Bouncing back from stress

Face your stress and take action to lessen its effects in the moment, and over time

The inevitability of stress

Whether it’s the constant juggling work and life, racing against the clock, dealing with difficult bosses or clients, or facing a loss, stress is almost inevitable.

Any number of situations, people and events can cause us stress. But when we’re at a loss as to what to do about it, we often try to ignore it, hoping it will go away.

Is that the right tact, or are there more effective ways to improve how we handle stress? Can we improve our stress resilience?

Effects of stress on the brain

When we’re stressed, our bodies produce hormones like cortisol and dopamine that inhibit our brain functioning.

These hormones basically slam the door on our brain’s CEO. They inhibit the functioning of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) which is the area of the brain responsible for our highest-level thinking including planning, problem-solving, and decision-making. The PFC helps to regulate our attention, emotions and behavior.

When the CEO isn’t available, we revert to our brain’s limbic system, home of the amygdala and responsible for our fear and fight-or-flight reactions. When this part of our brain is in control, not only is our thinking off-target or cloudy, but we also have low impulse-control. We get easily triggered. We may get angry, frustrated, or depressed.

Why we shouldn’t ignore stress

Unfortunately, ignoring or suppressing stress does not make it go away. In fact, it can make it worse.

Sometimes my clients are surprised to hear this.

Often, there’s an assumption that if you simply don’t pay attention to something, it will go away. That may make sense in our minds, but our bodies produce stress hormones whether we’re paying attention or not.

Like a pot of water, if you do nothing, eventually it will reach the boiling point.

Research shows that the PFC is very susceptible to damage from stress. And left untended, stress that remains in the body over time can actually damage nerves in the PFC. (This has been shown to be true after only a week of stress.)

When we don’t handle our stress, we get more and more depleted and less tolerant of any new stress. This is when the slightest remark or concern can set you off or melt you down.

7 ways to improve your stress resilience

Rather than stressing about your stress, you can do something about it. You can increase your stress resilience over time, and in the moment.

Here are 7 tips to get better at handling stress:

  1. Shore up your body’s resources and ability to repair itself after stress by getting sufficient sleep (between 7-9 hours a night).
  2. Similarly, help your body stay balanced and clean out toxicity with sufficient exercise (at least 30 minutes three times a week).
  3. A mindfulness practice will help strengthen your brain’s neural connections so it can stay connected to the PFC’s high-level thinking during or after stress. The practice may be meditation, yoga, tai chi, art or music – something that helps keep you focused in the present moment.
  4. Speak your feelings. Simply giving words to the emotions you’re feeling helps to take you out of the stress itself. As you speak about your feelings, you become more an observer of them, and this calms down the limbic response.
  5. Take a time-out. If you can’t control the cause of your stress, can you remove yourself even briefly from the situation? Take a short time-out to collect yourself by leaving the room, getting off the phone, going for a walk or simply taking some deep breaths. This can be enough to signal to the body that the source of the stress has been removed, so the brain’s limbic region calm down and allow for a more reasoned response.
  6. Focus on meaning. Find something of value or meaning to remember why you’re dealing with the situation that’s causing you stress. For instance, if you have a difficult boss, do you nonetheless value the work you’re doing for your organization or clients?
  7. Shift your perspective. Rather than railing against the person or situation that’s causing you stress – thereby compounding your stress – can you find another, lighter perspective to adopt? Humor and compassion work well here. Can you find something to laugh at? Can you consider that a difficult person may be stressed him/herself or going through a difficult time?

Controlling your stress

Stress doesn’t have to be so stressful if you focus on what you can control.

Which of these 7 tips will you apply to increase your stress resilience? Share your thoughts, or send this post along to a friend who’s facing a stressful situation.

And remember, paying attention to your stress is the smartest solution.

Photo by Ryan McGuire at gratisography.com

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