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?

ELLE (Australia) - - Contents -

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”

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