Are you managing your stress or headed for a breakdown?

The other day I was driving along, and the emissions and battery warning lights started flashing on the dashboard. My car was under stress and it was time to do something before it completely broke down.

I started thinking about the metaphor of what had just happened. When the warning lights flash in our cars most people stop and get it checked before the car breaks down.

But how do we look after ourselves when our own warning lights go off and we are under stress? Do we stop and pay attention to our own engine: our physical, emotional and mental health? What can we do to alleviate the stress so we don’t break down on the journey?

Most of us resonate with how stressful life can be full-stop, let alone life as an entrepreneur: little money, long hours, limited sleep, set-backs and the endless keeping up with the information overload which is so relevant to today’s world. Yet we do this because we have a belief, a passion and a vision to make the impossible inevitable with what we are doing. These goals are vital as they give us purpose and meaning in life.

However, if we only strive for the future, we can get so locked on our mission that we miss out on living in the present and neglect our engine, our health.

With alarming statistics from The American Institute of Stress showing:

  • 1 in 5 Americans experience extreme stress such as heart palpitations, shaking and depression
  • Work stress causing 10% of strokes
  • 3 out of 4 doctor’s visits are for stress related ailments
  • Stress is the basic cause of 60% of all human illness and disease

We cannot ignore what’s going on right now with our physical, emotional and mental health.

Research has shown that by having present awareness — being aware of what is happening right now — we can create more choices for ourselves, rediscover balance and thereby reduce the impact of stress on our lives.

And how do we do that?

The answer lies first in the bigger picture of understanding how we relate to everything in our inside and outside world: How we relate to ourselves, stress, people, work, deadlines, diet, exercise, our visions and goals, everything! This relating to and making sense of the world is all processed through the brain.

We are each unique and even though we have access to our whole brain, we tend to operate in preferred thought patterns. This is why the impact of stress can be so variable from person to person. Now these thought patterns and habits have been set-up partly because of genes and mostly according to our experience of life. Here is the good news! It is therefore mostly learned. And if it is learned we can also learn to press the override button and access the whole of our brain rather than the preferred thinking area we default to.

This expansion of thinking optimizes how we relate to ourselves and how we relate to different situations, people, and problems. With this we can rediscover more choice, a greater resilience to issues like stress and a more balanced and healthier life.

So how do we press that override button in the brain?

  • Get curious and bring present awareness to thinking patterns. Tools such as HBDI Whole Brain Thinking are excellent for offering a map to these. Once we become familiar with our thinking patterns, we can begin to stretch our thinking and see into and beyond our mental blind spots.
  • Get curious about others and remember they are human too! Once we can start to be aware of our own thinking patterns, it is easier to be aware of other peoples. This puts us in a position to build healthier relationships and strengthen our communication. If relationships get stressful, remember it is rarely anybody’s intention to deliberately cause stress. Getting curious about what is going on with others rather than being reactionary and judgmental offers potential for a different outcome.
  • When the stress button is activated — stop! Allow yourself space to choose a response rather than “re-act.” It may well be our default thinking response works in that situation. And it may also be that taking time to flex our thinking into another area of the brain offers us a healthier choice. Our default response has done really well in serving us so far, however it can also keep us locked in a thought prison.
  • Thoughts can be incredibly powerful and can often have an unhelpful impact on our stress levels. When was the last time you were aware of what your thoughts are saying? Thoughts are not facts and if we look “at” them rather than “from” them we open ourselves up to choice more readily and reduce getting caught up in overwhelm. Choose wisely how to focus your attention.
  • Our problem-solving mind is not going to solve an emotional “problem” no matter how hard it tries. Emotions aren’t a problem to be solved, they are a condition of life (and a valuable appraisal process). Don’t get stressed about trying to find an answer — look at the emotion and get curious about what it is telling us.
  • Let go of perfection! There is no such thing and it only exists in our own head — one person’s perfection can be another person’s nightmare. Be kind to yourself and remember that as humans we are work in progress all through our lives.
  • Our brains are wired to look out for danger, and because of this the negative stuff that happens, negativity can be like Velcro and stick around. Conversely the positive can be like Teflon and just slip away. Science has shown that if we take time to be with and absorb our positive experiences each day, we can rewire our brain and readdress the balance of negative patterns.
  • Breathe! Meditating is not for everyone and yet just a 3 minute pause to focus on our breathing can help us exit overwhelm mode and open the way to choice.
  • Get moving! Our body and brain were designed by evolution to move about and exercise but we can often get caught in the lab or at the laptop for hours. Take frequent small breaks especially outside in nature. Feel the winter air on your face and hear the sound of crunchy leaves underfoot — there is life outside of our work bubble.
  • Watch your diet! 40% of stressed people overeat or eat unhealthy foods. Getting into healthy eating habits and not hitting the bottle is vital to combating stress. Our cars won’t work with the wrong fuel — getting the right fuel inside our bodies is vital.
  • Get some sleep! 44% of stressed people lose sleep every night. Staying up late with bright lights, TVs, computer screens is not healthy long term. So many of the body’s repair systems work during sleep. Memory consolidations occurs; the immune system is strengthened; the brain cleans itself by removing waste and toxins. Worth getting those zzzzz’s in the sleep bank?
  • Put the oxygen mask on first before helping others with theirs, otherwise we can literally run out of breath. Only we can take responsibility and look after our own physical, emotional and mental health. If we do this we will be far more productive long term and able to help others in a sustainable, authentic and healthy way.

Ready for the journey ahead? Try doing it with awareness and thrive in the present as you strive for the future and make the impossible inevitable.

Originally published at on December 15, 2016.

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