How I kicked stress out of my life. Try it.

If you’ve never been stressed and don’t get what the big deal is, turn off your laptop, put your head down on your desk or the magical (presumably soft, cotton-y) cloud that you’re living on, close your beautiful eyes on your wrinkle free, remarkably soft face, and go back to sleep.

For everyone else who goes through stress on a semi-regular or regular basis, come on in.

I had to write about stress today because it can be a massive productivity killer. 
If you’ve experienced this, you know exactly what I’m talking about: you feel so overwhelmed that you opt to do nothing rather than deal with the list of things you have on your plate.

First, take a deep breath. You’re not alone.

Stress is one of the most widespread and debilitating problems that many of us deal with on a daily basis. In a sense, stress is a really mean and imposing pirate that is hijacking your body against all of your rational sensibilities.

When you’re under a lot of stress, you’ll find it tough to think about anything other than the stressor, and your non-essential bodily functions are thrown aside as your body goes into “fight or flight” mode. Your immune system’s down (uh oh you’re getting sick), your reproductive system’s down (sorry honey), and your digestive and growth systems aren’t working so well.

Let me just pause for a second here and apologize for stressing you out by describing stress.
It’s important to understand what’s going on in our bodies and why dealing with stress in healthy ways matters.

Bare with me…

The other problem with this stress is… you probably don’t have to fight or run away from anything. Your life is most likely not being threatened at the moment (hopefully) and you also probably can’t run away from whatever it is that your mind would prefer to avoid.
This is absolutely key to beating the stress you’re feeling.

Read it again.

Say it to yourself:
“I’m not currently running for my life from a predator who is trying to eat me.
I’m not currently running for my life from a predator who is trying to eat me.
I’m not currently running for my life from a predator who is trying to eat me.”

If you are, call the police and stop reading until you are in a safe place.

I’m making a big deal about this because it’s how you’re going to start take the steps to beat your stress. Something important to do not just for the immediate benefits to your ability to get things done, but for your long term health and the people around you who are putting up with your stressed out ass everyday.

According to Robert Sapolsky (Titan of stress research & Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford, all around intellectual bad-ass), “If you plan to get stressed like a normal mammal, you had better turn on the stress response or else you’re dead. But if you get chronically, psychosocially stressed, like a Westernized human, then you are more at risk for heart disease and some of the other leading causes of death in Westernized life.” (from here)

Makes sense though right? If you’ve been under extreme stress you may have felt like leaving entirely or throwing your phone off of a bridge (Spoiler alert: if your stress is this bad, it might not be a completely terrible idea to lose your work phone). You may have gotten sick, said something you regret to someone you care about, not gone to work or class, etc…

The point is, you aren’t totally screwed. Even if you have been experiencing chronic stress for a long time. Even if you have deeply embedded trauma from your childhood and stress has been a feature of your life as long as you’ve known. You aren’t screwed.

Sapolsky goes on “We are capable of social supports that no other primate can even dream of, for example, I might say, ‘This job, where I’m a lowly mailroom clerk, really doesn’t matter. What really matters is that I’m the captain of my softball team or deacon of my church’ — that sort of thing. It’s not just somebody sitting here, grooming you with their own hands. We can actually feel comfort from the discovery that somebody on the other side of the planet is going through the same experience we are and feel, I’m not alone. We can even take comfort reading about a fictional character, and there’s no primate out there that can feel better in life just by listening to Beethoven. So the range of supports that we’re capable of is extraordinary.”

Sapolsky notes that “An extraordinary finding that’s been replicated over and over is that once you get past the 25 percent or so poorest countries on Earth, where the only question is survival and subsistence, there is no relationship between gross national product, per capita income, any of those things, and levels of happiness.”

What does this all mean for how we can reduce our own stress levels, you ask? 
Let’s break it down into 5 things and how to do them:

1) Slow the hell down pt. I

Have you noticed how when you’re stressed and rushing around you end up forgetting things? Here’s the thing. If you’re already running late for that meeting, you may as well do it gracefully. Coming in like a wrecking ball might be popular in some circles, but your co-workers, friends, or family would probably be happy to just receive a call or message informing them that you’re running a little bit behind and an estimate of when you will get there. Slowing the hell down pt I is the mental process of slowing down. In other words, starting inside and working out. Get control of yourself mentally and emotionally. This can be done through the art of self-talk (try it first) or a similar mental process of breaking down how you’re feeling. Imagine yourself through the eyes of someone else at the moment. Imagine if you were being filmed and shown the footage, do you like what you see? What would you change about it? You don’t have to be ashamed of yourself, everyone gets stressed but it’s how we deal with it that matters, right? For small stressors it might be enough to simply ask yourself “Could I be dealing with this better?” 
If working through the stress in such an intangible, imaginative way isn’t working for you then try #2.

2) Slow the hell down pt. II

The “Slow the hell down pt. II” technique is about starting with your body and working your way in. This has historically been referred to as such things as: “taking a breather” or “going for a walk”. Part of the reason for the historical popularity of these techniques is the fact that they often work. Taking five minutes to get out of your head and into your body can have a huge impact on how you’re reacting to stress. This can be something as simple as stopping at the washroom after a long day at work, splashing some cold water on your face and consciously just releasing some of the tension from your body. That sounds vague, I know. Think about it though. When you’re stressed, your body is tense.

Soften your face.

Breathe.

Consciously, do an inventory from head to toe of your muscles. Tighten them up and then release and relax them one by one. This might take 5 minutes.

You probably know best what this can look like for you, and if you don’t you might have to experiment a bit in order to find what works. A lot of this is going to fall under self care. Common examples are: exercise, drawing a warm bath, the act or ritual of making a hot cup of tea, light some scented candles and just do some stretches.

3) Re-evaluate

Sometimes our stress can come about as a result of our values and beliefs. The things that we choose to give priority to over others. For example, you might be feeling stressed about your job or your business. This piece of your life might be something of significant value to you. You may have spent a long time going to school to study for this path, you then spent years working your way up. This piece of your life is a deeply embedded part of your identity. To you, it seems like it is who you are and you’re scared to lose it or change. No, not scared. Terrified. Who would you even be? Not to mention that all of your friends and family know you as that person. Oh yeah, and the money. You make pretty good money and you need that. You believe you’re stuck there. You don’t have enough time to spend with your family or to take care of the basic things you think you should at home. You don’t have time for bubble baths, running on ellipticals, doing breathing exercises and all that other crap in #2. I’m using this example because it’s a common scenario. Finding the sweet spot when it comes to work/life balance is tough and the experience is going to be different for each of us. The point is, if something is creating a lot of stress in your life then it has to change. And you have to make the conscious choice to change it. Whether it’s how you manage it, how much value you place on it, or getting away from it entirely, you’ll have to make that decision and work towards it.

4) Get Social, Go Play

So you haven’t had any luck with the intrinsic, personal tips? 
Don’t worry, you still aren’t screwed! There isn’t one answer that’s going to work for everybody, and reprogramming your brain to be less stressed might take a combination of some or all of these techniques. A good distraction can go a long way. No, I don’t mean repressing your feelings and burying yourself in your own anxious dread. It can be helpful to get out and remember that the world keeps on spinning. Friends and family can be great for this. Many of us have wonderful support networks of people to spend time with. If you don’t, remember it’s never too late to build new relationships and meet new people (although it can seem daunting). Making a new friend, joining that hobby class, or maybe just going out and being amid others can sometimes be a good way to get some happy hormones blasting through your system. If you have a close friend who you’re comfortable talking to it might help to share and get your thoughts out.

5) Talk to Someone

Remember what we said earlier? That you aren’t a total freak for feeling stressed, that it’s a very normal human experience? Remember that? It may be the case that talking to a totally external third party may be helpful. I’m talking about a social worker, a therapist, a doctor. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and it could make the difference between feeling trapped in your stress and breaking free from it or coming up with some strategies for managing your stress in a healthier way. It might be that you’re stressed out about something very complicated or sensitive. Maybe you feel embarrassed about it. Whatever the case, a trained professional can offer helpful advice about what the next steps could be.

That’s it. Remember, you aren’t functioning optimally if you’re subjecting yourself to stress all the time. Many of us function well under a bit of pressure, but if stress is becoming a problem for you try to slow down, re-evaluate, and connect with someone! You’ll find you’re getting more done, feeling less run down, and the people around you will thank you for it too.