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Mastering stress – 7 tips to make stress work for you not against you

Surprise, surprise, stress is good for us. Yes, that’s right, despite all we’ve been told stress is good for us. The right kind in the right amounts.

Think about it for a moment. How would our immune system develop and be able to deal with all kinds of nasties if it wasn’t subjected to lots of different stressors as we went through childhood and on into adult life?

How does a vaccine work? We get a little bit of the virus and this prompts our immune system to develop the antibodies that will resist the full virus when it attacks us.

Stress works in the same way – a moderate amount makes us tougher, and can help us learn more skills to take on the next challenge.

When your heart is pounding, your breathing is fast and your muscles feel tense – that’s the adrenalin and cortisol racing through your body giving you the ability react quickly – the ‘flight or flight’ response.

What you do next is the key to making stress work for you.

1. See stress as helpful

How you think about your stress response really matters.

If you see it as helpful – that you’re getting more oxygen to the brain and your body is getting you powered up, ready to take on the challenge – this belief does two important things. Firstly, it makes you feel less anxious and more confident. Secondly, it keeps your blood vessels relaxed (rather than constricted, which, over time, can lead to a heart attack).

2. Reach out for social support

Connecting with other people enhances the physical benefits of the other hormone that your stress response has triggered – oxytocin.

Just like adrenalin, oxytocin is also released when we’re stressed, and it’s designed to get us to seek social connection. Known as the ‘hug drug’, oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and helps us recover faster from stress. So in addition to the ‘flight or flight’ response to stress, we also have this ‘tend and befriend’ response.

If there’s no one around, give yourself a hug. Put your right hand on your left shoulder and your left hand on your right shoulder. Let your chin relax down between your crossed arms and enjoy the feeling of good long hug.

3. Cut the stress short

Too much cortisol and adrenalin over a long period of time can lead to anxiety, depression, headaches, weight gain, and more health problems.

Stop imagining the worst possible outcomes. For example, imagining the customer who found a slug in their salad will write a terrible review, ruining your business (and you’ll die penniless and alone…).

Instead, think of the best possible or most likely outcome and put your focus on doing what you can to make that happen (e.g. helping the waiter get the customer to see this in perspective – even the Queen gets slugs in her salad – and make amends with a free dessert).

4. Breathe

Put your hand on your heart (to focus your attention there and not on your racing mind), breathe in for a count of four and out for a count of six to get a smooth and even heart rate. This helps your brain to think more clearly by calming and regulating the signals its getting from the heart.

5. Learn and practise meditation

There are even free courses and apps to help you get started. The benefits of ‘quietening the mind’ kick in surprisingly quickly and increase with time, making changes to the brain that help with focus, managing emotions and reducing cortisol.

6. Get moving

Exercise reduces cortisol and adrenaline, and increases endorphins making us feel more positive and helping us to master stress.

7. Smile and laugh more

In case you were in any doubt about how useful positive emotions are to us, science shows they help us master stress by un-doing the physiological effects of anxiety and anger, and making us more creative at solving problems. Add more childlike playfulness to your life; watch funny videos, tv shows and movies; ask people to tell you the funniest joke they can remember; and savour those times when you do smile and laugh – and do it for longer.

As a starter for 10, here’s the world’s funniest joke from the research scientist Richard Wiseman did in 2015 (read more about that fascinating study here):

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed.  The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services.  He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?”.  The operator says “Calm down.  I can help.  First, let’s make sure he’s dead.”  There is a silence, then a shot is heard.  Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”

Five years after the research study, Wiseman found the original source of the joke: Spike Milligan! A lovely coda to the research.

(An earlier version of this article was first published in the December 2018 edition of the Restaurant Association’s magazine Savour)