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All About Stress

There is a difference between good stress (eu-stress) and bad stress (dis-stress); we have the power to choose which type of stress we put energy and focus into.


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The World Health Organisation defines stress as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. It is, of course, a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives, and everyone experiences stress to some degree.

Stress is not always a bad thing. Some people thrive on stress and even need it to get things done. When the term ‘stress’ is used clinically, it refers to a situation that causes discomfort and distress for a person and can lead to other mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.


Stress Effect

Stress affects us in many ways, including emotionally, rationally and behaviourally. Emotionally speaking, stress can typically present as anxiety, depression, tension or anger.

Rationally, it affects the way you think and can present as poor concentration, forgetfulness, indecisiveness, apathy and hopelessness. Behaviourally you can see stress play out as insomnia, accident proneness, weight problems, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, nervousness and gambling.


Your Responses to Stress

Your attitude, personality and approach to life will influence how you respond to stress. Factors that play a part include the following:


  • How you think about a problem and the situation

  • How anxious do you feel generally

  • How severely the problem affects you and your life

  • Whether you have experienced anything like this before

  • Whether you can control what is happening

  • How long the event affects you

  • How important the outcome is to you and those you love

  • The different ways a person copes with difficult situations

  • Your life experiences, life history and traumas

  • Your self-esteem, confidence levels and sense of self

  • Whether you have people around for support


Stress Types

Clinically speaking, there are three types of stress; acute stress, episodic acute stress and chronic stress. Of most concern is chronic stress, which causes atrophy of the amygdala and the hippocampus. This impairs memory and skews fear conditioning. Consequently, the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, which is our central stress response system, becomes imbalanced. Suddenly, minor things feel stressful, and we become almost permanently impatient, frazzled and easily agitated.


Sadly, chronically stressed has become a standard way of being and operating in the 21st century. For optimal well-being, aim to be in one of two states; calm and alert, or asleep. For optimal performance, you may strive for a flow state, which is the epitome of being both calm and alert simultaneously. It evokes hyper-focus with absolute composure.


So how do you combat chronic stress so you can stop being frazzled, stay calm and alert and get into flow? Read on for some of the tools.


The Three Stress Tools

Dr. Andrew Huberman of Stanford University has found three major categories of tools for dealing with stress. The first are tools that raise your ceiling on what we perceive as stress. The second are tools that reduce the stress response once it’s been activated. Third are tools that bring your state up, if under-aroused.

Tool 1: More Stress

More stress may seem counterintuitive, but the ‘right’ kind of stress in your life can be extremely helpful. Research has shown that engaging in short, intentional bursts of

acute stress can be effective in reducing chronic stress. Examples include an intense workout, an ice bath or a deep tissue massage. These kinds of activities mitigate chronic stress despite the fact they are a form of acute stress but must be balanced and used intelligently to prevent you from feeling extreme acute stress and therefore completely run down.


Tool 2: Cognitive Reframing

A frame is a psychological device that offers a perspective and manipulates salience (what you perceive as important) to influence how you think about something. The degree to which the "cognitive frame" we place on something can change the impact is significant.


Cognitive reframing was shown in a longitudinal study by the University of Wisconsin which found that, when participants told themselves they liked the feeling of stress, they were alleviated from the physical symptoms of stress. Further, those who experienced high levels of stress throughout their life, but viewed this stress as something positive—a sign of growth and expansion—had lower mortality rates than individuals who experienced less overall stress, but viewed it as a negative thing.


The takeaway is that the "cognitive frame" you wrap around your experience of stress will determine how adversely that stress impacts you. So by viewing the stress you’re dealing with as something that’s helping you grow, it will indeed help you grow.


Tool 3: Rapid Nasal Breath

This final tool falls into Dr. Huberman’s second category and helps mitigate the stress response after it’s already been activated. It is a simple but helpful breath technique. As you feel a surge of stress, take a long, deep breath in through your nose. When it feels like you can’t breathe any more air in, rapidly sniff as hard as you can. This snaps open the alveoli in your lungs, increasing oxygenation and activating the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system.


“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” ~ Marcus Aurelius


Science-backed Stress Hacks


A woman doing a yoga pose

There are a lot of things you can do to combat stress. Of course, as discussed above, the goal isn't to get rid of stress completely; certain types of stress can be beneficial, and trying to avoid stress in life generally would be a losing battle!


However, there are lots of little things you can integrate into your life to help minimise and manage negative stressors. Here are ten easily-applied strategies for calming stress that work, and are supported by science.


Exercise

There are clear physical benefits to exercise, but movement has mental benefits as well. Exercise produces endorphins—chemicals in the brain that make you feel good—which help decrease tension, elevate mood, improve sleep, and boost self-esteem. All these are factors that can lead to reduced stress. In addition, research has found that exercise can increase emotional resilience, the way you handle stress. While structured gym time is great, try building regular activity into your daily routine as well. Even a few minutes a day can help stimulate stress-reducing effects.


Meditation

When you're stressed, your body releases a hormone called cortisol. This can be good in small amounts, but having too much in your body for too long can lead to inflammatory pathways—an underlying cause of various health problems. Studies show regular meditation helps improve emotional reactivity—the way you respond to stress—which, in turn, reduces cortisol levels and inflammatory processes. Compared to other forms of stress relief, including exercise, research indicates meditation is most beneficial.


Adaptogens

Adaptogens are herbal supplements named after their ability to help you "adapt" to outside stressors. They help support your adrenal glands, the endocrine glands near your kidneys that produce and release stress hormones. Studies have found that 240 milligrams of ashwagandha extract daily, one of the most well-known adaptogens, leads to less anxiousness and stress, enhanced mood, and a reduction in key stress biomarkers like cortisol. Other adaptogens that can help include Rhodiola rosea, Asian ginseng and Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng).


Yoga

Yoga has been used in India as a form of mind/body medicine for nearly 4,000 years. While yoga can certainly stretch your muscles and make you more physically fit, it's even more beneficial for your mind. Yoga moderates the nervous system, balances hormones, and regulates nerve impulses. A regular yoga practice can also reduce blood pressure and heart rate, and promote beneficial changes in the brain.


Sip Tea

The act of sipping a hot cup of tea is relaxing in itself, but the tea leaves in your cup can have a major impact on your stress levels from a physiological standpoint, too. Studies have shown that tea drinkers have lower cortisol levels and can recover from stress more quickly. Some good choices include Peppermint, Chamomile, Lavender, Lemon balm, Ginseng and Catnip tea.


Cut Caffeine

Caffeine has some positive effects, like enhanced alertness, better mood and improved exercise performance, but it has some downsides too, especially if you drink too much. Studies have found that caffeine spikes cortisol levels throughout the day and also interferes with sleep. Caffeine reduces sleep quality by as much as 10% and the amount of sleep by almost 40%. These effects can persist for days.


Aromatherapy

An incredibly beautiful, sweet-smelling and safe stress-coping technique is aromatherapy. This is because the olfactory nerve, which travels from your nose to your brain, not only gives you your sense of smell but also plays a role in supporting the parasympathetic nervous system. The nerve sends signals to your brain that affect the limbic system and amygdala, parts of the brain that affect your emotions and mood. Some active compounds in essential oils, the foundation of aromatherapy, trigger the olfactory nerve to shut down signalling, which produces a calming effect in the brain that extends to the rest of your body, too. Some essential oils you can try for stress relief include Lavender, Ylang Ylang, Lemon, Clary Sage, Bergamot, Chamomile, Jasmine, Sweet Basil, Holy Basil and Frankincense.


Animation image showing a person's brain

Two holistic and incredibly powerful additional stress hacks you can use to combat stress include the Emotional Freedom Technique (known as EFT or EFT Tapping) and Vagal Tonification (which tones the vagus nerve). EFT tapping focuses on tapping the 14 meridian points of the body to relieve symptoms of a negative experience or emotion. Tonifying the vagus nerve, on the other hand, is like exercise for your muscles or puzzles for your brain! Read on more about these unique techniques.



EFT Tapping

In recent years, there's been a growing pool of undeniable research proving that Tapping produces real, lasting breakthroughs. Tapping regulates the nervous system and boosts the immune system by putting the body back into the parasympathetic (relaxation) nervous system response. This allows the immune system, digestive system, reproductive system, and endocrine system to function as it should. Reducing stress also reduces cortisol levels in the body. This reduction aids your body's ability to fight inflammation and boost your immune system. Kinesiologists also integrate specialised EFT-style techniques to adjust the energy flow in meridian systems and create balance in the body and mind; they will often have their patient practice specific tapping sequences to enhance the results of their sessions.

Vagal Tonification

The longest nerve in our body, the vagus nerve, plays an essential role in survival, social engagement, sensing safety and generating joy. This nerve makes up 75% of the parasympathetic nervous system and acts as a counterbalance to the fight/flight response. Importantly, 80-90% of the vagus nerve conveys information from the body to the brain; in fact, visceral feelings and gut instincts are emotional intuitions transferred up to your brain via the vagus nerve. There are many things you can do to activate your vagus nerve and many benefits to a healthy vagal tone. It is your secret weapon to a better you! In addition to medical stimulation machines, ways to tone your vagus nerve include breathwork and diaphragmatic breathing, cold exposure, humming, meditation and positive self-talk.


A woman in front of her laptop appears to have passed out, holding an empty coffee mug

Work Stress

Stress in the workplace is common and is caused by many different factors, including excessive hours, conflicts with others and feelings of isolation. The amount of stress a person experiences is often determined by whether or not they can accept that some things in life will simply never be sorted out to their satisfaction. Ultimately, whilst you may be tempted to point to external forces, the majority of ongoing stress comes from internal rather than outside circumstances. In other words, most of our stress is generated in our minds.


"It's not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it." ~ Hans Selye, Researcher


The fact that most stress is internally generated has a big impact on how we deal with stressful situations in both a leadership context and our daily lives. By learning how to perform and lead with greater presence, peace and wisdom, we can consciously choose to stay true to our values and achieve a greater sense of well-being at work as well as at home.


RELIEVING STRESS: Unconscious Assumptions

If stress is caused entirely by external circumstances, everyone would be equally stressed by a particular series of events, such as being stuck in traffic. Yet we know for a fact that different people respond differently to the same ‘stressful’ stimuli. One driver may be frustrated and irate, while another in the same traffic jam remains calm. While the world can present all manner of obstacles, the ultimate cause of our ongoing stress is the way we choose to respond internally.


Workplace Stress

The vast majority of stress experienced in the workplace falls into one of three categories: other people (such as a boss or colleagues), external circumstances (such as a lack of job security or money, uncertainty about the future or heavy commuter traffic), structures and systems (such as too many meetings or bosses or demands, or an excessive workload). The common theme across all these responses is the belief that ongoing stress is solely caused by external factors. However, except in genuinely life-threatening circumstances, ongoing stress is internally generated and both largely unseen and mismanaged due to internal expectations and assumptions, mindset and unconscious conditioning.


Rumination

The human mind tends towards negative rumination, meaning we repetitively return to our negative emotional experience to rehash its causes, situational factors, solutions and consequences. This obsessive rumination exacerbates our stress and undermines mental wellbeing, all based on a false assumption that stress is always caused by (and therefore always resolved by) a change in external factors, rather than a change in mindset. Further, science shows that unconscious fears, attachments and assumptions drive many unconscious behaviours, including stress responses.


The more we realize that relieving stress is an inside-out job, the more capacity we develop to deal with external circumstances and perform and lead with greater internal peace and wisdom.


Leadership

The best leaders aren’t those who make no mistakes. Instead, great leaders are honest about their shortcomings and open to exploring the behaviours within themselves that can be improved. However, this approach can be extremely challenging. When we make mistakes, we naturally experience strong emotions such as shame and embarrassment - which can lead to negative reactions such as denial and blame. While these reactions may give us an immediate reward, it’s very damaging to long-term mental and emotional well-being, as well as psychological flexibility. To lead effectively, we must learn how to deal with these strong feelings without resorting to damaging reactions that are reactive-brain responses to seek immediate relief from emotional pain.


Mindfulness in Leadership

As leaders in the workplace, each day will bring fresh challenges. These may generate distress, discomfort and strong emotions that threaten to derail us from our values and undermine our ability to lead with compassion. To develop as leaders, we must learn to prevent our ‘reactive’ brain from ignoring our values in the pursuit of protecting us from emotional discomfort. Mindfulness training can help us cultivate self-awareness and self-regulation, allowing us to observe our emotional patterns rather than reacting blindly and sabotaging our noble intentions. Mindful leadership entails experiencing and accepting the present moment, not how we want it to be, think it should be or perceive it to be, but as it is. This helps leaders become more aware of habitual reactions, expand the gap between stimulus and response, and make wiser choices. Leaders learn to recognise inner motivations for actions and become more honest and compassionate with themselves and others. The greater our mindfulness, the greater our ability to observe underlying conditioning and self-regulate in real time to consciously choose values-aligned behaviours. This is the heart of transformational leadership.


“SOMETIMES THE MOST PRODUCTIVE THING YOU CAN DO IS RELAX” ~ MARK BLACK

Are you feeling overwhelmed lately? Schedule a Kinesiology and Coaching session with Katherine Anderson to learn how to manage your stress better.




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