Our brains are wired for survival, not for happiness. Unfortunate, but true! And an important starting point as we explore how to deal with stress.

A little bit of context: how our brains work

Through-out our evolution, we’ve survived if we were able to recognize threats. Particularly physical threats. If we noticed the long grass moving at the edge of our vision, we had a couple of options. We could assume it was the wind, or we could assume it was a dangerous threat to our safety, a predator moving through the grass.

Probably 9 times out of 10 it was the wind, but we survived by always assuming it was a dangerous threat. As a result, we’re wired to recognize threats and problems, and we see them even when they aren’t there.

We’re wired for survival, not for happiness.

Our brain’s response to threat

Our brain responds in the same way to a social threat as it does to a physical threat. If you’re ever confronted by a charging tiger, your brain will leap into action, to respond to the threat. Unfortunately, your brain does the same if you feel threatened in the office.

It’s called an ‘Amygdala Hijack’. Your brain perceives a threat, it shuts down the prefrontal cortex (our ‘executive brain’ which is responsible for logic and reflection) and the Amygdala (part of our more primitive brain) takes over. The amygdala floods your body with adrenaline and the ‘fight or flight’ response takes hold.

Several things start happening simultaneously. Your breathing becomes more rapid, and your heart starts pumping fast. This super-oxygenates your blood. At the same time, this super-oxygenated blood is pumped to your extremities, particularly your limbs. Your body is literally ready for ‘fight or flight’.

Which is great if you’re facing a charging tiger, but no so helpful in the office. Sweaty palms, a flushed face, and your ‘primitive brain’ controlling your actions, not a great recipe for success! Just when you need to be at your best, you’re at your worst.

Understanding stress: symptoms and sources

Before we look at how to deal with stress, it’s helpful to quickly explore the symptoms and sources of stress.

The response we’ve described above is known as acute stress, this is just one of three levels of stress.

The three levels of stress

There are three levels of stress:

  1. Acute
  2. Episodic
  3. Chronic

Episodic stress is the frequent re-occurrence of these mini crises. The symptoms are similar to acute stress but occur more often and the impact accumulates.

Chronic stress is the grinding stress that occurs over many years and wears people down. In some cases, these problems are beyond individual control: poverty, war, social injustice. In other cases, this chronic stress may be a result of a chaotic lifestyle.

Identify the sources of your stress

Work, family, friends: these are a few of the big causes of stress in life (of course they can be sources of joy too!).

Using a tool such as the wheel of life can help you identify the sources of stress in your life.

We also create stress for ourselves, here are a few ways in which we make life more difficult for ourselves:

  • Constantly replaying negative thoughts
  • Making unjustified assumptions
  • Doubting and blaming ourselves unnecessarily
  • Worrying about things that haven’t even happened

The relaxation techniques and shifts in mindset that we provide below will help you with this self-inflected stress.

A quick note on ‘positive stress’

It’s important to note that not all stress is bad! The right level of stress can be positive and help us to be productive.

Too little stress leaves us bored and unproductive. Too much stress causes fatigue, exhaustion, ill health and breakdown.

There is a health level of stress which enables us to stay energized and focused. This is positive stress and this performance curve is known as the Yerkes Dobson law.

How to deal with stress

As you explore how to deal with stress keep in mind that some techniques have a short-term impact (ideal for acute stress!). Other approaches have a medium-term impact, and if you’re grappling with chronic stress you may also benefit from longer-term techniques.

Short-term impact (instant to 24hrs)

In the short-term you’re primarily working on the body’s response to stress. These techniques will help you learn how to deal with immediate, acute stress. The impact of the techniques can be instant, or over the next 24 hours.

1. Relaxation techniques

As we can see from the amygdala hijack mention above, the mind and body are intertwined. The brain’s perception of threat triggers a physical reaction. In the same way, we can also use our brain to regain control. Breathing exercises, mindfulness and positive self-talk are all relaxation techniques that can have an immediate impact. This Harvard Medical School article provides 6 techniques to trigger a “relaxation response” to regain control.

2. Avoid coffee and alcohol

It can be tempting to turn to coffee, or alcohol, or over-indulging in fast food and snacks, as a response to stress. In the video below James Clear talks about how to change your habits and the importance of creating an environment that supports the new habits you want to build. Take a look.

3. Talk it out

In addition, one of the best responses to acute stress is to reach out to a trusted friend or colleague and talk it out. There is a reason why ‘venting’ is used to describe this, expressing our feelings allows us to release them and regain control.

Medium term (1 day to 30 days)

In the medium-term, shifting your routines and adopting more positive behaviors will help too. With these techniques you’ll see the impact quite quickly. Once you’ve mastered them, you can integrate these approaches with your short-term techniques.

4. Avoid, alter, accept or adapt

These ‘4As’ are a powerful approach to managing your stress. Take a look at this 4As stress management article for more.

5. Regain control of your habits

Habits are the scaffolding of our life. They create the structures and routines of each day, and research shows that as much as 70% of our daily behavior is ‘habitual’. But not all habits are good for us (I think we know this!). In this video, James Clear argues that we should focus less on goals, more on our habits. He provides clear guidance on how to build good habits, based on the ‘4 laws of behavior change’:

6. Sleep, and exercise

There’s no other way of saying this. Just sleep. Getting enough sleep is one of the simplest and most powerful ways in which we can improve the quality of our life. Combine this with some exercise, even walking (at a reasonable pace) for 20 minutes a few times a week, has significant benefits.

Long term (30 days +)

Over the long-term you can also work to integrate shifts in mindset. The potential benefits can be significant, but you should expect that you’ll need to work at it for some time before you start seeing these benefits.

Here are 3 ‘big ideas’ – all proven to be beneficial – that will help you shift your mindset towards being more resilient to stress.

7. Explore a ‘Growth Mindset’

We live in times of rapid change and a growth mindset helps us embrace the opportunities, rather than resist them. Take a look:

8. Learn to be optimistic

Are you natural optimistic, or naturally pessimistic? We all have our natural preferences and personality traits. But what if you could learn to be optimistic? Take a look at this article from verywellmind.

9. Understand your purpose to build resilience

There are enormous benefits to being clear about your purpose. Understanding the ‘why’ behind the work you do helps build focus, clarity and energy. It helps you bounce back. Take a look at your leadership legacy and also finding purpose in work for more.

How to deal with stress: in summary

Acknowledge that we’re not ‘wired for happiness’ – we have to work at it.

Recognize that your brain can sometimes work against you. Your ‘fight or flight’ response may have been useful in the past, but it’s not helping you cope in the workplace.

Understand the 3 levels of stress: acute, episodic and chronic. Consider how they are impacting your life.

Explore the different techniques and integrate what works into your daily life.

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