1 Benefits of stress
To be able to assist with stress management, we first need a common basis of understanding. The body needs stress to function, to perform but also for survival.
The system in the body that is the most responsible for speeding up the system is the sympathetic nerve system, one of the two parts of the autonomous nerve system. For this reason, it is also often called the fight-flight system. This is the system that helps us get up from bed, but also get out of dangerous situations fast. Also, stress to a certain level can improve performance and creativity.
Hence, one can think of the body as containing a scale of 1 to 10 even with regard to stress where 1-3 is getting started and ready for some more action, 4-7 the body and brain cooperate optimally to create the foundation where we can function as optimal as possible with regard to the task at hand, whereas when we are at 8-10 we are in the fight-flight mode where we act more primitive, like reptiles: short-sighted and out of pedagogical reach with the only purpose to get out of the situation that created the stress reaction.
Hence, the real danger for the body is not stress per se, but lack of sufficient recovery! This is why I have rest present 2 times a week, Wednesdays and Sundays, to ensure sound routines over the week.
This week’s exercise is to be aware how stressed you are on the scale 1 (barely awake) to 10 (panic mode) by adding it to your well-being and feelings logs of last Thursday and Saturday.
2 The 3 building blocks of stress management
In addition to exercise, there are 3 important building blocks of stress management:
1) Regulate you stress level
2) Handle stress sources
3) Use stress management habits
1) The first building block of stress management: Regulate your stress level
There are actually two stress levels that are important to keep track of:
I One is the acute stress-level. This can be measured using the stress-scale that explained above, i.e. how the level of stress generally fluctuates in the human body during the day depending on activity level and intensity.
II The other is your general baseline stress-level over the week. This is how stressed you are on a general level when rested and when doing ordinary activities in your daily life.
In last session, the exercise was about tracking your stress level for a week using the stress-scale. Using this information you can now see if you go up and down in stress-level as expected over the day and week. You can also see the connection between stress and your general mode and state.
In the next session I will give you tips on how to calm yourself when in this uncomfortable high level and how to decrease your general stress-baseline.
The acute stress level
When having an acute stress-level of 8 or above, it is important to plan to as soon as possible reduce the stress-level to reduce the risk of stress-injuries and sleeping problems.
For stress-level 5 to 7 it important to regularly keep monitoring the stress-level to make sure it stays at that level and also schedule recovery time to restore the balance in the brain and body.
Techniques to handle acute stress
To decrease an acute stress-level of 8 or higher on a scale 1 to 10 where the fight-flight mode is controlling the body and mind, you have to focus on physiological techniques since at this level of stress we are outside of pedagogical reach.
The most important technique is slow breathing focusing on prolonged exhalations that are twice as long as the inhalations. Breathe with your stomach, in through your nose and out through your mouth in a relaxed manner. It should not feel frustrating or artificial. Do not worry about how to inhale since that will be an adjusted reflex.
There are tons of breathing techniques, but I stick with simplicity because that will most likely be recalled and doable when seriously stressed. Breathing like this signals to the body and brain that the danger is gone and the body starts to get rid of the stress-hormones which slows the system.
Another technique is to apply ice-cold water/ice in the face and neck, suck on ice cubes, rinsing your hands, palms and wrists with ice-cold water. This contracts the blood vessels, signals that the extra blood supply in the limbs is no longer needed and hence pushes more blood into your frontal lobes that are used when aiming to take control over yourself. This technique also works surprisingly well for patients with panic attacks since being active is often easier when the nervous system is aroused.
Another technique for breaking an overstimulated nervous system is muscle relaxation since it is difficult to get more winded up/having a panic attack with a relaxed body and slow breathing.
Brisk walks burn energy and reduce stress hormones.
Being in the nature is specifically stress-reducing.
Also, try distractions from your thoughts – like listening to or watching something that catches interest on a moderate level, which therefore do not add stress while already present stress dissolves.
Also, body contact – to be held or touched including holding the hands of someone you care for, even petting animals, have been shown to reduce stress, as well as a soothing and comforting voice.
See below for how to reduce a heightened stress-baseline.
The baseline stress-level
The baseline stress-level can get more permanently heightened when having a stressful life. This means that the body never becomes sufficiently relaxed.
Common symptoms of an augmented general stress level are:
- Difficulties falling asleep with even ordinary thoughts racing
- Waking-up early and having difficulties falling asleep again
- During daytime a rapid pace in movements
- Rapid shifts of emotions with reactions much stronger and more difficult to control than normal
- Some people get problems remembering things and have difficulties concentrating.
- If the body and mind do not get sufficient recovery and exercise over a longer time period, the body can start to produce even more intense symptoms like dizziness, vision problems, nausea and frequent panic attacks. It is even possible to wake up with panic attacks – scary!
Also, if you have an augmented stress-baseline, you more frequently risk getting up at the level 8-10 on the stress-scale for situations that you earlier could handle without difficulties. i.e. at level 7 or below.
Remember, on this augmented level we can no longer think clearly, but instead acts more impulse-driven like reptiles: short sighted and reactive to get out of the situation as quickly as possible.
2) The second building block of stress management: Handle your stress sources
The second building block, handle your stress sources, is about 2 main components:
1) Secure sufficient recovery
2) Minimize stress sources
The two components mirror the need for both healing the stress effects on the body and brain as well as adding as little new stress as possible.
1) Secure sufficient recovery:
In the first component, night-sleep is the main priority to recover the brain and body from acute stress symptoms:
- Protect your sleep at all costs
- go to bed in good time
- unwind, se earlier post about sleep habits, and if possible
- wake-up naturally without an alarm as many nights as possible during the week
- nap after lunch if that will not interfere with night-sleep or at least rest for 30 minutes right after coming home.
- Introduce the tiredness scale, a scale where 1 = slight tired to 10= extremely tired:
- When more tired than awake (6 or higher), think of a balancing scale, focus on rest = restful and pleasurable activity experienced as recovering and healing with sparse number of stimuli or your stress-injuries will risk to worsen.
- When more awake than tired (5 or lower) focus on exercise, brisk walks or biking are first priorities, sine that will facilitate the brain and body to repair and recover as fast as possible.
However, if you have more serious stress injuries, including more severe memory losses like not remembering who you have talked to during the day, impaired recovery ability and sensitivity to stimuli, the natural healing time will be counted in months rather than weeks. It is important to have a realistic expectation of time required to heal, or this can be an extreme source of stress.
Your body and brain are sufficiently rested when the symptoms are gone and you are back in energy level, not when you think you should be done with resting.
2) Minimize stress sources in two important areas:
- At home
- At work
Minimize Stress Sources At Home
With regard to the second component, Minimize stress sources, their intensity as well as the amount of new stress that is added per time unit, there are many different parts.
- The absolute first one is to get your relatives and close ones to realize that you have a stress problem and that they cannot take your participation for granted, but based on your state.
- It is important to find a way to communicate your stress level and tiredness level, for example use the stress and tiredness scales from earlier posts since persons with stress tend to have an extremely well-developed poker face.
It is even common not realizing own stress level until diagnosed with a stress evoked somatic symptoms like ringing in the ears, headaches, dizziness, panic attacks, etc. Of course, symptoms like these can have other causes that first have to be excluded by medical staff.
- Other important dimensions in your free time are:
- Plan ahead: – Problem solve together
– Prepare bags, clothes, meals the day before
– Schedule recurrent activities/questions/shores and make to-do-lists to minimise amount of problem solving and thinking
– Get more help and use short cuts for meals
- Reevaluate division of labor at home: schedule how often, who and when
- Handle usage of social medias – minimize which, when and how long if stressful
- Plan ahead: – Problem solve together
- Take control over interactions with your social network: how often, how, when and how long
- Talk to your close ones about your situation, needs and wishes
- Guard boundaries: Say no/maybe immediately, only yes after delay
- Reevaluate ‘good enough’ – 80/20-rule
- Expand your self image: your are not only events – who are you when not performing/producing
Minimize Stress Sources at Work
Therea are also important stress sources at work or other locations outside of home. There you can consider:
- Do only one thing at a time. If easily stressed, schedule a fixed start and stop time and do not look at the rest of the to-dos in advance
- Avoid short or unrealistic deadlines – include buffer time for surprises and flag in good time
- Let your manager reprioritize. If you have a manager or work in a culture that is inhuman in demands, consider changing job since one person is not sufficient to change a culture or a manger, that has to come from within and takes time. To be healthy long run it is critical to be a part of a healthy system, even if it can take some time to get there
- When focusing/concentrating, reduce the amount of ad hoc interruptions to maximize productivity – remember, tasks take some time to get into and every interruption repeats this:
- Sit undisturbed or as shielded from stimuli/sight as possible
- Have predetermined meeting, discussion and telephone timeslots for customers and colleagues
- Schedule more demanding tasks at a time of the day when you are the most alert – often before noon
- Take recurrent minibreaks, few minutes, every hour with a longer break after 3 sessions. Avoid back-to-back meetings, ensure an activity in between that has a slower pace
- Check emails and messages max 2 times a day, turn off push signals
- Avoid working from home if you find it difficult to separate work from free time or start working from home if you get more done at home
3) The third building block of stress management: Use Stress Management Habits
The third of the 3 important building blocks of stress management is use stress management habits. It has several dimensions:
1) Stress-proof your daily life:
- Use the stress-scale, see above
- Identify early warning signs such as alterations in your sleeping pattern such as waking up too early and/or difficulty going back to sleep, sensory alterations such as headaches, ringing in the ears, increased sensitivity to sounds, stimuli etc
- Use worryhour/problem solving hour, see separate section under anxiety
2) Recover your brain and body:
- Ensure healthy sleep routines: technique free unwinding, ensure quality and length of sleep, see section above
- Make time for recovery/unwinding daily, weekly and monthly:
- Make sure to schedule compensatory rest in between intense activities at work as well as directly after work
- Have activity free evenings every second evening
- Work from home Wednesdays to ensure midweek recovery and one free day in the weekend or when you are off where the focus is on complete rest/recovery as much as possible, even if it means lowering home chore standards and asking for help
- Take long weekends off every quarter and try to get 3 weeks summer vacation
- Burn/reduce stress that has built up in your body and build your long term stress endurance/resistance:
- Take daily 30 minutes walks in daylight, before noon if possible. In addition to lifting your general mood, stress hormones current in the body will be reduced, the number of new neurons/brain cells produced increases – replacing those destroyed by stress, and improves sleep quality which is vitally important for the brain and body to recover. It is during sleep the body and brain get cleaned as well as learning and memory processed and integrated on a deeper level
- Exercise: Build muscles and cardio/endurance. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercises have shown benefits with regard to improved long run stress resistance and recovery, see more in the next section below
- Challenge your brain with a somewhat demanding and fun activity like sudoku, crosswords, chess, card games, puzzle etc. This stimulates other parts of the brain, creating more balance – use it or lose it…
- Entertain your brain with an ‘unnecessary’ pleasurable and fun activity daily for at least 15 minutes, preferably 1 hour, which can lift your mood and self-image, change your perspectives and priorities as well as improve general life satisfaction
3 The vital importance of exercise
You have heard it before, but one of the absolute best way of handling stress short and long run in addition to recovery activities, see last week’s post, is exercise.
Research has shown that both aerobic exercises, like walking, running, swimming and biking, and building muscles, as in strength training but also work around the house or garden etc. are helpful.
I suggest a daily brisk walk of 30 minutes or similar, but also a stroll of 20 minutes has in research shown to be beneficial for reducing stress.
The best exercise is the one you actually do and easily can fit into you daily life, for example adding a walk on the way to or back from work/school.
The benefits are many: exercise and muscles both help to decrease current level of stress hormones as well as build the stress tolerance long run.
Exercise also helps your spirit as well as reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression, benefits the heart and the head, both the cell renewal processes and increases the production of neurons (brain-cells), i.e. more new building blocks to repair stress injuries and maintain the body and mind.
Of course, you should only exercise when well to avoid the risk of injury or other harm.