What stress is doing to us and how to deal with it

Whenever I hear other people describe me, it’s most often one of or a combination of the following words:

  • Quiet
  • Calm
  • Relaxed

So why would I care about stress when most words that describe me seem to be directly disassociated with stress?

Well, one of the lessons that I want to convey in this track sessions is that each and everyone of us can be affected by stress. Sometimes it’s visible and sometimes not. So just because it doesn’t seem that somebody is affected by stress, that might not be true.

But I also found that there are indeed some things that I do regularly which other people don’t. And these habits might be the foundation of why I seem to be less stressed that some of the people around me.

Let’s talk some biology!

… but first, let’s go back a little bit.

Who knows who that is?

I don‘t really know either. And it actually doesn‘t have anything to do with the point I‘m trying to make. But it‘s a dinosaur.

People who study our past have actually found that our early ancestors lived in a time where the dinosaurs were already long gone. But it‘s much easier to find royalty free pictures of dinosaurs than it is to find some 10.000 year old Instagram archives.

People back in those days lived very different lives than we are today. However, they already had the same basic needs that we still have today. Food, warmth, security, intimacy. Apart from that, they didn’t have many chances to worry about things other than that…

Because of fellas like this. I think it‘s hard to argue that for our ancestors, ensuring that their basic needs are fulfilled was quite a lot harder than it is for us today.

You don‘t have to worry getting attacked by wild tigers. Mostly. I‘ve heard story from colleagues about some wild tiger encounters. But there are many other wild predators, like bears, wolves, boars. I would say to encounter any of these, you have to go out of your way. Living in towns and cities pretty much guarantees that you’re safe.

Agriculture and housing is making sure that we’re always well feed, warm and safe. Sometimes a little bit too much.

But to get back to the topic… What happens if you encounter a tiger like this?

The biological stress response

Your body is going to include stress hormones: adrenaline and cortisol.

This is good if you actually have to fight off a wild creature. It‘s making sure that you can operate at peak capacity so that your chance of survival is at the maximum.

This stress response is pretty much the same in present day humans.

BUT

Have you ever been in the situation where you had to make a difficult phone call with somebody?

I had a status update meeting last week where I had to tell a customer that our promised developments are not complete and would be delayed by a couple of weeks.

From a biological viewpoint, the stress response is actually the same. But the scenario which is causing it is very different. I‘ve read that in a phone call, what is coming out of the phone is also some very distorted sounds that are only interpreted by our brains as another persons voice.

So in this scenario, we are dealing with a purely virtual threat. You‘re sitting in a comfy chair, as far away from any actual danger as you can be. And you don‘t undergo any physical changes from before the phone call, to having the phone call, to hanging up. You‘re still sitting in the same chair, unless you at some point got off and are now lying under the table. I don‘t judge.

The main point is, that you get in and out of a stressful situation without actually having to deal with any actual threats to your life. And the main way to get cortisol out of your body is with sweating.

Imagine being the guy in the red shirt on the right. He must be quite stressed about all of the noise from the ‚meeting‘ going on next to him.

Noise, temperature, lights, smell can all be triggers for stress response. Even though there is also no actual threat or danger. It goes back to our primal instincts.

We can go even further…

When I was growing up, I heard that we live in an age of information overload. You just started to have access to the Internet and in turn, access to more information and knowledge than you can think of.

You no longer have to go into a library to find some specific book. You just google it.

But I have a feeling, that we are, right now, already past the age of information overload. We are now living in an age of opinion overload.

These days, everybody has a platform to share their particular opinions and points of view on everything. Just a few decades ago, it was very easy to avoid all drama involving some remote family members. Nowadays, the drama is there, whenever you look at your phone.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, news outlets reporting about the latest disaster killing dozens or hundreds of people.

These are all things dragging you down and inducing stress. But there are even further removed from actually being threatening or dangerous to you than having to make a difficult phone call or send an email. Because these are events happening on the other side of the world.

But even people sharing good things can give you a sense of stress and urgency.

10 habits of highly effective people, the 5 easy steps to become a billionaire, the number one strategy to be liked by everyone, the essential mindset. People all share their one true strategy which is supposed to solve all of your problems.

There is an epidemic of ‘influencers’ whose sole job it is to show you an attractive lifestyle. A lifestyle which you should be striving for. According to advertising companies.

But what it is actually doing is make people miserable. You are shown things which are unattainable. You are being shown that the things that you should value and desire in life are purely materialistic.

The threats to our livelihood are not just virtual, they’re hypothetical. Made up.

Stress relief strategies

When I did some research into the topic of stress management, I found that there are 4 main categories of stress relief.

Cognitive, physical, sensory and emotional.

Most methods of stress relief fit into one or more of these categories. Which category and type of methods are the most effective depends entirely on the individual. For me, for example, I find all for categories to be effective, but I get the best results from cognitive and physical, closely followed by emotional methods.

Let’s go through each of these categories, one by one, and try to define what the category represents and what some examples are for stress relief strategies.

Physical Stress Relief

I’m starting with physical, since that should be the most obvious one. It’s going back to our primal methods of stress relief. Exercising to make use of the adrenaline and to get rid of the cortisol.

  • Team Sports
  • Boxing
  • Running/Jogging
  • Yoga
  • Dancing
  • Hitting the gym
  • Muscle relaxation / stretching
  • Play with your children

There is a strong connection between mind and body. If you exercise very regularly (a couple of times per week), you will also build mental resilience to stress.

Sensory Stress Relief

Sensory inputs like noise, smell and lights can be a source of stress but also an effective method of relieving stress.

  • Breathing
  • Sauna
  • Warm bath
  • Soothing music
  • Massages (giving a massage also works)
  • Walking barefoot, especially on the beach or in some water
  • Get in touch with nature
  • Listen to the birds, water, wind and trees
  • Watch some clouds
  • Smell the freshly cut grass
  • Feel the warmth on the sun on your skin

Cognitive Stress Relief

Now, we’re getting into the deep stuff.

Most sources of stress nowadays are made up in our own brains. The brain has a tendency to fill in gaps of information or knowledge with assumptions. And those can be very dangerous. Your brain is making up stress in your head by jumping to conclusions.

But that doesn’t mean that we’re powerless and should surrender to the inner workings of our brains. It is possible to take control of the ‚steering wheel‘. That is, by sort of re-programming your brain. You essentially want to train your brain to not jump to the worst possible conclusions. Instead, you want to replace the short cuts in your thinking with more reflected thoughts and calmness.

My favourite way of doing this is to repeat one of my personal mantras in my head. A mantra – for me – is just a general saying which resonates to me and gives greater perspective.

A couple of examples for such mantras:

  • If it rains, I’m happy. Because if I wasn’t happy, it would still be raining.
  • Life is not an emergency. We create emergencies by placing our own expectations and deadlines on things. If things don’t go the way you want, that’s okay. Because that’s just how life is.
  • Make peace with imperfection. Life is not perfect and that’s okay.
  • Gentle, relaxed people can be super-achievers. Work smarter, not harder.
  • Can I change something about the situation? Then why worry about it, just change it. If I can’t change it, then also, why worry about it?
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. Find out what is important in your life and live accordingly by dedicating time to your priorities. If something is bothering you, which is not directly threatening your priorities, then remember that it is just ‚small stuff‘.
  • Focus. If you’re overwhelmed, focus. Do only one thing at a time.
  • Whatever you’re doing, be mindful. Don’t go on auto-pilot because you will miss your life.
  • Block out disturbances and things that bother you. Turn off your phones notifications at night to not be bothered by work emails.

Emotional Stress Relief

Last category. I saved it for last because I believe that it is the most powerful of the four.

Before going into this, a little bit more background. Earlier, I said that there are 2 stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. But there is actually a third: Oxytocin.

If you’ve heard of oxytocin before, then it’s probably from stories about child birth. After a baby is born, the mother is inducing tons of oxytocin. It is known as the ‚bonding‘ or ‚cuddling‘ hormone. The reason for that – from an evolutionary perspective – is simply that the mother should create as strong as a bond as possible with her child so that it is certain that she will take care of it.

But there is a side effect. Oxytocin also releases stress. So in that moment – right after child birth, when a mother just had to endure countless hours of indescribable pain and after spending months and months lending her body to grow her baby – there is just bliss. Not a single worry in the world. That’s how powerful the effect of oxytocin is.

So how does it work exactly in a stressful situation?

On top of adrenaline and cortisol, oxytocin is released. Though, in much smaller quantities. Oxytocin wants to make you seek help and support from others. And also, the effects of oxytocin is amplified by female hormone oestrogen and diminished by male hormone testosterone.

This explains a lot. Have you ever been in a situation where you were lost in a car? What’s the very typical response to this situation? The man tries his best to find the way himself. The woman, on the other hand, wants to ask some random person on the street.

But that doesn’t mean that men are not able to tap into the potential of oxytocin. It’s there, but it might require to consciously make an effort to ‚make use‘ of it.

  • Get together with family and/or friends. The activity doesn’t matter, it’s the company.
  • Get yourself a pet
  • Hug somebody
  • Smile! Smile at every person crossing your way. Most will smile back!
  • Ask for help. Get some fresh perspective or just and extra pair of hands to help out.
  • Offer support to others
  • Humor. Laughing releases endorphins and it’s contagious.
  • Gratitude. Turn your negativity bias around by noticing all the little good things that are happening. Write a letter to somebody you’re thankful for. Keep a journal.
  • Crying. Emotional crying, that is. Don’t put pepper in your eyes. Crying also gets rid of cortisol.
  • Singing. It’s also secretly a breathing exercise.

And finally, the golden rule.

Lose yourself in whatever you’re doing. Try to reach a state of flow. No strategy will work for you, if you’re busy worrying in your head.

That’s the reason exercise works so well. Because if you’re physically exhausted, you have no time to worry about anything in your head. But the same goes for anything which you’re doing mindfully. Try walking really, really, really slow. It’s hard and takes concentration. Which is exactly what you need to calm down and get out of your head.

Key takeaways

Now, for a quick summary.

We’ve looked at the stress response in past and present humans to determine that we are dealing with hugely different sources of stress today than our ancestors.

It is of utmost importance to keep your stress levels in check in order to mitigate damage to your physical and mental well-being.

I’ve listed out many different strategies of relieving stress. Here are the most important points:

  • Emotional stress relief is the most effective strategy
  • You have to build resilience to stress both physically and mentally
  • Develop a personal mantra which helps you stay grounded
  • Slow down. Focus on one thing at a time. Breathe.
  • Create your own toolkit so you have have something handy whenever you need it.

You have all the tools you need to face our stressful, modern world. It’s up to you to decide to use those tools.