Humans are wired to experience stress. Stress happens because we perceive something is a threat to us.
Our brains move into “stress response” mode, sending signals both through our nervous system and to the “thinking” part of our brain. This happens automatically when there’s something in our external or internal environment that appears like it could be harmful to us.
Every once-in-awhile, something is truly harmful. If you’re crossing a downtown street and notice a car barreling toward you, that would be harmful if it hit you. Your stress response and the emotions that come with it hopefully will kick in to help you quickly get back to the sidewalk.
The problem, of course, is that the same stress response kicks in when we’re not actually under a real threat. Like, before a public address, or an important meeting, or asking someone on a date, or when your kids won’t stop saying “Mom… Mom… Mommy… Mom.” In more succinct terms, life throws stressors our way.
Controlling stress can help us deal with it in the moments when we need to. If we can’t stop stress from happening, let’s get better at working with it when it shows up.
Simply Notice It
The first thing is simply to notice the feelings – emotionally & in our bodies – of the stress. Don’t run from it, just notice that it’s there.
The awareness helps us know there’s something to deal with. The “emotional bypassing” of ignoring it will cause a festering. Plus, we’re more likely to NOT take the best action.
Appraise the Stress
The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) research & practice finds that we appraise the stressor in two steps: primary & secondary.
Primary Appraisal: The judgment of the stressor’s relevance to our well-being. Do we think it’s going to be harmful in some way? This can be instinctual or learned.
Secondary Appraisal: The judgment of our resources we have to cope with the stressor. Do we believe that we have the skillset to move through it? Deep seated personal beliefs can come up here – both in helpful and unhelpful ways.
“Watering the Seeds”
What seeds do you water? MBSR borrows from ancient wisdom, which is backed by modern science of watering the seeds of suffering vs watering the seeds of resourcefulness.
You water the seed of suffering because you over-judge the relevance of the stressor (example: saying “This is really bad…”). You can also under-judge your resources to cope with the stressor (example: saying “I can’t deal with this…”).
Watering the “right” seeds allows you to put the stressor in a more balanced perspective or realize that you do have everything you need to cope already inside you. Which you do!
Where Is Your Attention?
Simple put, become aware of your primary and secondary appraisal of the stressor. All-to-often, we just react to the stressor and go with that reaction.
How often does stress derail your morning or even your day? Only to look back when you return to equilibrium and think: “well, that wasn’t worth it.”
Once you can be aware of how you are appraising the stress, you’ll know exactly how to best cope in the moment and take control of the situation.
Tools For Your Stress Response Tool Belt
Breathing: It’s proven that controlling your breath can enhance your return to equilibrium. Your parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with a calm state (not stressed), activates via controlled breath. Qualities of breath: slow – 5-7 breaths per minute; long – longer out breath than in breath; deep – from your abdomen; smooth; even.
Humming: Oddly enough, studies show that humming can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, too. Similar mind-body connection to that of breath work.
Connection with people: We’re social creatures. Find a friend to meet with, go to tea (not coffee or caffeinated stimulant… the stress is stimulating enough). Phone/FaceTime is okay. In person is best. Just don’t use it as a complaint fest that moves your attention away from your appraisals.
Shift Your Mindset: Take a “stress in enhancing” mindset. Studies show that if you look at stress response as the ability to increase your performance, you’ll actually use the mental focus, physiological elements to your advantage. Check out my recent article: Make Stress Your Friend for more on this mindset.
Bottom line is that if you’re human, you’re going to encounter stress. There’s no way around it. Know that you can respond instead of reacting. Use this simple method and these tools to control the stressor instead of it controlling you.