Stress Management: How to F**king Deal
Updated: Sep 25, 2018
Stress management is the name of the game when it comes to living a more balanced life. Eating healthy and exercising regularly are huge players here too, but stress is this thing that people tend to brush under the rug- the ‘I’ll deal with that later’ thinking. The standard for the modern work ethic has turned stress into a bragging point, and the result is we don’t even know how to relax any more! There’s a reason stress has been coined the killer disease- it’s connected to the leading causes of death, not to mention the role it plays on the smaller scale- the crazies you feel on a daily basis. By devoting a small amount of time everyday to a relaxation routine you can prevent it from getting out of control and enjoy more moments of your life, even the more challenging ones.
Let’s start by understanding what stress really is. It’s a huge abstract concept when you take a step back and really look at it. Popular culture has us convinced that stress is defined by hair pulling and yelling into your steering wheel after work. Sure, this definitely does signal a problem, but it doesn’t have to get that bad to qualify. Stress comes in all shapes and sizes, hell, in small doses it can actually be really beneficial. It’s important to understand it, in order to manage it, and believe me, most people I’ve worked with over the years don’t even realize they are dealing with stress until the cap has blown. Let’s explore this big conceptually confusing thing so we can better take care of ourselves. Take some time to be introspective as you’re reading this, dig up some of those deep rooted feelings, maybe write a few things down, you have to figure out the problem first before trying to fix it.
Manipulate your stress levels to your benefit
Let’s talk briefly about some of the positives and negatives of stress. Starting on the plus side, not all stress is bad, take stress in the workplace for example, some can actually be really beneficial...up until a point. There is a relationship between stress and mental performance, namely memory, problem solving, and focus. This is highlighted by the Yerkes-Dodson Law. This model of understanding stress describes it as a state of cognitive arousal, or in other words, the energy stress provides to perform tasks. This law states that the lower your stress the lower your performance will be. A good example of this would be working on a project with no deadline or external pressure, it’s doesn’t have to be done at any certain time, so it’s hard to get the ball rolling with it. As we move up the curve here, medium to high stress is optimal for mental performance. When you have just enough pressure (but not too much), you can rock out your project with perfect focus. As we move into the danger zone of super high stress, too many things going on at once and not enough time type of situation, performance actually starts to decline and your project will start to take a hit.
Another component to the Yerkes- Dodson Law states that mundane tasks (such as answering emails, filling out time cards, etc), are best done under a higher state of arousal- these tasks need some amping up to actually get done. On the flip side, more demanding intellectual tasks (such as grinding out a pitch or detailed project), are best done in a calmer more focused state, the higher the stress here, the harder these tasks are to complete, because they require so much mental resources. Understanding how to manipulate your stress levels will improve your ability to take on work tasks.
My husband is a rock star at manipulating his stress levels throughout the day. When he first gets to work, he tends to be tired and considering the pressure of the day hasn’t kicked in yet, he struggles to get going. So, to pump himself up, he spends about 5 minutes stretching to get the blood flowing throughout his body and follows that with a handful of push ups or various other body weight exercises. He maybe spends 10 minutes total doing this, but it really gets him fired up. When he sits down at his desk, he puts on metal music to keep himself engaged throughout the entire morning. By the afternoon, stress from work has increased steadily and to offset the ill effects, he does a 15 minute meditation right after lunch and finishes out the rest of the day listening to light instrumental music to keep himself calm and level headed. It’s all about figuring out your daily rhythm and manipulating the variables to actually benefit from stress- this is key!
The not so good parts
Moving on to some of the negatives of stress, we’ll expand on this shortly, but for now, let’s graze the surface. Like I mentioned earlier, we tend to overlook the compounding effect of small impacts- these are important to take note of. Starting with tension. Stress causes a hell of a lot of tension. People tend to carry most of their stress in their traps (shoulders and neck included). This can cause headaches, neck pain, back pain, and posture problems, like forward rounded shoulders. This physical stress can in turn increase your psychological stress. This process can then develop into a downward spiral feedback loop where the two are playing off each other. Breaking this cycle by simply altering the way you sit can make you feel less stressed.
Another negative cycle that tends to get overlooked, but drive people insane, is the relationship between managing weight and sleep. Yes, stress can cause fat gain and prevent you from losing weight. Likewise, sleep issues can take place, like trouble falling asleep or waking up multiple times in the night. These two tend to go hand in hand, the more chronically stressed you are the more impact it will have on your sleep, which in turn makes you hungrier. These two ailments eventually become problems in unto themselves, but without addressing the stress component you may find it incredibly difficult to be successful in treating them.
Those are just some of the small things. Overtime, un-managed stress can really really impact your health in a big way...Here’s where is gets real: stress is considered the ‘killer disease’. Over 75% of physician visits are due to stress related ailments and complaints. It’s linked to the top 6 leading causes of death- heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. The killer disease…
There are no mountain lions lurking in the office
Ever wonder what’s going on inside your body during these times of panic?
When stress starts to rise in the body, the sympathetic nervous system jumps into action. This is responsible for the fight or flight mode of thinking. There are 3 hormones that add the fuel to the fire: adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Adrenaline and norepinephrine are responsible for the fight or flight feelings- your heart starts beating faster, you get a surge of energy, and suddenly you feel more awake or aroused. The whole point of this release is to make your body move fast or fight when in danger. Say you’re out for a nice hike in the mountains and you find yourself face to face with a mountain lion. After being frozen for 5 seconds, your heart starts racing, you start sweating like an animal, maybe you pee yourself, and you start sprinting for dear life. That’s adrenaline and norepinephrine at their finest. Okay so there aren’t any mountain lions in the office- this reaction isn’t healthy if it happens often and you aren’t in danger.
You’ve probably heard of cortisol, there’s lots of info out there these days on it. Cortisol is termed the stress hormone. It’s natural for your body to produce some cortisol, it gets released in small amounts when you exercise and when you first wake up in the morning to get you groovin". It will also save your life in dire situations when say your blood pressure needs stabilized. However, if it’s constantly being released in times of chronic stress- it’s no bueno. Too much cortisol means a decreased immune system- get sick a lot? You’re probably stressed. Decreased libido, increase in fat storage, sleeping issues, the list goes on..
It’s time to check in with yourself
This is stuff is really a big deal and it’s extremely important to check in with yourself on a regular basis. It all comes down to starting some healthy habits and creating a daily routine to keep things in balance. When I encourage people to start a relaxation routine, for some reason it’s taken as this humongous task that they don’t have time for. I’m asking them to exercise regularly, eat healthy, drink water, and then we start talking about stress and they panic (if talking about stress makes you stressed, people we have a problem).
The beauty of it is, you don’t have to spend much time a day focusing on relaxing, to reap the big benefits. I read a study recently that stated, the average person checks their phones 200 times per day. Now please, tell me you don’t have 5 minutes to spare! It doesn’t even matter what you spend your relaxation time doing, as long as it’s a healthy mindful habit. Most techniques work for pretty much every type of person. What matters most is consistency. Consistency, consistency, consistency. You must do it on a regular basis. It must become a daily habit. You must make it a continual behavior. It has to be a part of your routine. It needs to be a frequent ritual. All jokes aside, this is the hardest part. I recommend choosing something you can easily pop into your day along with all your other commitments. You may not notice the feel goods right off the bat. Starting anything new can be challenging, but it’s the long term commitment here that really brings about bigger changes in your life.
So how do we do this? It’s not quite as straightforward as jumping right into any given practice. To really manage your stress, you must understand where it’s coming from first. We’ve come up with a four step process that helps you do this, we call it ‘Stress Discovery’. If you’re concerned about time again, don’t worry, this doesn’t have to be super intensive. Taking a few minutes to acknowledge what in the hell is making you crazy and how you’re reacting to it before setting up a plan to get ahead of it is crucial. In order to come up with a solution to a problem, you gotta understand the problem first.
Stress Discovery: 4 Steps
Step 1: What are your stress factors? Break down the source(s) of your stress.
Step 2: How are you reacting to your stress? Take a second to listen to your body and mind by identifying your symptoms. Anxious? Fatigued? Angry? Not sleeping?
Step 3: What is the frequency and intensity of your symptoms? Is it acute, chronic, or are you burning out?
Step 4: Set up a plan to take action daily- remember: consistency!
Step 1: Digging up the roots
Let’s dive into some common stress factors that pop up in and out of the workplace. Things like long work hours, heavy workloads, frequent travel, insufficient workloads, tight deadlines, job insecurity, boring work, over-supervision, poor working environments, and harassment are some just some of the common stressors that may be taking place.
There’s many other personal factors that play a role here as well, such as financial problems, relationship difficulties, serious illness, bereavement, or moving house. Most often the lines blur between work stress and personal stress, which can make things even worse if you don’t do some untangling in your head. To successfully manage, it’s incredibly important to know exactly where your stress is coming from.
Are there situations that can be improved or changed? More times than not, the answer to this is no. However, the way in which you react and manage yourself in these situations most likely can be improved, more on this shortly.
Step 2: Acknowledging your symptoms
Being aware of your personal symptoms is the second step of addressing your stress. We’re going to cover some common physical symptoms, psychological symptoms, and behavioral symptoms that stress can bring about in your daily life. Much as it is important to understand that root of your stress, it’s also important to take note of the way it’s affecting your health. Again, over 75% of doctor visits are due to stress related issues, a lot of which can be prevented.
Some common physical symptoms include: fatigue, headaches, muscular tension, depressed immune system, heart palpitations, sleeping difficulties, gastrointestinal upsets, and dermatological disorders.
The psychological symptoms include: depression, anxiety, discouragement, irritability, anger, pessimism, feelings of being overwhelmed, cognitive difficulties.
Some common behavioral symptoms include: self-neglect, aggression, an increase in absenteeism, diminished creativity or initiative, a drop in work performance, mood swings, impatience, disinterest, and isolation.
We are incredibly adept at overlooking the smaller things like constant fatigue or headaches. It becomes such a constant in our lives that is becomes easy to just throw your hands up saying "this is just the way things are". Once we see around this lie we tell ourselves, it starts to get easier to work our way past it. Tuning into how our bodies and minds feel is extremely important to work better and live better.
Step 3: Acute, Chronic, and Burnout- what are you experiencing right now?
I want to now take a slightly broader look at the types of stress that these specific factors and symptoms can fall under. Depending on the severity of the stress and how often it occurs will dictate the techniques we will call on to tackle them.
Starting with Acute stress. Acute stress is the type of stress that throws you off balance momentarily. It’s the kind that comes on quickly and often unexpectedly and doesn’t last too long, but requires a response and shakes you up a bit. It’s very short term, think traffic jams, a fight with your spouse, an argument in the office. Acute stress can definitely turn into chronic stress given enough frequency over time.
When these situations arise, here are some ways you can bring yourself back down: take 10 deep breaths, reframe the situation, take a 5 minute mini-meditation break, take a 5 minute walk or stretch break.
It’s important to have a habit set in place for these situations of acute stress, so that these little issues don’t morph into something bigger. Take a traffic jam for example- all it takes is a handful of nasty situations to suddenly become pissed off on your way home from work every day. You can’t control the traffic but you can absolutely control the way you deal with it.
Onto chronic stress. This is where things can start to become more out of control. Chronic stress is the type of stress that tends to occur on a regular basis. This type of stress may leave you feeling drained, and can lead to burnout if it’s not effectively managed. When the stress response is chronically triggered and the body is not brought back to a relaxed state before the next wave of stress hits, the body can stay triggered indefinitely. Managing this type of stress often requires a combination approach, with some short-term stress relievers, and some long-term stress relief habits that relieve overall stress.
Some of the best techniques for managing chronic stress lie in taking care of your overall health. Exercising regularly, eating healthy, meditating regularly, stretching or foam rolling regularly, and cultivating supportive relationships are all a part of this. Notice the ‘regularly’- consistency is the key to managing chronic stress.
And finally burnout. Burnout is the result of the prolonged chronic stress and leave people feeling a lack of control in their lives. Certain conditions of a job can create a greater risk of burnout, usually this tends to happen when the demand is more than you can handle past the short term. Once you reach a state of burnout, it is difficult to maintain motivation to work and accomplish what you need to accomplish, and you can feel chronically overwhelmed.
Some of the best ways to deal with burnout include: taking time off, indulging in hobbies, saying no to things, completely unplugging for a weekend.
We all encounter each type of stress at various points in our lives, the key is to take into account how you personally respond to that type of stress and how prevalent it is in your life. For example, maybe you respond particularly poorly to acute stress. Another example could be that you find yourself burned out every other week. The idea is to spot your weak points and address them appropriately.
Step 4: Start a Relaxation Routine
Here’s where we come full circle, you’ve taken some time to check in with yourself and become more mindful of your current stress levels and the roots of it. Now it’s time to make a plan to do something about it. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s not so much about what you do, given that it’s a healthy habit, it’s 100% about consistency. You gotta stick with this for it to really work. Most stress experts recommend setting aside at least 10 to 20 minutes a day for your relaxation practice. If you’d like to maximize the benefits, aim for 30 minutes to an hour- this can be broken up throughout the entire day too. Sound overwhelming? Guess what, 5 minutes a day works too! Pick something, schedule it, and do it daily. Here are some other tips when it comes to starting a relaxation routine.
Set aside time in your daily schedule. If possible, schedule a set time once or twice a day for your practice. If your schedule is already packed, remember that many relaxation techniques can be practiced while you’re doing other things. Try taking a yoga or break at lunchtime, or practicing mindful walking while exercising your dog.
Make use of apps and other aids. Give the app Headspace a try for mediation- it’s absolutely wonderful!
Don't practice when you're super sleepy. These techniques are so relaxing that they can make you very sleepy. However, you will get the most benefit if you practice when you’re fully alert. Avoid practicing close to bedtime or after a heavy meal or alcohol. However, the one exception I would say here is that if you have a hard time sleeping, meditation is a great thing to do to get you to fall asleep.
Expect ups and downs. Sometimes it can take time and practice to start reaping the full rewards of relaxation techniques such as meditation. The more you stick with it, the sooner the results will come. If you skip a few days or even a few weeks, don’t get discouraged. Just get started again and slowly build up to your old momentum.
Some additional techniques to try:
Deep Breathing for 5 minutes
Music and art therapy
Aromatherapy- diffusers can help a lot to produce a sense of calm: lavender, frankincense, sandalwood, orange blossom
Visualization- close your eyes and imagine yourself in your happy place
Having a solid relaxation routine is one of the best habits along with exercise and healthy eating that you can do for your health and longevity. Not to mention, your job, your personal life, and your overall happiness and enjoyment on the day to day.
Don’t just live with this shit people, do something about it! Your current and future self will thank you over and over again. Being mindful of your situation, your stressors, symptoms, and starting a daily relaxation practice is what stress management is all about.