Guest Post – Three Ways to Zap Stress During Crunch
Stress is a fact of 21st-century life, and all the more so when you’reworking on big, high-pressure projects. I’ve worked in a projectsenvironment for most of the past 20 years, and I know how it gets. Youstart to become irritable, forgetful, you may find yourself dreamingabout work, you’re tired but you can’t sleep well, you might even startto find loud noises and bright lights painful. It’s not fun.Basically, what’s happened is that what is meant to be a short-termresponse for getting you out of immediate physical danger, increasingyour concentration and memory and awareness of your environment, haskept firing off over a long period, and now those exact responses aregetting worn out - as if you’d kept lifting a weight with the same hand,over and over, until your muscles get fatigued and stop workingproperly.So what can you do? On the principle that a problem well defined is halfsolved, let’s start with a definition of stress.What Stress IsThis is my simplified version of the Kim-Diamond definition (in NatureReviews Neuroscience, 2002). It has three parts. Something is measurably winding up your physical state. You don’t like it. You don’t feel in control.All three parts are important. If you love riding roller-coasters, forexample, part 2 of the definition isn’t fulfilled, and even thoughyou’re physically stimulated and you’re not controlling theroller-coaster, it’s not (by this definition) stress.Funny story, by the way. I was talking about stress to the local Rotaryclub, and had accidentally left my notes at home. At one point, havingalready told them that there were three parts to the definition ofstress, I realised when I was about to give the third part that Icouldn’t remember what it was. I started in on the sentenceanyhow: “And the third part of the definition of stress is…”Fortunately, by the time I got that far I’d remembered it. (Take a lookabove at what the third part is and you’ll realise why this gave me alaugh later on.)What You Can Do About StressAs I hinted, the definition contains important clues to three ways toreduce stress. There’s something we can do about each of the threeparts. The physical approach starts with calming down your body. Thevery simplest way to do this is with breathing. After all, you’repretty much guaranteed to be breathing (if you’re not, you haveworse problems than just stress), and while we can’t stop breathingvoluntarily, we can consciously control the depth and rhythm of ourbreath.The old advice to take a few deep breaths in a stressfulsituation works. The reason is that when your body gets into its“stress mode”, it starts to breathe shallowly and rapidly. You canturn that around and feed it back, so that by breathing deeply andmore slowly, you signal the brain to calm down and switch back into“maintenance mode”, where it can repair itself, digest food and doall those other useful processes. (The parts of the brain that control breathing and the parts thatdeal with strong emotion are practically next to each other, alongwith the areas that control heartbeat and blood pressure.) Other physical calming techniques include progressive musclerelaxation and meditation. The emotional approach addresses the fact that you don’t likethe stress, that you find it unpleasant. There are so many emotionaltechniques that I’m creating a whole course on them (the EmotionalCircuit-Breaker Toolkit), buthere’s one simple three-step process that works extremely well. It’scalled the Welcoming Practice.Step 1 is to become aware of thelocation of the emotion in your body. Something will havetightened, be vibrating, be warm or cool - you’ll know it almost assoon as you pay attention to it. Just be aware of it for now. Takeyour time. Step 2, when you’re ready for it, is to name the emotion andaccept its presence. The form of words I use is “Welcome, anger”(or fear or sadness or whatever it is - there may be severalemotions, in which case I welcome each of them by name). Saying thename sets up a circuit between the inner “emotion feeling” parts ofyour brain and the outer “word processing” parts in the cerebralcortex, and drains off the activation (Liebermann et al.,Psychological Science, May 2007). “Welcoming” the emotion (not thecircumstances, by the way, just the emotion) releases yourresistance 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 theemotion and allow it to subside. In effect, you’re telling yourbrain that the emotion isn’t needed right now, and so it can go backto its normal state. I used this to great effect not long ago. I was driving along theroad and some idiot in a Mini pulled out from a side road,completely illegally, right across my path. I braked and swerved andjust managed to avoid a crash. Now, at one time the fright and angerwould have stayed with me for an hour, but by using the WelcomingPractice, I was fine within a minute or two. The cognitive approach emphasises that, while you can’t alwayschange the outward situation, you can change the way you think aboutit - and that increases your sense of control.Newman & Stone wroteup an interesting experiment in Annals of Behavioural Medicine,June 1996. They showed two groups of people the same stressfulsilent film, and asked them to make up either a serious narrativeabout it (group 1) or a funny narrative (group 2). They hadpre-tested their participants for sense of humour, and haddeliberately put both high-humour and low-humour people in bothgroups.What they found was that, regardless of their score on thesense-of-humour test, the “funny narrative” group not only said theyfelt better but were less stressed, according to standard physicaltests, 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 coachyourself to physically relax, shift your emotional state, or change howyou think about the situation, by using these practices you reduce harmto your body and mind and put yourself more in control.