Rather than just coping through stress, what if we could leverage it and flourish? The past many months have been exceptionally disquieting—on many levels and with perfect storm magnitude.
Whether it’s been the pandemic itself or its taxing, multidimensional fallout, it’s fair to say that people are exhausted. And it’s not just life in the time of COVID-19. We can all recall coping through stress in our lives, be it the death of a loved one, separation or divorce, illness of a child or parent, or recovering from an injury. Such repeated bouts of unyielding stress can flatten even the most resilient among us.
Have hope and take heart: We can learn to regulate our stress levels with a practiced approach to prevent it or manage it well through behavioral shifts and coping strategies.
The Science: Acute Versus Chronic Stress
Put very basically, the body’s stress response promotes cell homeostasis. When all is right with the world, it keeps variables such as blood glucose, blood pH, oxygen levels, electrolyte composition, metabolic waste, blood pressure and core body temperature in check. Our bodies are protectively wired to deal with “on-the-spot” acute stress (think heart pounding, fight-or-flight in the face of danger). However, the Center for Studies on Human Stress points to evidence that humans are not designed to deal with repeated exposure to situations that cause surges of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine, among others. When our fight-or-flight response stays engaged over extended periods, that’s when we step into the concerning territory of chronic stress.
During chronic stress, sustained release of stress hormones can ultimately corrode human health and deregulate system homeostasis. When the stress response “on switch” gets stuck, it increases sugars in the bloodstream, raises heart rate and blood pressure, and interferes with healthy regulation of metabolism and immunity.
The physiologic and behavioral changes of chronic stress can do the body and mind harm while impacting systems such as immune, nervous, endocrine and digestive. It can woefully impact sleep, which robs us of critical repair and rejuvenation time. The domino effect of such system breakdowns can cause weight gain, fat storage, depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment (brain fog), fatigue, stomach ulcers and cardiovascular disease, among many other troubles.
Beyond Coping Through Stress: 8-Point Stress-Busting Plan
So how do we get beyond simply coping through stress before it gets the upper hand? San Diego behavior science consultant and transformational coach Michael Mantell, PhD, sees a lot of this in his patients.
First, he recommends simply preventing stress. After all, he says, “why manage and contain what you can fully prevent?” He suggests starting with a medical checkup if you have any doubts or concerns about your health. If you are good to go, focus on the following checklist.
- Exercise, move, be active—every day.
- Cut back on caffeine and remember Michael Pollan’s advice, “Eat food (not too much), mostly plants.” Check out these 3 common nutrition culprits that can derail your efforts to avoid stress.
- Meditate and become mindfully accepting of the here and now, the present, for as little as 10-15 minutes daily. This will help you observe your thoughts without judging them.
- Really breathe, inhaling rest and exhaling tension. Try this guided meditation focused on the breath.
- Catch, challenge and change (key steps in stress-free thinking). For example, catch your invented predictions—your “this could happen”—then challenge and dispute these “going to” exaggerations. Finally, choose a more realistic focus and set of thoughts that are in the present.
- Rid yourself of “demanding” thoughts, “awful” thoughts, “I can’t bear it” thoughts, and “other self-depreciative” thoughts.
- Become a “nevertheless” or “regardless” thinker who is confident that whatever happens, “I’ll handle it.”
- Contact a transformational coach to be your “battle buddy.” This coach will help you shift your current, self-disturbing and irrational thinking to make room for the healthy, happy, worry-free life you desire.
Thriving Instead of Coping Through Stress
Many people are focused on “resiliency.” Mantell defines this as “the psychological mechanism that keeps people going and allows them to thrive instead of just survive. It helps them to see every setback as a setup for a stronger comeback.” An apt analogy he gives from physical training is that to build a muscle, first we must break down the muscle.
Mantell explains that the building blocks of resilience consist of three components: a) “I have” b) “I am” and c) “I can.”
“I have” means you have support around you such that you have the ability to trust the world and people in it. Successful people are able to let people get close to them without fear of harm. They have mentors they respect, and in whom they have confidence. By trusting others to help, successful people avoid feeling sad, angry and vulnerable in the face of impending failure.
“I am” means you have encouragement in developing the inner strengths of confidence, unconditional self-acceptance and responsibility. Successful people, free of the inner fears of failure, believe themselves to be autonomous, independent and free to make their own decisions, including their mistakes.
“I can” means you have acquired the interpersonal and problem-solving skills to take action. Successful people are free of the psychological blocks that get in the way of developing initiative. They are able to work diligently at a task free of negative thinking.
Be Kind to Yourself
Self-compassion is linked to positivity, happiness and health, none of which are part of the stress equation. “We need ‘me’ time for our happiness to unwind, allow time for self-discovery, reboot our brains, improve our focus and promote our relationships,” Mantell says. “Compassion requires that we notice suffering, in others and in ourselves, with no judgment. Compassionate people understand humanity is filled with imperfection and take no pity. They simply recognize that suffering is a common, shared, human occurrence. Mindfully bring this comforting understanding to yourself without over-identifying with your negative thoughts or feelings.”
An eloquent way of advising us to give ourselves grace. Stop stressing out over that which you cannot control.
Try This Exercise: The ABCDEs of Stress
“People don’t just get upset. They contribute to their upsetness.” –Albert Ellis, Ph.D.
Mantell offers this simple method, based on psychologist Albert Ellis’ famed ABCDE model, as an exercise for turning negative thoughts around to nip stress in the bud.
Create 5 columns and fill them out as follows:
- Column A = List the external activating event(s) that you believe triggered your feelings of stress. “The stock market fell by 3,000 points today.”
- Column B = Write down your irrational beliefs about the event. “I’m going to lose all of my investments and have no money for retirement.”
- Column C = Ask yourself what are the emotional consequences, the feelings, that result from the erroneous beliefs you have about the event (stress, anxiety, sadness)? “Fear, stress, worry, anger.”
- Column D = Dispute and challenge your erroneous beliefs. “Your investment horizon is much longer than what’s happening today. You don’t lose any of your investment unless you panic and take it out of the market.”
- Column E = Note the new, positive effects and healthier feelings of substituting factual beliefs for erroneous ones (healthier, positive, more resilient emotions that enable you to get on with life in a more fulfilling way). “Yes, that’s more rational. I feel calmer realizing that I haven’t lost any of my investment.”
The key, says Mantell, is to understand that you have the ability to create “healthy negative feelings” such as concern, feeling blue, feeling a bit worried, annoyed or irritated, or you have the skill to create “Unhealthy negative feelings” such as stress, anxiety, depression or rage.
Remember, as always, “the link is what you think.”
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