Switch On to Stress: 7 Science-Driven, Heart-Led Steps to Banish Stress for Good
Stress kills. Literally. A glass of red wine can make us healthier. Ten glasses will result in terrible hangover and possibly alcohol poisoning. By the same token, a little stress stimulates us to dig within for new ways to grow. This has been termed eustress (eu as in eudaimonia: Happy, positive). Too many unresolved problems can often lead to distress.
When we are under constant low-grade distress—and it’s estimated that over 80 percent of us are all the time—this begins to hurt us. When we are stressed, our nervous system tightens up and we lose our creativity. Stress stops us learning, and if we aren’t learning, we aren’t growing. Stress, AKA fear, corrodes the curiosity and courage we need to experiment with the new. It is almost impossible to play big in life, if we are scared of looking like idiots, going bankrupt, or being rejected. Stress kills creativity and kills us too. Whereas small amounts of stress help us focus, engage, and learn, chronic or elevated stress burns us out, literally as well as metaphorically. People who live near airports and deal with the stress of giant airplanes roaring above them have higher rates of cardiac arrest than those who don’t. People who deal with a controlling or uncommunicative boss have a 60 percent higher chance of developing coronary heart disease than those who don’t. Stress leads to tangible changes inside all the cells of the body. Specific genes start to express proteins, which leads to inflammation; and chronic inflammation is associated with killers such as heart disease and cancer. Over time, stress reduces our ability to prevent ageing, heal wounds, fight infections, and even be successfully immunised. Unmanaged stress, simply from having a sense of disempowerment at work, can be more dangerous than smoking or high cholesterol.
Whether stress is due to worry, fear, confusion, over-work, or being overwhelmed, if we let our powerful biological stress response dominate our everyday lives, we may survive to pass on our genes . . . but are unlikely to thrive as we do so.
So here is a 7 step process for banishing stress for good, taken from Switch On: How to Unleash your Creative Spirit with the New Science of Breakthrough
1) BREATHE, STOP (AND SHAKE)
When we are stressed, adrenaline gets pumped throughout the body, increasing our heart rate and making us breathe fast and shallow. So its a sure way to tell if we are stressed out. Just one, easy deep breath – ideally from your stomach not your neck – will reset the system a little and shift you toward relaxation. Try it right now! Stress also tends to leave a build up of energy within that keeps us out of balance. A great way to discharage it quickly (so we don’t turn the charge ito anger or fear) is to shake, jiggle or dance it out. Even a 1 minute nano-rave in your bedroom or the toilet at work will have a massive impact on your stress levels.
2) GET CURIOUS
Your upper brain contains, amongst other things, your prefrontal cortex – which is in charge of attention, motivation and executive thinking. It doesn’t work very well when under stress. In fact, we have to wait until we’re calm before it provides us with its wisdom. So when under stress, our body.mind relies on habit rather than engaging in the moment-by- moment act of pure creativity. As you breathe deeply, actively choose to engage your upper brain, A great way to do this is to get curious about why you are feeling stress. Curiosity hacks tyne stress response and engages your upper brian automatically… which shifts you into reflection rather than rumination (when we toss worries around our mind over and over again)
3) HUG IT OUT
Give someone (or even yourself) a hug. Hugging releases oxytocin, which reins in our stressed-out sympathetic nervous system, and seems to drive the repair of brain tissue and neurones. So find someone you love or like and ask them for a hug. See if you can hug for over a minute, which really gives your system a chance to chill out.
The insula in our cerebral cortex integrates information from the brain and body together. Advanced meditators, experienced warriors, and top athletes have a highly developed insula. They share a heightened ability to sense what’s going on in their bodies and act on it. US Navy special forces personnel show increased activation in their insula when they anticipate a change in emotional state, which helps them stay in peak condition during moments of stress on the battlefield. Elite troops and meditators who have increased insula activity also have an enhanced vagus nerve, which helps them perform better under stress. The insula can even be directly stimulated to create feelings of ecstasy, bliss, and oneness with the universe! Just a few minutes of meditation each day, of any sort, can start to have a major impact. See our Adventurer’s Guide to Thriving for around 30 different ways to meditate.
5) CHANGE SOMETHING WITHIN
If we are stuck or stressed-out, it’s because we have not yet realized that some belief or habit within us is past its expiry date. We will keep on feeling more and more pressure from the world around us—whether in the form of a new job, fights with a lover or a new health challenge—until we reach a breaking point. So if we want to destress, we have to change something within. When we enter the stress response, nobody has injected us with cortisol or adrenalin. Someone or something threatening us, annoying us, or even hitting us doesn’t cause our mind and body to enter a stress response. It triggers it. The stress is already in there, waiting to be triggered. If we feel any stress inside us, then only we are ultimately responsible for it. This doesn’t mean we are to blame. It simply means that our stress is our own, and the only way to change it is to own it fully and stop blaming anything or anybody else.
6) FEEL THE LOVE
The easiest way to change something within, and the only thing that will work permanently with a stubborn anxiety, is to reconnect our hearts. Feelings of love and connection —all underpinned by the biology of oxytocin, the insula, prefrontal cortex, vagus nerve, and more— melt away stress. Love is the great synaptic solvent that liquefies old stressful beliefs and habits (and the neuronal pathways that encode them), allowing relaxation, energy and creative to burst free. Research shows that when feeling romantic love, people think more expansively and less analytically, have a much longer-term outlook, and are more creative. When they are turned on but not in love, they think in a more short-term and less creative way. So using this insight, we can choose to feel love for ourselves and our life. Reconnect your heart and you can rewire your brain to think in a new way, one that doesn’t lead to stress
7) GRATITUDE ATTITUDE
Being grateful, even for tiny things like the fact that strawberries exist, can short-circuit your stress response, stopping you reacting negatively and opening you up instead. For example, you might be grateful for your health; a child’s eyes you saw on the street today; your own existence against all the odds of nature; the heart that pumps to keep you alive and the brain that works tirelessly to engage with the world; salted peanuts; your Converse shoes; the sound of deep house music; birdsong; air travel; the art of Banksy or Botticelli; or the smell of fresh bread. What are you feeling grateful for right now? Can you get to 20 things in 60 seconds? Can you get to 30? 40?