I’m sure you’ve been told to ‘stay calm’ or ‘calm down’ in stressful situations before. Hearing it often exacerbates the stress even more. As if their words are going to magically reverse the natural stress response and fix the problem.
This article provides you with a snapshot of my formula for staying ahead of stress so you don’t have to hear those words again. Instead, people will be wondering how you stay so calm.
First, what’s happening internally when you’re stressed?
Chronic levels of stress cause an excess release of cortisol (an important hormone for supporting your immune system and energy levels). Too high and too frequent releases can weaken the prefrontal cortex (forehead region) leading to poor decision-making and the loosening of your control over choices and behaviours.
Chronic levels can also impact the learning and memory region of the brain, the hippocampus. The overproduction of cortisol can lead to the underproduction of new neurons in this area. Over time it causes a reduction in the size of the hippocampus (initially found by Sapolsky in 1996).
Stress, when left unmanaged, can cause all sorts of extra problems. From making mistakes and forgetting important things to snapping at loved ones and compulsive bad habits. Worst of all becoming seriously ill.
What’s my solution?
I'll break it up into 2 parts. The strategic and the tactical. The strategic is taking an honest look at yourself and seeing where change is required and the tactical is about your daily ritual to help manage whatever adversity the day brings. You can work on both together at the same time.
This is the big picture view of your life and determining what area needs adjusting. Essentially, figuring out where you really want your energy to go. Awareness is the first stage of the solution and let the ‘bad’ stress be a signpost to make a change. That change doesn’t always need to be drastic, I’ve seen mindset shifts alone be the solution.
Digging through the layers to find the root cause of the stress can illuminate the area to be adjusted. Avoid your answers blaming someone else or other external factors and instead face it internally. If you’re finding answers like a negative mindset, imposter syndrome, ego protection, people-pleasing, fear of judgement, career choice, limiting beliefs etc then you’re on the right track. Identification/ labelling alone isn’t the whole solution though. There needs to be an honest investigation into the label for insights you can work off. Insights that you can turn into action and implement in the world. This becomes your new and improved state of being. Don’t allow labelling to define who you are or what you’re capable of. Transform it into an asset.
Take the example of a professional having difficulty saying NO to taking on more work. They might believe that others think they’re not capable if they say NO or that saying YES means being liked. Going deeper into that and learning where that perception comes from can open up the channels to change. Coupled with conversational tools, it then becomes less difficult to say NO (where the right opportunity presents itself of course).
Is the word I'm looking for 'irony' or 'paradox' but selectively saying NO more creates room for less stress, better performance and more recognition.
For ease of understanding, I'll provide my own personal routine and I’ll split my daily practices up into 3 groups. Note, that some practices could be duplicated across groups.
Predominantly brain-centric practices which for me are journalling and meditation. I’m activating the conscious parts of my brain to find clarity and calm. It’s easy for my mind to slip back into the unconscious which can be prone to negativity, unwanted thoughts and limiting beliefs. All of which generates low moods which in turn causes poor behaviours. Poor behaviours lead to poor results. I choose to eliminate the risk of this cycle by applying the tools available. I have just listed 2 that work for me. There are others.
Predominantly body-centric practices which for me are exercise, cold showers* and hyper-cyclical ventilation**. Again I’m activating the conscious parts of my brain and staying present in the discomfort in my mind and my body. I’m choosing to deliberately bring on the stress hormones and train my mind to stay calm within. When an unforeseen stressful event occurs during my day, my mind and body are primed to deal with it.
*Cold showers 3-4 times per week from 1-3 minutes at a time
** Hyper Cyclical Ventilation (e.g. Wim Hof) lately has been 4-5 times per week with a meditation at the end of the session. Meditation only on the remaining days of the week
Predominantly soul-centric practices, which for me are prayer and meditation. Prayer is a practice I started a few years ago. I gave up religion in my mid-teens and picked up spirituality in my early 30s. I never believed in God but things got so messed up that I had to pray. I don’t know specifically what I’m praying to, I call it a higher power or a universal energy that runs the show here on Earth. It can feel uncomfortable choosing to give over control to some mystical force but also comforting at the same time believing that force has got my back. Since I started to practice a connection to this power, life has been simpler. I can’t explain how it works scientifically, I can only tell my story. My life has positively transformed since and that’s enough to continue.
Meditation doesn't have to be spiritual, there's enough scientific evidence today to prove its benefits and put people at ease. For me, there is a spiritual component that I don't find in ordinary states of consciousness. By setting an intention prior to a session to fully let go and if the conditions are right, sometimes I will reach a point of nothingness, completely empty space. No thoughts, no ego, no self. Sometimes it occurs like an explosion of white light out of nowhere. Some sort of cosmic orgasm. I am not special to have reached this state, I have just put hours of consistent practice with trust to surrender.
Note, Spirituality is not part of my coaching programmes nor do I introduce it as a topic unless clients raise it. For that matter, none of my habits are mandatory for clients, what works for me might not work for them, when it comes to habit formation, my job is to help find what works, remove the blockers and implement a routine that works for them.
I execute all the above before most of the world wakes up, and when I do, it takes a lot to throw me off my focus and zen that day. I’m stronger at handling unexpected adversity. I am stronger at being present with more cognitive control and emotional regulation. My choices are better around food and my sleep is deep, which also greatly influences stress levels.
From time to time I partially complete the routine or miss a day. It doesn’t affect me but if I miss 3/4 days in a row, I feel it and so too the people I spend my time with. Just last week, I missed 5 days straight, 0% complete. Probably why I felt motivated to write this article. I have been reminded of how powerful my routine is. We moved house and collected the keys on Friday so I prioritised that from morning to night. By the 4th day, I was running on empty and fell into grumpiness which included being short with my partner. I’m back on track now and the world is bright again!
For those of you reading this and saying it’s too much to do, I don’t recommend going from 0 to 100 trying to do everything. If you are interested, start by choosing a new habit that’s low in difficulty to implement and with a high reward. Once you feel you’ve got that embedded to almost feel automatic, then you can add on something new. Track how you’re feeling throughout your day in comparison to not doing them, this will be your motivation to keep it up.
Habit formation is not easy, the majority of healthy habits are unpleasant. If they were pleasant everyone would be at it and the world closer to a utopia. Challenge yourself. You have control in this area of your life. If you can't get motivated to do it for yourself, then start for someone else in your life.
And don't ignore the strategic, forming new habits might feel great for a period but living in misalignment will continue slapping you in the face until you address it. It's best worked out initially with a guide, someone that you can trust. If I resonate then book a call now, if I don't then find someone else but don't wait, you've already lost enough time.
Mindset, Career & Life Coach
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