wait on someone else to respond, or receive more information. But by knowing your next step, you are able to stop the cycle of “what should I do?” that our brains so love to get into. Instead, you can take action to remedy the situation.
A note: obviously there are the stressors where you don’t have the 90 seconds to just relax into it, and you do have to respond as quickly as possible to the feature at hand. Obviously, in all those cases, do so! But if your stressor is coming to you via email, phone, text, or from an non-life threatening object, take your time and ride the wave.
Be on the lookout for more posts in the coming weeks about long-term stress, the affects of cortisol on your body, adrenal fatigue, and your post-stress plan!
But before that….I’d love to hear: How do you deal with life’s little stressors? What strategies do you have in place to bounce back from surprising or bad news? Please share your throughs in the comments below!
Have a wonderful day,