10 well-researched actions you can take to reduce stress

The pressure is on – University campuses, NPA charges, large and growing income inequality with the SA economy only growing at 0.4% – it seems that we are all feeling it.  How do you perform under pressure? How do you stay calm and objective when faced with a stressful and unplanned event interrupting your week/month/year? A friend of mine refers to times like these as toothpaste moments. You don’t really know what is inside of you until the tube comes under pressure!

Toothpaste moments are seldom pleasant but they can teach you a lot about yourself and make you respond better next time. To stay buoyant and make wise decisions in such circumstances is something you want.

As a UCT lecturer I have struggled during this uncertain time.  There are many students, staff members, parents and other stakeholders who would no doubt say the same thing. My personal struggle has often been around what I should be doing during this time.  With so much out of my control, what controllable actions can I take?  The serenity prayer sums it up:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

One thing I do know is that stress is often getting the better of me.  Stress reduces your ability to make informed decisions, enjoy family and remain hopeful. This is especially true when you are experiencing prolonged periods of stress.  An article by Dr. Travis Bradberry has helped me during this time.  He writes that stress literally changes your brain:

The study… found that the onset of stress entices the brain into growing new cells responsible for improved memory. However, this effect is only seen when stress is intermittent. As soon as the stress continues beyond a few moments into a prolonged state, it suppresses the brain’s ability to develop new cells.

He then fortunately mentions 10 actions that you can take to reduce stress.  The full article is here but I have shortened it below.

These are not uncontrollable. You can choose to respond in times of pressure with these actions.

Here is what people who stay calm under pressure do:

  1. They Appreciate What They Have – Taking time to contemplate what you’re grateful for isn’t merely the “right” thing to do. It also improves your mood, because it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%.  Gretchen Rubin, author of the Happiness Project, is an accessible expert in this area (website here).
  2. They Avoid Asking “What If?” – “What if?” statements throw fuel on the fire of stress and worry. Things can go in a million different directions, and the more time you spend worrying about the possibilities, the less time you’ll spend focusing on taking action that will calm you down and keep your stress under control. Calm people know that asking “what if? will only take them to a place they don’t want—or need—to go.
  3. They Stay Positive – Positive thoughts help make stress intermittent by focusing your brain’s attention onto something that is completely stress-free. You have to give your wandering brain a little help by consciously selecting something positive to think about. Think about your day and identify one positive thing that happened, no matter how small. If you can’t think of something from the current day, reflect on the previous day or even the previous week. Or perhaps you’re looking forward to an exciting event that you can focus your attention on.
  4. They Disconnect – When you make yourself available to your work 24/7, you expose yourself to a constant barrage of stressors. Forcing yourself offline and even—gulp!—turning off your phone gives your body a break from a constant source of stress. Studies have shown that something as simple as an email break can lower stress levels.
  5. They Limit Their Caffeine Intake – Drinking caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline. Adrenaline is the source of the “fight-or-flight” response, a survival mechanism that forces you to stand up and fight or run for the hills when faced with a threat. The fight-or-flight mechanism sidesteps rational thinking in favor of a faster response.
  6. They Sleep – When you sleep, your brain literally recharges, shuffling through the day’s memories and storing or discarding them (which causes dreams), so that you wake up alert and clear-headed. Your self-control, attention, and memory are all reduced when you don’t get enough—or the right kind—of sleep. Stressful situations often make you feel as if you have no time to sleep, but taking the time to get a decent night’s sleep is often the one thing keeping you from getting things under control.
  7. They Squash Negative Self-Talk – A big step in managing stress involves stopping negative self-talk in its tracks. The more you ruminate on negative thoughts, the more power you give them. Most of our negative thoughts are just that—thoughts, not facts. When you find yourself believing the negative and pessimistic things your inner voice says, it’s time to stop and write them down. Literally stop what you’re doing and write down what you’re thinking. If your statements still look like facts once they’re on paper, take them to a friend or colleague you trust and see if he or she agrees with you. Identifying and labeling your thoughts as thoughts by separating them from the facts will help you escape the cycle of negativity and move toward a positive new outlook.
  8. They Reframe Their Perspective – Stress and worry are fueled by our own skewed perception of events. It’s easy to think that unrealistic deadlines, unforgiving bosses, and out-of-control traffic are the reasons we’re so stressed all the time. You can’t control your circumstances, but you can control how you respond to them.  A great way to correct this unproductive thought pattern is to list the specific things that actually are going wrong or not working out. Most likely you will come up with just some things—not everything—and the scope of these stressors will look much more limited than it initially appeared.
  9. They Breathe – The easiest way to make stress intermittent lies in something that you have to do everyday anyway: breathing. The practice of being in the moment with your breathing will begin to train your brain to focus solely on the task at hand and get the stress monkey off your back. When you’re feeling stressed, take a couple of minutes to focus on your breathing. Close the door, put away all other distractions, and just sit in a chair and breathe. The goal is to spend the entire time focused only on your breathing, which will prevent your mind from wandering.
  10. They Use Their Support System – It’s tempting, yet entirely ineffective, to attempt tackling everything by yourself. To be calm and productive, you need to recognize your weaknesses and ask for help when you need it. This means tapping into your support system when a situation is challenging enough for you to feel overwhelmed.  Asking for help will mitigate your stress and strengthen your relationships with those you rely upon.

Whatever your views on SA politics, education, economy or inequality – if you have reduced your stress levels, engagement is bound to be more fruitful.  Let’s take the 10 actions suggested, better protect our brains, and make better decisions to love each other.

Paul Maughan

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