Guest Post – Three Ways to Zap Stress During Crunch

Stress is a fact of 21st-century life, and all the more so when you’re working on big, high-pressure projects. I’ve worked in a projects environment for most of the past 20 years, and I know how it gets. You start to become irritable, forgetful, you may find yourself dreaming about work, you’re tired but you can’t sleep well, you might even start to find loud noises and bright lights painful. It’s not fun.

Basically, what’s happened is that what is meant to be a short-term response for getting you out of immediate physical danger, increasing your concentration and memory and awareness of your environment, has kept firing off over a long period, and now those exact responses are getting worn out - as if you’d kept lifting a weight with the same hand, over and over, until your muscles get fatigued and stop working properly.

So what can you do? On the principle that a problem well defined is half solved, let’s start with a definition of stress.

What Stress Is

This is my simplified version of the Kim-Diamond definition (in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2002). It has three parts.

  1. Something is measurably winding up your physical state.
  2. You don’t like it.
  3. You don’t feel in control.

All three parts are important. If you love riding roller-coasters, for example, part 2 of the definition isn’t fulfilled, and even though you’re physically stimulated and you’re not controlling the roller-coaster, it’s not (by this definition) stress.

Funny story, by the way. I was talking about stress to the local Rotary club, and had accidentally left my notes at home. At one point, having already told them that there were three parts to the definition of stress, I realised when I was about to give the third part that I couldn’t remember what it was. I started in on the sentence anyhow: “And the third part of the definition of stress is…”

Fortunately, by the time I got that far I’d remembered it. (Take a look above at what the third part is and you’ll realise why this gave me a laugh later on.)

What You Can Do About Stress

As I hinted, the definition contains important clues to three ways to reduce stress. There’s something we can do about each of the three parts.

  1. The physical approach starts with calming down your body. The very simplest way to do this is with breathing. After all, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be breathing (if you’re not, you have worse problems than just stress), and while we can’t stop breathing voluntarily, we can consciously control the depth and rhythm of our breath.The old advice to take a few deep breaths in a stressful situation works. The reason is that when your body gets into its “stress mode”, it starts to breathe shallowly and rapidly. You can turn that around and feed it back, so that by breathing deeply and more slowly, you signal the brain to calm down and switch back into “maintenance mode”, where it can repair itself, digest food and do all those other useful processes.

    (The parts of the brain that control breathing and the parts that deal with strong emotion are practically next to each other, along with the areas that control heartbeat and blood pressure.)

    Other physical calming techniques include progressive muscle relaxation and meditation.

  2. The emotional approach addresses the fact that you don’t like the stress, that you find it unpleasant. There are so many emotional techniques that I’m creating a whole course on them (the Emotional Circuit-Breaker Toolkit), but here’s one simple three-step process that works extremely well. It’s called the Welcoming Practice.Step 1 is to become aware of the location of the emotion in your body. Something will have tightened, be vibrating, be warm or cool - you’ll know it almost as soon as you pay attention to it. Just be aware of it for now. Take your time.

    Step 2, when you’re ready for it, is to name the emotion and accept its presence. The form of words I use is “Welcome, anger” (or fear or sadness or whatever it is - there may be several emotions, in which case I welcome each of them by name). Saying the name sets up a circuit between the inner “emotion feeling” parts of your brain and the outer “word processing” parts in the cerebral cortex, and drains off the activation (Liebermann et al., Psychological Science, May 2007). “Welcoming” the emotion (not the circumstances, by the way, just the emotion) releases your resistance to it, which is a big part of what is causing the stress.

    Step 3, again when you’re ready, is to gently let go of the emotion and allow it to subside. In effect, you’re telling your brain that the emotion isn’t needed right now, and so it can go back to its normal state.

    I used this to great effect not long ago. I was driving along the road and some idiot in a Mini pulled out from a side road, completely illegally, right across my path. I braked and swerved and just managed to avoid a crash. Now, at one time the fright and anger would have stayed with me for an hour, but by using the Welcoming Practice, I was fine within a minute or two.

  3. The cognitive approach emphasises that, while you can’t always change the outward situation, you can change the way you think about it - and that increases your sense of control.Newman & Stone wrote up an interesting experiment in Annals of Behavioural Medicine, June 1996. They showed two groups of people the same stressful silent film, and asked them to make up either a serious narrative about it (group 1) or a funny narrative (group 2). They had pre-tested their participants for sense of humour, and had deliberately put both high-humour and low-humour people in both groups. What they found was that, regardless of their score on the sense-of-humour test, the “funny narrative” group not only said they felt better but were less stressed, according to standard physical tests, than the “serious narrative” group. The film was the same - only the story they told themselves about it was different.

So there are three approaches to reducing stress. Whether you coach yourself to physically relax, shift your emotional state, or change how you think about the situation, by using these practices you reduce harm to your body and mind and put yourself more in control.

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