By Jemma Western

Stress is (and I quote Dr Sarah McKay here) ‘a highly nuanced orchestrated response to a real or imagined threat or challenge’. The reason we feel stress is because our brain is trying to keep us safe by responding to threatening situations in an appropriate manner. But – if we’re in a stress state for too long, it is toxic to both our brains and body and can lead to all sorts of physical and mental health problems.

The reason behind this is there is a part of our brain that handles our stress response (the amygdala – sort of like a night club bouncer who scans for threat all the time). VERY simply put, one of the things the biochemistry of the amygdala can do is activate a part of our brain called the hippocampus (looks like a seahorse!) whose main job is learning and memory. The really interesting thing is that if there is too little or too much arousal from the amygdala, it actually inhibits the hippocampus from learning. You have to get that sweet spot – which is where the main difference between pressure and stress comes in. If you feel pressure, chances are you’re hitting that sweet spot!

Pressure is a good stress – it motivates us and helps facilitate all sorts of change and can actually build our memory formation AND our attention.

The trick is to build our resilience to help us thrive in stressful situations, and allow us to feel the pressure, but not burn out because the (real or imaginary) pressures have exceeded our perceived ability to cope (stress).

Some of my simple Top Tips for coping with stress:

  • Biggest is to do intentional breathing!! I use the 4x4x4 method (breath in for 4, hold for 4, out for 4). By doing this you’re essentially tricking they brain into a calm state because the deep breathing slows the heart rate down, which then sends messages to the brain and tell the brain its safe.
  • Take a break. You will be more productive, and you do have time to do this.
  • Move and feed your body – it doesn’t have to be 2 hours lifting weights in the gym, but even a simple walk in some fresh air for 10 minutes can help calm the body down. And similarly, feed it delicious but healthy things – we may want to skip dinners if we’re working too much and under stress. This is the worst thing you can do!!
  • Practice sleep hygiene
  • Grounding techniques (I like to play the ABC game if my mind is racing – think of a topic (Say countries of the world) and come up with an answer for every letter). Similarly, another way to ground yourself is to use your 5 senses (for example – Find something that feels nice to the touch – I like silk velvet myself! Or perhaps something that smells nice that you can carry around – I use a bottle of lemon scented essential oil. Another simple one is to think of a colour, and name at least 3 things you can see in that colour right where you are in that moment)
  • Journaling and practising gratitude. But make sure to keep this up and make it regular rather than a one-time shot.
  • Practice mindfulness – there some really great apps out there like Calm and Headspace which can help with this, but there are also free resources on YouTube.
  • Focus on the small things that bring you joy – for me it includes looking after my (very extensive) plant collection, dressing up in my beautiful vintage 30s and 40s clothes for absolutely no reason at all, spending time with my partner and my cat, or having an hour’s long bubble bath. They work for me – but different things will work for you. Make sure you make a list of them, because I can guarantee when you’re in a stressful place, you’ll probably forget and will seem like too much trouble!
  • Engage your brain – again, things like crosswords, reading or learning something new. I’m attempting to learn how to sew at the moment, but for the greatest bang for your buck, things like learning a new language, a musical instrument, or even how to sail utilise more areas of your brain than anything else.
  • Finally – notice what your stress looks like so you can do something about it. You WILL have a physical response. For me, I get tight shoulders and what feels like a lump in my chest, but stress can show up in numerous different ways. Headaches, racing heart and/or thoughts, inability to concentrate; there are just too numerous physical responses that people feel to list here. Another key way to notice is if you take an extended break for Christmas or a holiday – how often do you get a cold? Chances are, you’ve been unwittingly working under a stress response for too long and have just been coping! This is a great chance to now re-evaluate what you’re doing

One more thing to say – there are crutches we can use which aren’t healthy and can be harmful– it pains me to say it but a bottle of wine a night won’t help! So, making sure your strategies for coping with stress are healthy ones is so important. This list is by no means exhaustive but hopefully offers some food for thought and gives you some useful advice of how to manage in times of stress and crisis.

If you’re interested in finding out more about stress and developing resilience to it, here are a couple great resources which helped me with this:

  • Tony Schwartz – “The Way You’re Working Isn’t Working”
  • Shaun Achor – “The Happiness Advantage”

Jemma is  a leadership and behavioural expert with a particular interest in emerging talent and 1st/2nd line management.  For more information on how we can help your you and your organisation with building resilience, contact us.