How To Thrive In Spite Of Stress

Below is a repeat of an article I recently wrote for Greater Jackson Business, for which I am new regular contributor.

After the looseness of summer the return of more strict schedules can be a welcome return to structure. It also can invite stress back to the forefront. Essentially stress comes from the external forces in our lives that push our buttons and/or cause intense emotions.  Positive and negative aspects of life can be sources of stress.  A promotion can be as stressful as a termination.  Reaching a well-defined ambitious goal is stressful, as is uncertainty about the future.  Starting a career can be as stressful as considering retirement.

The root cause of stress is our perception and reaction to events in our lives.  When we experience stress the level of adrenaline and other hormones rise, causing increased heart rate, rapid breathing, increased blood pressure, muscle tension, dry mouth, etc.  These are the body’s reaction to a threat, perceived or real. Stressful events that are too frequent, too long or too intense lead to distress.  Distress is what we commonly refer to as stress. Not all stress is bad.  Eustress, healthy stress, allows us to perform well. It is the challenge that keeps you going, engaged and excited to be pushed.

Living in a time when there are many sustained pressures, like paying off a mortgage, is enough to cause prolonged stress. To complicate matters, we are clever enough to create all kinds of stressors in our heads in addition to the real ones we face daily.  For example, you might worry endlessly about saying the wrong thing at a meeting. People are gifted at extending the experience of stress. We can turn on our stress response just by thinking about a stressor, future or past, such as, “What will happen if our fourth quarter numbers fall?” or reflecting on a mistake.

Here is the good news. You can thrive in spite of stress by using people’s extraordinary capacity for thought and language to help mitigate your experience of stress.  You can articulate where your stressors are generated, what they do to you, assess what you can and will do about them and then act. Doing so, when confronted with a stressful event, you can focus and come through the experience as easily and intact as possible.

Thriving in spite of stress requires first appraising the situation and then taking appropriate action. Appraising the situation is a deliberate two-part process. Primary appraisal is when you decide is something is a threat to you or your interests. Secondary appraisal is when decide if there is any things you can do the change the situation to minimize bad outcomes and increase the possibility of positive outcomes. Developing a habit to stop and assess during a stressful event affords you the opportunity to affect a measure of control over the situation and the outcome, minimally your reaction to both.

All too often we go to an extreme of either total denial or absolute overt catastrophizing the issue or stressor.  Finding a middle ground goes a long way to averting an excessive stress reaction in mind and body and positions you to take constructive actions. The middle ground is anchored in 3 things:

  1. Check in with yourself and your assumptions. Give yourself the mental space to put daily events into the larger perspective. It is worth exploring the roots of your assumptions and negative appraisals about what is happening.
  2. Give yourself a break. Accepting stress and learning to live successfully with it is a process.
  3. Have a bag of tricks. A personal set of techniques, tips and tools you can use to manage stress.

Here are nine tried and true stress management strategies. Different combinations and expressions of these strategies work for different people.

  1. Pacing: know your stress and energy levels and act accordingly. Fatigue is the early sign of distress don’t ignore it. Like sleep cycles we have cycles of energy and concentration, 90 minutes on average. Taking a 20-minute break and then go back to what you were doing supports peak functioning throughout the workday.
    Realistic Expectations: Things often push our buttons or upset us not because they are inherently stressful, but because it’s not what we expected or wanted. Setting realistic expectations does not equate with settling for less. Realistic expectations can make life feel more predictable and manageable. Expecting less from people who cannot give you what you want makes life easier and less upsetting.
  2. Reframe: Get a different perspective or change the way you are looking at something, in order to feel better about a situation. There are many ways to interpret a situation.  Useful questions to ask to reframe include: “Is there anything positive here at all? What I can I do with it?” ,“What is the underlying motivation for so-and-so to do that?” and “On a scale of 1 (minor hassle)  – 10 (worst catastrophe), just how bad is this?”
  3. Work-Leisure Ratio: Leisure comes from the Latin root for permission. Give yourself permission to take a break, a healthy amount of respite from your day-to-day pressures. This can include exercise, recreation hobbies, socializing, relaxation, vacation, or entertainment.
  4. Limit or Eliminate Caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant that generates a stress reaction in the body. Less caffeine usually results in people feeling less jittery, more relaxed, and getting better sleep. You do not have to go cold turkey, try decreasing by one drink a day until you are down to one or even better none.
  5. Get Physical: Channeling nervous fidgeting into a more complete form of physical activity helps to “burn off the stress”, preventing our bodies from staying in a stress arousal state for a long time, which can have serious health consequences. Get some regular aerobic exercise; dance, run, walk, hike, bike, swim, play football with the kids, whack a ball on the court, kickboxing . . . find out what works for you.
  6. Laugh and Smile: Laughter releases “happy” hormones and releases tension.  Humor is an individual thing, find what makes you laugh and keep that at hand. When you laugh you smile triggering the limbic system to tilt towards calm.
  7. Ventilation System: A problem shared is a problem halved. Talk it out to “blow of steam”, get a different perspective, encouragement or advice helps to mitigate your stress. Other options include “write it out- then get rid of it” or slowly counting to ten, and then reacting.
  8. Be Mindful and Present: We have the ability to intentionally be present in the here and now, not letting our thoughts run away unchecked.  Doing this neutralizes the physiological effects of stress. Your heart rate goes down, your breathing slows, and your muscles relax.  As little as 20 minutes once or twice a day has real benefit. A simple exercise you can do just about anywhere anytime is to close your eyes, breath in and out deeply, repeat several times.  Notice how your body begins to feel more relaxed. Keep your mind focused on breathing and your body if it wanders, just bring it back.

Deirdre M. Danahar, MSW, MPH, LCSW, is a coach and consultant who helps busy people with complex lives focus on priorities so they can soar.  She owns InMotion Consulting and Coaching, LLC, based in Jackson, MS. Reach her at Copywrite 2011.




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