I was halfway across the campsite on a moonless night, when I realised there was a dark shape in front of me. It didn’t move and at first, I thought it was a bush. I am somewhat short-sighted, and my night-time vision is woeful, but then my headtorch caught a pair of eyes staring intently at me.
The kangaroo stood waist height, so it wasn’t a big one, but big enough to make me jump. We both stood still, eyeing each other for a moment, then I walked on past, while the kangaroo remained transfixed.
Stress is one of those things that can cause a lot of angst when we feel we’ve reached the limit of our coping skills. Tipping over into the danger zone of too much stress, whether short or long, triggers the stress response that is primarily designed to keep us safe.
This physiological mechanism has remained the same since when it was important for Homo sapiens to be able to distinguish sabre-toothed tigers, giant predatory kangaroos, and other animals keen to make us their breakfast.
While Skippy has far more to fear from us today than we do from him, when faced with a novel situation associated with uncertainty and potential threat, we take flight, put up a fight or freeze. That surge of adrenaline-inducing wobbly knees, a pounding heart and sweaty brow.
Little wonder stress has developed a bad name for itself, after all, the association between severe chronic stress, illness and disease has long been recognised.
But what if you could hack your stress to make it more useful to you?
The bell-shaped curve of stress vs performance, familiar to many of us, shows very clearly how a little bit of stress does us good. It raises us out of apathy and boredom, piques our interest, makes us curious to learn new skills and improves our performance.
Teachers know that the mere mention of a test is sufficient to raise stress levels in their pupils to stimulate their motivation to study hard and do well.
Well, that’s the theory anyway.
How else can you make stress more useful to you?
1. Recognise your body and brain is a two-way street
What influences one will impact the other and vice versa. The stress response induces physiological changes in the body that we recognise as indicating, that we’re afraid, or excited. So before you step up to deliver your first public speech, rather than seeing those sweaty palms as a sign of just how nervous you are, try reframing this as your body getting you ready to meet that challenge.
Stepping into that fear does two things.
Firstly, that confident movement taking you up the stairs (without tripping) onto the stage, standing tall and head high, provides your brain messages telling you “You’ve got this,” triggering a little extra dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with reward and motivation.
Secondly, it influences how others see you.
You may notice a slight quaver to your voice, or recognise you are speaking in a higher register than normal, but what others see is a confident person walking on stage with an important message to share and they will reward you with their rapt attention and loud applause!
They’ll probably also tell you how brilliant you were.
2. Channel your focus
When highly stressed you may have noticed your brain feels foggy, you can’t think straight, in fact you can’t think at all. Your mind becomes a maelstrom of whirling thoughts, and your breath is short and shallow. Now is the perfect time to channel that energy to where it’s needed – the task at hand.
In this hyperreactive state, it’s normal to find you’re jumping from one thought to another, distracted by external noise and people.
Now’s the time to press pause and lengthen the breath both on the inhale and exhale.
Aim for around 6 breaths a minute to feel the full benefit.
I like square breathing because it’s easy and effective.
Breathe slowly in for the count of four, hold the breath for the count of four, breath out slowly for the count of four, hold for four and repeat. Try to feel your diaphragm rise and fall with each breath. Easy as.
Slowly down your breathing impacts the autonomic nervous system, reducing the stress response, slows your pulse and helps you to regain control of your mental faculties. Now you are ready to channel that reclaimed focus to achieve, what before was stressing you out.
3. Take a second look
In the heat of the moment, the thing or person can appear very intimidating or frightening, and BIG! While it’s important not to downplay the potential seriousness of a situation, it’s helpful to maintain perspective. If you know you’re a bit prone to catastrophising, (it’s OK, I’ve been there on more than one occasion myself) challenge that thought!
Ask, what’s really going on here?
Is the intensity of your emotional response blinding you to the reality?
You may be terrified of spiders and snakes (my hairdresser is petrified of moths) but is the mere presence of said insect in the salon, sufficient justification to break the glass on the fire alarm and dial triple zero for help?
Our brains are brilliant at storytelling and concocting their own narrative. This is especially true when you don’t have all the facts and are worried things could be worse than you first suspected.
If the size of the problem is getting bigger with every retelling, ask yourself, is this true, or is it another episode in the Downton Abbey saga of my life that I wrote my own script for?
This is where checking the facts from a reliable source (i.e., preferably not Facebook/Meta formerly known as Prince) and filling in the gaps helps to keep things in perspective and allows you to draw on your previous experiences of similar situations that you handled well.
4. Neutralise fear with full sensory engagement
When one of my former flatmates was going through a stressful time, she recognised her anxiety was getting the better of her. With exams looming, she knew she had to do something to get her mind and emotions back under control. We were living near a large area of parkland, so each day she would head off to spend time in the park, looking, listening, and feeling what was around her. She chose to engage all her senses as a positive distraction noticing the rough texture of bark, the sound of twigs snapping under her feet and the wind swirling through the tops of the trees and the cold sting of air on her cheeks to make herself feel better. Taking time out on a regular basis especially in a green or blue environment has been shown to be highly effective at enhancing mental wellbeing and reducing stress.
Left to our own devices we can terrify ourselves with our own thoughts. When not focused on a particular task we slip into what’s called the default mode network where we do all our future planning or worry about the past. Sensory distraction such as my friend used or using mindfulness as a meditation practice or informally when engaged with an unfocused activity can help calm the monkey chatter going on in our mind.
5. Call in the cavalry
If you’ve recognised your stress is staying too high, and it’s getting you down or making you horribly anxious, it’s time to call in the troops and ask for help.
We are human and as such are vulnerable, sometimes irrational and we frequently berate ourselves for our perceived mistakes and stuff-ups. Feeling guilty for not being able to handle our emotions is common, but guilt can at least propel you to act.
This is working with a therapist, psychologist or counsellor can prove life-changing. If you’ve lived with chronic anxiety, suffered from severe stress causing you to become ill either physically or mentally you don’t have to go it alone.
Stress is something we all experience to a greater or lesser degree every day of our lives.
We wouldn’t be here without it.
Rather than seeing it as the bad guy, destined to cause you suffering and pain, try changing your glasses, to gain a different perspective and use that stress to help you shine.
If stress is getting you down, I’d love to invite you to join the Feeling Good Doing Great Webinar series. This series of monthly webinars across 2022 will help you to discover more about what wellbeing is, how it works and what it includes.
Each month we’ll examine a different facet of lifestyle and wellbeing where you can determine where you’re already doing well, where there may be room for improvement and many tips and ideas to try out along the way.
The first webinar at 8 am AWST on 1st Feb provides an overview of what mental wellbeing is about, and it’s free and open to all. Register for free here.
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase.
If psychological safety, resilience and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.