If you get easily thrown off by stress, the good news is that you can do something about it.
Benefits of stress tolerance
Stress tolerance is about handling a fair amount of stress without losing your cool. Clearly, it’s helpful not to freak out – avoiding the “oops, maybe I shouldn’t have yelled at my colleague” situation.
But more than avoiding reactivity and regret, improving stress tolerance also means we improve our thoughts, behavior and mood.
And in the longterm, we improve our brains, our bodies and our health.
How does stress affect the brain?
When we are stressed, our bodies produce certain hormones that keep our brains from performing at their peak. Research by neurobiologist Amy Arnsten at Yale Medical School has shown that under stress, the amygdala activates stress pathways in the brain that produce high levels of hormones which inhibit the prefrontal cortex (e.g., noradrenaline and dopamine).
The prefrontal cortex is like the CEO of our brains. It helps us perform many of our highest level functions and helps to regulate attention, memory, behavior, emotion, and thought, including high-level decision making and future planning. But it is also the area of the brain most susceptible to damage from stress.
Too much stress can result in a poor decision-making, memory problems and an inability to control impulses and regulate behavior – not to mention the physical effects on the body.
At the same time, these same hormones activate the amygdala which is connected to our quick, fight-or-flight reactions that help us respond to threats and keep us safe. These include quick, reflexive thinking and action – it is not a place of nuanced thinking – as well as increased heart rate and breathing. In a dangerous situation, this is what we need.
But most of the time, we’d like to connect to the prefrontal cortex for a more reasoned response.
7 ways to improve your stress tolerance
Despite some factors that we can’t control (e.g., personality type, genetics and and past experiences), we can absolutely improve our stress tolerance because many more factors are within our control.
In fact, believing that we have some control over our stress is actually one of the ways to increase stress tolerance.
Even when we can’t control external circumstances, which is often, there are things we can do. Here are 7 of them:
(1) Don’t be afraid of the stress. Getting stressed about our stress increases our stress (thanks, Sherlock ;). If we start to get really worried about the stress, perhaps even think we can’t handle it, our bodies are likely to have a greater stress response. But if we think a stress response is a natural or even helpful response, then the reaction will more easily dissipate. Some amount of stress can be good for you – check out this post or TED Talk for more on that. Again, if you believe that you can always do something about whatever comes your way – in essence, that you can handle it – then you won’t need to be afraid of the stress when it does show up.
(2) Recognize your stress and name it. Ignoring your stress doesn’t improve your tolerance to it. In fact, it can do the opposite. But paying attention to it and putting it into words can improve your response. Cool, right? And it’s backed by research. A study by Professor Matthew Lieberman at UCLA showed that simply naming a negative feeling helps to decrease activity in the amygdala region of the brain and activates part of our prefrontal cortex.
(3) Take an action, even if it’s changing your attitude. When you’re stressed, the brain wants you to do something about it. You may not be able to change the circumstances causing your stress, but you can take other action? Can you shift your attitude, your role, or your perspective? This may mean removing yourself from a situation until you can respond instead of reflexively react. Or this may mean considering other ways to view the situation. For instance, maybe your manager isn’t trying to ignore or dismiss you; maybe she’s busy, doesn’t want to burden you, or is having a bad day.
(4) Focus on what’s important. One cause of internal stress is not paying attention to what you want or what really matters to you. If you don’t feel good about what you’re doing, you can be stressed even in a low-pressure situation. Conversely, if you value what you’re doing, then you feel good about it and are better able to handle any difficulty that comes with that. Also, checking in with what matters to you helps activates that CEO of your brain, the prefrontal cortex. So it’s worth figuring out what you value if you want to better manage your stress.
(5) Make time to recover. Recovery is essential to avoid the build-up of stress. This is especially important after a significant loss or change (e.g., divorce, death of a loved one, or moving). When you give yourself time to recover from stress, you help to guard against a build-up of stress chemicals and improve your ability to better handle the next stressful event. (Arnsten’s research shows that when stress remains over longer periods, it actually causes nerve damage in the prefrontal cortex.) Be sure to eat well, rest, relax and find ways to enjoy yourself – watch a funny movie or listen to your favorite music.
(6) Practice yoga. Research has shown that yoga can decrease anxiety and depression. In addition, a group of studies showed that people who practice mind-body exercises (e.g., yoga, tai chi, meditation, Qi gong and breathing), showed fewer signs of inflammation and appeared to experience a reversal of the effects of chronic stress at the cellular level – pretty amazing, right?
(7) Get support. Experts agree that one of the key factors in how well we handle stress is whether we have support when we are stressed. So if you don’t have great support, get some! And one important thing to remember here: the support should work with you and not for you – think championing and assisting, not mothering.
Remember that consistent practice of these factors is the best way to make change and to permanently improve how you handle stress. So choose one, or choose them all, but begin! Your brain and your body will thank you.
And if you’d like to explore improving your stress tolerance with some support and brain-based coaching, contact me for a free consultation.
2021 update: for a related post with discussion and tips to widen the windows of tolerance for your triggers, click here.
Photo by Ryan McGuire at gratisography.com.