Stress triggers your body to fight, take flight, or for some of us—to feast.
Instead of stuffing our faces with Cheetos when you get stressed, let’s understand the causes of stress and how to manage it in a healthy way.
The feeling we get is often times referred to as “fight or flight”.
- Your breath becomes more shallow and aggressive to oxygenate your blood.
- Your heart pumps faster to push that oxygen to your extremities, giving them the juice they need to make a move.
- Your skin starts to sweat to keep your body cool, getting it ready for the heat you’re about to put it through.
Even though it’s completely natural, being at this heightened state for too long can have lasting implications on your overall health.
All of these automatically-activated reactions helped our caveman ancestors survive way back in the day.
For most of us in the modern world however, moments that require us to run or fight for our lives are rare. And yet, stressors within our corporate environment can trigger our bodies to react in the same way.
Where can stress come from?
A couple of years ago, I was promoted to a role that gave me the responsibility of leading more people, managing bigger projects, and operating with more autonomy. I was grateful for having been selected for this new role and appreciated the chance to grow… make a bigger impact… but it definitely brought on major stress.
Honestly, it took me a while to adjust. I started working longer hours to compensate, but what I realized is that this had a negative effect overall. Although I would still consider myself healthier than 99% of the population, the best of my personal habits got rocked. For example, I lost my workout routine and was not sleeping well. Worst of all, I wasn’t being the best husband I could be.
Those were the effects for me. For some of you, stress could cause aches all over your body… you know, the pain that comes and goes throughout the day even though you know you didn’t do anything physically strenuous enough to warrant it. Your immune system could take a dive… which (non-scientifically) makes you a prime target for the swarm of viruses that flies out every time your coworker sneezes. The part those closest you will notice the most would be your moodiness. You could become easy to anger… have no energy… and no sex drive. YIKES!
The bad news is that no one is immune to stress. The good news is that change is possible. By understanding this seemingly villainous thing, you can learn how to manage it.
We all have different levels of tolerance to stress and each situation affects every person a little bit differently. For the most part however, stressors come from the same places. Here are a few examples:
Not Enough Money.
If not enough money is coming in to support the lifestyle that you want, let alone the bare necessities, you probably would stress out!
Not Enough Time.
The symptom of this stressor is the overwhelming feeling of being too busy. Too many things to do with work, family, etc. will definitely cause stress.
This one is unique because it’s both a cause to stress as well as a negative effect of it.
Major Changes In Life.
Things like getting a new job (or not having one because you were just let go), getting married/divorced, having a baby, etc. have the power to shake things up.
How Can You Detect Stress?
For me, it physically shows up mostly in my heart rate and breath. I also notice that if it’s really bad, I get a headache and have the urge to eat. At the same time I may get more easily annoyed by small issues which can lead to squabbles with people that get the opportunity to put up with me. The worst part is that the stress causes my performance to dip, which feeds the cycle and causes even more stress. The most notable symptoms I have are forgetfulness, difficulty focusing, and feeling like my brain is going in slow motion. I try to compensate by moving faster, working longer, and cutting things out of my life to catch up… but doing this for too long brings a result that is the reverse of what I want.
What Can You Do About It?
You have 2 choices: The quick fix or killing the root cause.
Both choices have their purpose and can definitely be used together so let’s talk about both.
- Breathe… deeply into your stomach, slowly, intentionally. Pause, sit down, pull out your phone and set the timer for 5 minutes. (Important for those of us lacking discipline: put your phone greater than an arm’s length away!) Using your diaphragm, inhale slowly for 5 seconds. Fill your stomach then your chest. Hold for 1 second. Exhale for 5 seconds, using your abs to squeeze out your breath. Repeat.
- Do the 7-minute workout. I like this one from J&J because it shows me how to do the workout and gives me tips at the same time. It’s free so check it out here – https://7minuteworkout.jnj.com/. If you don’t like that one, just google “7 minute workout” or look it up on your app store and find one that works for you.
- Meditate for 3 to 10 minutes. I like using the app called Headspace. The guy that created it is Andy. His guided meditations every morning, combined with the 7 minute workout or a 2-3 mile run gets me started the right way.
- Listen to feel good music, whatever that is for you.
- Step out into nature—whether it’s for a weekend getaway or 10 minutes in the middle of your day.
- Exercise, doing your favorite hobbies, reading, finding humor in the stressful situation, taking a break, sleeping, etc. The list could go on. The point is, there are a lot of options. The ones I listed here are just my favorite quick fixes.
Finding The Root Cause
I think of quick fixes as the reactive pill that you pop to get rid of the symptoms. Getting to the root cause on the other hand is more preventative and sustainable.
The way to do this is to build awareness of our thoughts and emotions in order to consciously choose which thoughts lead to the right actions which result in the outcomes that we want.
Our circumstances aren’t actually what cause the stress. It’s the subjective meaning we give to our circumstances that does. You’re probably thinking “What? I’m confused.” Trust me, I know where you’re coming from because when I first learned this, I thought the same thing. Stay with me and let me explain.
My wife said to me “I’m stressed because I have to go to work 5 days a week when I’d rather be going on adventures.”
Let’s break that down.
Facts: She goes to work 5x per week.
Beliefs/Thoughts: That sucks because she’d rather be going on a motorcycle road trip or doing yoga in India.
Now, at this point I asked her. How do you act work?
What she said next shows emotional intelligence and the ability to reframe the circumstances to minimize (or completely eliminate) the stress.
Actions: I have the best conversations with my patients (She’s a Nurse in the outpatient cancer unit). I learn a lot about life by asking them questions about how they’ve lived theirs and what they wish they would’ve done differently.
It turns out that she was having thoughts other than “This sucks!”. I asked her why she acted that way at work even though she’d rather be doing something else. Her thought was that if she was going to be there that it would be best to make the most of it. Arguably, I also think that her patients are leaving the clinic feeling a connection… that someone actually gave a shit about their life.
What I want to highlight here is that she lessened the stress she felt about her circumstance by creating a more positive meaning for her situation. And the meaning she gave to the situation also affected how she acted. Alternatively, if she would have let her original thought “This sucks!” win, she might have showed up to work resenting her patients and not being able to find any fulfillment in her work.
So to summarize… for any stressful circumstance you find yourself in.
Step 1: List the facts.
Step 2: Note the thoughts you have about the facts and what meaning you’re giving to the situation.
Step 3: Be aware of the feelings your thoughts about the situation are causing. Feel the feelings and acknowledge them.
Pause: Do you like the thoughts and feelings you’re having? If not, change your thoughts which will then change your feelings. Check out the essay that expands on this method. I call it the B.E.A.R. Cycle.
The power in this is the fact that our thoughts and feelings drive our actions. Until we have feelings that produce actions that help our situation, we’ll stay stuck in stress and have to keep relying on the quick fixes to catch our breath.
I hope this was helpful.
Now, a question for you. What is it about your work/life situation that is causing the most stress? What are some things you’ve tried to minimize the stress you feel?
Thanks for reading,