In late 2021, my dad was unwell and he was in a small town with few good hospitals. I was living half a country away, in Trivandrum. And I felt totally helpless — what could I do to help in the middle of the night, so far away? Loaded with all these thoughts, one day I woke up at 2 am, in complete panic.
I couldn’t lie down, I couldn’t sit — my heart was pumping hard. At that moment, had I tried to calm myself with self-talk, it would have failed. Instead, I just did a progressive muscle relaxation exercise for about 15 minutes, followed by some deep breathing — in about half an hour I was so calm that I fell asleep.
Hard times in life may be unavoidable, but there are effective ways to manage stress levels and our mental health. In this article, I will give you a scientific understanding of what stress and anxiety are, and how to reduce stress.
So what exactly are anxiety and stress?
Anxiety is a feeling of dread and unease when we anticipate something terrible to happen. Since the brain is expecting something bad, it triggers the body’s defense mechanism — i.e., the “fight-or-flight” response, which manifests as follows:
- Increased heart rate and breathing
- Reduced blood flow to extremities — more blood flow to big muscle groups (e.g., thighs) as the body gets ready for action
- Dilated pupils — our eyes take in more light
- Slow digestion, perspiration, dry mouth. When in danger, digestion is no longer a priority — it can be done later.
- Body mobilizes energy — maximizes glucose and fatty acids in blood
- Since thinking and acting can slow us down, during bouts of stress, the thinking portion of our brain (cerebral cortex) goes offline. Hence even act impulsively and irrationally when stressed.
This ‘fight-or-flight’ response (described above), which physically manifests in our body, is called the ‘stress response,’ and in short, ‘stress.’
Hence stress shows up in our body — it is a physical thing. And anxiety is often its cause.
But remember: stress is not always a bad thing. It is a survival mechanism for dealing with life-threatening situations.
If you are crossing the road and a car honks to avoid hitting you, you run in panic without even thinking. In this case, the fight-or-flight response (aka ‘stress response’) helps your focus your energy and it may save your life.
But unfortunately, stress hormones get triggered even when the threat is not physical and ‘fight or flight’ is not the appropriate response, e.g., if your boss is unhappy and shouts at you, you don’t need to physically fight or run away.
But our body responds to all threats as if they posed a physical danger. And that is a problem.
Stress was intended to be a temporary state of our body while the physical threat lasted. But these days, quite often, stress becomes chronic. And that is when it becomes deadly.
Chronic stress can cause a host of ailments that we discuss below.
How does stress hurt us?
We intuitively know that chronic stress is not good for us but we often underestimate how much havoc it can wreak on our bodies.
American Psychology Association says that stress affects all systems of the body—from the musculoskeletal and respiratory to cardiovascular and reproductive systems.
It can lead to a host of negative consequences such as the following, just to name a few:
- high blood pressure
- hypertension, heart attack, and stroke
- decreased immune defenses
- auto-immune disorders
- sleep deprivation
- stomach problems
- poorer brain functioning
- loss of concentration
In short, stress causes or worsens almost every ailment except cancer.
Naturally, stress can have a lasting and debilitating impact on our work, personal life, creativity, and learning. In fact, according to a study, acute stress—such as the death of a loved one—can actually trigger asthma attacks.
So, that brings us to our next big question.
How can I reduce stress?
The source of stress is the ‘stressor’ (e.g., repaying a home loan). But almost always, it is not the event itself that stresses us but how we perceive it and react to it. Even when facing the same stressor, not everyone reacts similarly!
Hence we recommend a holistic, four-pronged approach to managing stress:
- Change the stressor or how we perceive it.
- Change how we react to the stressor.
- Once stress is activated, cope better.
- Build resilience to stress.
Let’s talk about each of them one by one.
1. Change the stressor or your perception of it
One easy and effective way to reduce stress is to eliminate the stressor or change how we perceive it.
Some common stressors are feeling overwhelmed, taking up too much responsibility on our plates, feeling of not being in control, and having poor relationships with our co-workers or boss.
Here are some ideas for handling these stressors in a healthy way:
- Whenever you are overwhelmed, don’t try to do everything, all at once. Instead, just make progress on a small piece of work by working with intense focus. When you start making progress, anxiety declines automatically and you feel more in control.
- Learn to say “no”: Instead of just saying a flat ‘no’, offer alternatives whenever possible. (E.g., “Right now I am working on this other thing. Can I help someone else do this?”)
- When you want to get work done, do it in focus sprints: set fixed time slots for focused work. This is what we help people do in HabitStrong’s Deep Work and Flow bootcamp. Firmly reject distractions like mobile phones, social media, etc. during these focus sprints.
2. Change your reaction to the stressor
When faced with a stressor, sometimes our thinking brain goes into a tizzy — we often get caught up in worrying, overthinking, pessimism, and catastrophizing. And these worries and thoughts trigger anxiety and stress.
So how can we better handle these unskillful thoughts? Here are some ideas:
- Cognitive defusion: Realize that we can’t prevent any thought from crossing our mind and our thoughts are not reality. E.g., if you are angry at a person and you get a thought of smashing his head, it does not mean you are a budding murderer — it was just a thought!
- Challenge your thoughts: Let us say, you are catastrophizing about an upcoming exam, worrying that it will end your career. If so, challenge your thoughts — are they really true? What evidence do you have? E.g., will a poor exam performance actually ruin your career? Have other people who performed poorly in that exam actually been ruined? As you challenge your thoughts, you will replace anxiety-inducing thoughts with more skillful thoughts.
- Break the worry loop with the 5-finger breathing technique.
- Write a journal: Putting down your thoughts on paper is a powerful way to get clarity.
- Develop a daily meditation habit. It will help you be more mindful and pull yourself away whenever you find yourself caught up in worries.
- To break your worry loop, engage your mind in some other activity for some time. E.g., play a game or listen to music.
- Practice mindfulness and being in the present moment.
Practice these stress relief strategies regularly so that they become routine. So the next time you sense your stress shooting up, these self-care habits will kick in naturally.
3. Adopt effective coping mechanisms
The amygdala region in our brains is responsible for processing strong emotions, including fear, anxiety, and aggression. Specific sights, sounds, and contexts can fire up a certain memory (past trauma or otherwise) and trigger anxiety.
In such cases, we have to work on relaxing and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s ability to rest and relax. Here are a few suggestions for you to consider:
- Try progressive muscle relaxation exercise — within a matter of minutes, it will melt away your stress.
- Practice the box breathing technique — breathe-in to a slow count of 4, hold to the count of 4, breathe out to the count of 4, and again hold to the count of 4. Repeat this a few times.
- Learn and practice breathing exercises like pranayama, rhythmic deep breathing, 5-finger breathing (discussed above), and belly breathing.
- Try guided meditation — here is a 10-min guided session from me.
- Listen to soothing music or nature sounds. Visualize a soothing scenery.
- Consider exposure therapy for dealing with panic attacks and PTSD.
4. Build resilience
Stress and anxiety are an inevitable part of our lives — we will always have to face minor and major stressors in our day-to-day lives.
One thing we can do is build up our own resilience so that we are not that deeply affected by routine stressors. Some effective tips for building your resilience:
- Exercise regularly or engage in some physical movement. If possible go for a run a few times a week or start going to a gym. It sounds cliched but there are few things more effective in relieving stress than physical exercise.
- Consume a healthy diet including complex carbs, lean protein, and fatty acids. Research shows that there is a connection between the gut and the brain.
- Start writing a gratitude diary daily. When we are grateful for the good things in life, we become more optimistic and less prone to stress, anxiety, and depression.
- Build strong, positive relationships with loved ones. Make social connections. Don’t isolate yourself. Friends and family provide emotional and social support that will lower stress.
- Don’t generalize your troubles. E.g., just because someone was not nice to you once does not mean that nobody will be nice to you ever!
The habits discussed above are simple, yet extremely effective in relieving stress. Let this be your stress management toolkit.
High levels of chronic stress is deadly for your well-being and physical and mental health — don’t take it lightly. Build into your everyday life a routine that consists of relaxation techniques, physical activity, mindfulness meditation, and a positive attitude.
I have tested most of the suggestions above and they really work.
So try them out. Good luck!