TAKE THE PRESSURE ON
STAYING CALM AND COLLECTED IN THE FACE OF CALAMITY IS VITAL. REBECCA DOUGLAS ASKS: CAN WE LEARN TO DO IT BETTER?
Traffic jam? Scary preso? How to cope with extra stress.
LIFE IS FULL OF STRESS – your dental appointment keeps getting rescheduled, Brooklyn Nine-nine being cancelled and then thankfully not (phew!), and the 43,000 emails in your inbox.
It seems the ability to roll with the blows and keep on truckin' determines how successful you'll be at navigating modern-day existence. Each person's tolerance of the varying degrees of life's strife is different – someone's Krakatoa is another's cracking good yarn after a few wines on a Friday night. And while we'd all like to stress less, the most common response to our modern world's many stressors is to “calm down” and “take a step back”. But it's not exactly the most helpful advice: if you've got three kids and a presentation due in two days, or even just, you know, one of those two things, there's nothing you can do to “take a step back”. What you need is a more effective stress strategy.
Is it possible, then, to actually increase our ability to handle stress? Research says yes, by not only forming the intention to improve, but also by setting achievable tasks to build your tolerance over time. A study in 2015 concluded that volitional personality change (attempting to alter certain aspects of your personality) is possible by gradually exposing yourself to challenging situations, similar to stress inoculation training used in the military.
Dr Rose Aghdami is a coaching psychologist and creator of the Resilientme app. She suggests that increasing our stress threshold is a matter of undoing bad habits. “Many of our responses in life, including the way we handle stress, are learnt, not inherent. Therefore it follows that unhealthy or unhelpful ways people respond to stress can be unlearnt.”
Stress itself is not necessarily bad. Short-lived bouts of it (running for the bus, say) can actually increase our cognitive performance and boost memory, prompting us to work ahead of deadlines and achieve our goals. But it becomes a problem when we reach our limit – and stay there. If we skirt that line for too long and experience chronic stress, it can lead to burnout and associated health problems, like high blood pressure, a lower libido, memory problems, weight fluctuations, and a compromised immune system. And that's not to mention all the unhealthy coping mechanisms we use to unwind at the end of a tough day (red wine, white wine, all the wines).
In the classic fight-or-flight response, the amygdala in the brain springs into action by activating emotions like fear or anger when it perceives threats. Adrenaline increases heart rate and sends blood to your muscles, ready to bust a move away from danger. While this was helpful when our caveperson ancestors were, you know, fleeing lions, nowadays, the response can actually be harmful, says psychologist Libby Thompson. “Our stress reactions are well developed to deal with life or death situations, but they can be a little strong for everyday stress caused by a broken photocopier, or being stuck in traffic,” she says. And while the stress reaction in our body is controlled by the body autonomically, there's evidence to suggest that we can adapt our responses over time. “We used to think we couldn't consciously exert much control over these systems,” says Thompson.”but we're beginning to realise we have more control than we initially perceived.”
While the approach used by Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof aka “The Iceman” – who increases his stress threshold using meditation, breathing exercises and exposure to cold – might seem a little, er, intense, Thompson insists that his findings work. To wit: the guy's broken 26 world records and completed a halfmarathon – barefoot – above the Arctic Circle. Hof recommends regular cold showers – or even just exposure to bursts of cold – to reset your body's response to both physical and mental stress.
If cold showers aren't your thing, try a bout of slow breathing. Thompson says another key to increasing your stress threshold is improving your vagal tone, which means slowing the space between your heartbeats. Spend five minutes daily slowing and deepening your breathing, with short pauses in between inhaling and exhaling. Having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.
Thompson has worked with many first responders and military personnel, and there are lessons, too, to be taken from the army (bear with us). Military stress inoculation training has three phases. Firstly, conceptualisation: raising your awareness of what stresses you out and how it affects your performance (in real life: pinpointing that one meeting that never fails to get on your nerves, and how you react to it). Next comes skills training or building coping techniques (doodling on your notepad while your colleague drones on about “mapping solutions for scalability”), and finally, simulating stressful environments. Soldiers are taught to mentally rehearse responses to stressful situations (apologising to your boss for being late) and practise rapid decision-making with limited information so the process becomes second nature. Here, overlearning is sanctioned; repeating stressful tasks beyond the point of proficiency, so you can make like a robot and do them on autopilot. By figuring out your stressors and practising a response to them, over and over, you can prepare for, and even anticipate them, increasing your capacity to meet those challenges. And ultimately, dealing with stress better – rather than simply avoiding it – will have benefits beyond meeting your sales targets. “Research has shown that resilient people are less likely to become ill during difficult times, are more likely to succeed, and generally feel more optimistic,” says Dr Aghdami. In other words, taking a leaf out of the combat cognitive training book will help you futureproof yourself against the lemons life throws at you… and turn them into a tequila sunrise.
“The ability to roll with the blows and keep on truckin’ determines how successful you’ll be at navigating modern-day existence”