Stress is a physical, mental, and emotional state of tension resulting from demanding circumstances. When there’s a perceived threat, the body releases hormones such as adrenaline that prepared our caveman ancestors to fight or flee from predators. It still protects us today by giving the ability to quickly jump out of the way of an oncoming vehicle.
This burst of stress hormones is helpful when there is a true threat, but misinterpreting conditions as requiring this reaction results in a harmful constant flow of them. Immediate and cumulative physical effects of consistent stress include insomnia, headaches, digestive problems, a weakened immune system, and an increased risk of a wide variety of health issues.
When your physical and mental health suffers, you can’t perform at your peak at work. Work relationships, creativity, and the ability to complete tasks timely and accurately all suffer under stress.
Health and health care experts strive to increase awareness of the toll stress takes on our physical and mental wellbeing by dubbing April National Stress Awareness Month. Although becoming completely free of stress may not be possible, below is a simple 3-step system to dramatically reduce negative stress in your life.
1) Become Aware of Your Thoughts
Research has proven that what we think and feel affects our physical bodies. Addressing only the physical symptoms of stress won’t provide the significant, lasting results that an approach that integrates both the mind and body and tackles the root cause of stress does.
We can use Jack Canfield’s E+R=O formula to focus on the mental part of the equation. The formula explains that to get a different outcome (O) we must change either the event (E), our response (R) to it, or both.
Often events are out of our control. However, we always have 100% control of our response. So, let’s focus our attention there.
Our response is made up of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors – in that order. If someone doesn’t feel they have control of their emotional or behavioral reactions, it’s because they don’t realize they are having a split-second thought that comes first.
For example, a coworker sends you an email. You interpret it as critical and lash out in anger only to find out that you completely misunderstood the person’s intent. You got yourself worked up over nothing. Does this sound familiar?
By understanding this chain of events, we can begin to slow it down. By staying in the thought process long enough to ensure our thoughts are positive, we will retrain our brain to not interpret events as demanding or threatening and can eliminate the onset of the fight or flight response hormone flood.
2) Elicit the Relaxation Response Daily
Starting a regular relaxation practice will help you slow down your mental reaction and create deep, healing relaxation in your body. It only takes 10-15 minutes to elicit the “relaxation response.”
The relaxation response is a physical state in which muscles relax, breath and heartbeat slow, blood pressure lowers, and metabolism decreases (The Relaxation Response, Herbert Benson, M.D.). These are the opposite physical reactions of the fight or flight reaction.
Here are the steps:
- Pick a word or short phrase. This can be any word that centers your attention.
- Sit in a chair, close your eyes, relax your muscles.
- Breathe slowly and on the out breath, silently think your chosen word or phrase.
- When other thoughts come up, say “Oh well” and continue with your word.
- After 10-15 minutes, begin thinking your regular thoughts for a few minutes then open your eyes.
Adding this to your daily routine will enable you to draw on this calm feeling in the heat of a stressful moment. Just think about it as being in training for the big game day!
You can learn this technique from Dr. Herbert Benson himself here.
3) Practice Healthy Habits
If you want to improve the odds of your thoughts and resulting emotions and behaviors being positive and calm, establishing healthy habits will put you in the right frame of mind.
The greatest cause of stress my clients tell me about is that there is too much to do and not enough time. There are lots of time management techniques you can use to make your work life less stressful (Get some great tips here: Get More Done By Working Fewer Hours) but I’ve found that these three healthy work habits provide the greatest sense of calm for me.
- Set a firm stop time for work. Work expands to fill the time you have available, so put clear boundaries on work time.
- Slow down. The Navy Seals have a saying, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” If it works for them, it’ll probably work for those of us with less demanding jobs.
- Be realistic about what you can do in a day. We often unnecessarily set ourselves up to fall below our own expectations. Then we feel guilty and work late to squeeze everything in or feel the mental strain of having to-do’s undone. Not everything is urgent; plan accordingly.
As with work habits, there is a lot of sound advice available about personal habits that support a calm mind and body. Here are my must-haves to keep my stress level low.
- Sleep 7-8 hours per night, every night. Preferably going to be and rising at about the same time each day.
- Reduce/eliminate stimulants such as caffeine and sugar from your diet. I know this is a tough one, these are addictive substances, but it can be done.
- Take hourly, daily, weekly, and annual breaks regularly. Carve out a 5-minute stretch break every hour. 10-15 minutes to relax daily – remember the relaxation response? Try to guard at least one full day on the weekend where you don’t do any work. Take regular vacations – check out this blog post on how to make that happen –
- Exercise. It calms the body. Combine it with the great outdoors to intensify the calming effect.
There are many people with full lives and packed agendas who aren’t stressed out. It’s how you perceive things, not the things themselves, that cause unnecessary and unhealthy stress.
How have you solved the root causes of stress in your life? Please leave your answer in a comment below.
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