From Panic To Poise: Strategies For Effective Stress Management

What do you do when an unexpected stressful moment clobbers you from behind?  

Spend five minutes googling how to manage stress and you’ll easily find common strategies like getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, getting enough exercise and protecting your mental health through maintaining healthy boundaries with others. There are a variety of ways to quickly alleviate stress so that you can recover gracefully.  To discover these strategies, it starts with gaining some self-awareness of your own unique combination of physical reactions to stress.

Identifying Your Unique Warning Signs Of Stress

Different people tend to experience the physical symptoms of stress differently.   They prepare the body to spring into action when we encounter danger.  The problem is, our physical stress clues don’t differentiate between stress caused by a lion encounter and that caused by discovering we’ve drastically overspent on the high interest credit card.  Have you ever noticed what yours are? Is it sweaty palms and a racing heart?  Perhaps you get hot all over or start breathing rapidly.  Or maybe you can feel a particular point in your neck or back suddenly turn into a hard knot.  If you aren’t yet familiar with your personal stress warning signs, the first step is to begin there and try to observe what they are the next time you get stressed out.  Once you know your personal stress signals, there are steps you can train yourself to interrupt your irrational flight or fright response to stress and avoid creating problems by flying off the handle with colleagues, family, and even the IT help desk lady that asks you state your 20 digit account number that you’ve already punched in 3 times just to reach her assistance on the phone in the first place.  Those physical stress warning signs are really useful signals. 

Interrupting Your Brain’s Stress Response

Once you know what they are, the next step is to interrupt the natural process that is triggered in the brain when we encounter stress.  At the same time that we get outward clues from our body that we are stressed, our brains are also releasing a hormone called cortisol.  Cortisol clouds our judgment and makes it difficult to think rationally.  If we let our biologically programmed flight or fright response take over, we will then react without thinking.  When encountering the lion, that is a helpful biological response.  But unless one of your hobbies is big game hunting, your stress is probably not life-threatening so the goal now is to avoid dis-engaging with rational thought.

There are two practical physical ways you can reduce any tendencies to react negatively to your stress by re-engaging rational thinking.  It might sound hokey, but the first one is to take some deep breaths and count to six as you breathe in, and then again as you exhale.  You may not notice it at the time, but when humans are stressed, we tend to hold our breath.  This is a basic mindfulness technique that will help your brain regain access to the frontal cortex, the front part of the brain that allows us to weigh consequences and exercise good judgment.

The second strategy you can use is called anchoring.  When we are stressed, we tend to lose connection with the present and think of all the ways the stress-inducing situation we are experiencing will result in negative outcomes for us.  We can jolt ourselves out of this self-defeating thought pattern by placing our fingers against a flat surface and counting each of our fingers.  The process re-grounds us to the present and allows us to focus on what we should do in the moment to address the issue at hand rather than spiral into an overwhelming mindset of defeat and failure.

Putting Stress Management Into Practice

These strategies sound deceptively simple.  The acts themselves are, but the ability to put them into practice when it counts are not.  Like anything worth mastering, it takes practice to master over-riding our naturally pre-programmed biological responses to unexpected stress.  Fortunately, the human body is miraculously adaptive.  The more you work at it, the better you’ll get at mastering your default response to stress.  The better you get at it, the less stress you’ll experience because a natural outcome of this skill is less self-induced drama, and thus less stress to begin with!

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