Stress Management: You’re Doing It Wrong, and Here’s Why

Laugh if you want, but we say this in all seriousness.

A lack of stress management skills is the great peril of modern living.

Imagine this.

You’re about to give a speech in front of a big audience. Or confront your tutor (or boss, or partner). Or sit an oral exam. As you find yourself in this unnerving situation, the emotional pressure becomes devastating and you suddenly find it hard to act normally.

Your limbs are shaking, your guts are rigid, your palms are clammy, it gets hard to breathe. Maybe you complain to someone that you can’t handle the stress, looking for reassurance. Or maybe you don’t.

It doesn’t matter all that much – whether it’s from someone else or from your own rational self, you’re most likely to receive advice resembling this:

dont worry, relax

Don’t worry. Try to relax. Calm down.

This is very reasonable advice which often turns out to be difficult or impossible to follow.

Did you ever wonder why? Well, Alison Wood Brooks from Harvard Business School did. She recently conducted a series of experiments to find out whether trying to calm down is actually the best way to cope with stress. Here is a short but brilliant summary by The Atlantic:

“This study challenges the conventional wisdom that you should try to calm down if you’re feeling anxious before a performance. […] anxiety and calm are radically different emotions—one is high arousal, one is low. In contrast, ‘anxiety and excitement have divergent effects on performance, but the experience of these two emotions is quite similar,’ the study reads. So it might be easier to switch to excitement from anxiety than to calm down.”

It’s that simple.

Instead of telling yourself to “calm down” you may allow yourself to be nervous – but it has to be the right kind of “nervous”. The results of the study have proven just that.

Before this experiment, 85% of participants thought the best advice in the face of performance anxiety was to try to calm down.

But:

  • once they had actually performed (the tasks were to sing in front of an audience, to give a speech or to solve a math problem), it turned out that they sang better when they told themselves they were “excited” than when they said “I am anxious” or nothing at all
  • participants in the excited condition gave better speeches and performed better on the math task than those trying to calm down
  • people who reappraised their anxiety as excitement were more likely to view the math task as an opportunity than a threat.

Actually, according to the American Institute of Stress, the “eustress” – stress with positive connotations – can help us perform even better than when we are actually calm, not only compared to when we’re distressed.

performance graphic

Source: American Institute of Stress

How can you transform distress into eustress?

Now that you know the secret, all that’s left to learn is how to use it in real-life situations to reduce nervous strain and deal with problems in a wiser way. From this day, challenge yourself to find an opportunity element in every stressful situation you face. Then, concentrate on the opportunity behind it, on the possible positive outcome. As soon as you feel the physical symptoms of emotional tension, accept them and welcome them, instead of trying to deny or ignore them. Tell yourself how excited you are and how good it feels that your body activates, too.

This is not an amateur approach. It has been demonstrated clearly in Alison Wood Brooks’s study that self-statements of emotion do induce reappraisal. By stating “I am excited” out loud, participants reappraised their anxiety as excitement and improved their subsequent performance.

So say to yourself: you are not nervous – you’re all fired up!

Try this.

Whenever you find yourself nervous, verbalize your worries. Filter out the words like “terrified”, “worried” and “tensed”. Then transform them into their nearest relatives which have a positive connotation. For instance:

  • “I’m thrilled to have this opportunity!”
  • “I haven’t felt so enthusiastic in a long time!”
  • “Can’t WAIT to jump into this challenge!”

That’s it. Ease the stress by transforming it – not fighting it.

It works just the way any physical exercise does: it feels artificially forced at first, it gets easier as you proceed, and it becomes natural eventually.

But there is one more thing.

People who never suffer from stress consequences do TWO things very well.

First and most importantly, they know how to avoid the stress in the first place.

Second, they ride the stress horse using the bits of advice listed above.

Until this moment we’ve been talking about the latter. Now let’s concentrate on how to reduce the stress levels in your life.

Things you didn’t know about stress which may scare you

Here are a few facts that the US National Institute of Mental Health,  the American Psychological Association (and again here) and the American Institute of Stress had to tell us about stress.

stress paying with out health

So, obviously, learning how to deal with stress today may mean better physical and mental health and higher quality of life tomorrow (and ever after).

Of course, the abovementioned numbers and facts represent the outcomes of excessive, continuous, high-level stress. Small amounts of stress, however, may be desired, beneficial and even healthy. Positive stress plays a factor in motivation, adaptation and reaction to the environment.

a healthy amount of stress can feel good

Initially, stress is a part of our survival mechanism. An acute stress reaction, triggered by some kind of life-threatening situation – say, being chased by an angry bear – prepares our body to face the challenge or run to avoid it. It throws all of your resources to support the body functions necessary for survival: muscle strength and brain activity. The rest of the functions, on the opposite, are being suppressed.

So while your muscles tense, your blood pressure increases, your breath gets faster to give the brain more oxygen, and your digestive, excretory and reproductive systems slow down significantly. This is a nearly perfect mechanism for a survival – if you actually ARE in a life-or-death situation.

But here is the problem:

our everyday life challenges are nothing like life-or-death in the vast majority of cases. But, as the modern civilization has developed in the blink of an eye on an evolutionary time scale, evolution has failed to provide us with more advanced stress reactions quickly enough.

We’re not yet able to diversify stress and choose the perfect reaction for each case. Instead, every time we get stressed, our body reacts as if we have met a hungry bear with an obvious intention to have us for lunch. When we fail the test, get into an argument or meet our boss who is mad at us, our body prepares to fight or flee…

…but usually neither is an option.

And so we stay and do what needs to be done, and once we no longer feel threatened our body systems restore their normal functioning.

But the problem is that unnerving situations are unlimited. There is always another deadline, another opponent, another meeting that we are late for. It is possible to face a situation triggering the “fight or flight” reaction dozens of times per day.

Once stress becomes persistent and low-level, all parts of the body’s stress apparatus become chronically over-activated or under-activated. The body gets no clear signal to return to normal functioning.

Such chronic stress may produce physical or psychological damage over time.

Which once again makes us wonder:

Can stress actually be dangerous for you?

Well, we don’t want to get overly dramatic. An enormous number of scientific studies tell us about the possible health effects of stress. None of them give a full enough picture to predict how a particular kind of stress will influence your particular physical and mental health and overall well-being.

But we do know this much:

the possible consequences of continued stress may vary from the slight embarrassment of wearing sweat-stained clothes to – well, for one, the actual life drama of developing a mental disorder which makes a person unable to perform as a professional. Here is what the working day may look like for someone suffering from a serious anxiety disorder:

stress managment citation scott

This is an actual quote from Scott Stossel on the pages of The Atlantic magazine.

Whoa.

Long story short – stress can be damaging. How damaging? We don’t know in advance.

And that’s why it’s best to avoid it.

How can you actually avoid stress?

Here is the basic principle of problem-solving:

One thing that’s better than action is prevention.

Why would we want to handle stress if we can just reduce its presence in our life?

The University of Maryland Medical Center suggests the following essential lifestyle changes as parts of a stress reduction program.

  1. Exercise

First of all, physical activity is an effective distraction from stressful events. It may also directly blunt the harmful effects of stress on blood pressure and the heart. Those who don’t do any sports regularly may find it hard to not only start but actually stick to the chosen activity. The key here is to find activities that are exciting, challenging and satisfying. Group aerobics, brisk walking, swimming or yoga can be perfect for a start.

  1. Diet

Whatever enhances your general health increases your stress resistance as well. So here comes one more of those countless recommendations to eat a variety of whole grains, vegetables and fruits, and to avoid excessive alcohol, caffeine and tobacco.

  1. Sleep

Another piece of advice that you could probably see coming is to get enough sleep. Research clearly shows that, compared to those experiencing a typical night of sleep, those in a sleep-deprived condition experienced higher levels of stress. (Learn more about that study on The Huffington Post). And, as the stress may often cause insomnia, this can be potentially disastrous as people get caught up in an ongoing cycle of stress and exhaustion.

  1. Restructuring priorities

Another way to significantly reduce the impact of stress is to shift the balance in one’s life from stress-producing to stress-reducing activities. It is recommended that you include as many stress relief options as possible. Although those options may vary greatly from one person to another, some of the most common activities of this kind are:

  • listening to music
  • taking vacations or long weekends
  • spending some time alone on a regular basis
  • getting (and spending time with) a pet
  • other pleasurable and interesting activities of choice.
  1. Identifying and questioning the sources of stress

For a week or two, keep a diary to note activities that put a strain on your energy and time, trigger anger or anxiety, or precipitate a negative physical response. The goal is to identify the significantly (and repeatedly) upsetting events or activities.

Once the stress sources are detected, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do these stressful activities meet my goals or someone else’s?
  • Have I taken on tasks that I can reasonably accomplish?
  • Which tasks are under my control and which ones aren’t?

With some practice, you will become able to look ahead and think in advance of what may go wrong, then see what you can do to minimize the damage. Watch how to apply the science-based “pre-mortem” strategy for stress management.

We hope that this article provided you with a fresh perspective on what stress is, how to avoid it, and how to use it for your benefit. This is crucial knowledge, as stress may have a huge effect on our lives, health and well-being.

But remember that with some wise management techniques…

Stress is not a bug—it’s a feature!

Yvonne McQuarrie
Yvonne McQuarrie

Yvonne McQuarrie is a freelance recruiter and resourcing advisor from Portsmouth, England. Her passion lies in people and knowledge. She worked as a student advisor and recruiter for two years. Yvonne also has an outstanding academic background as a private tutor which allows her being an advocate for self-improvement and development.

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