Researchers at Yale University have figured out why we have so much trouble taking action to reduce our stress levels. They found that intense stress actually reduces the volume of gray matter in the areas of the brain responsible for self-control.
As you lose self-control, you lose your ability to cope with stress. It becomes harder for you to keep yourself out of stressful situations, and you’re more likely to create them for yourself (such as by overreacting to people). It’s no wonder so many people get sucked into progressive rounds of greater and greater stress until they completely burn out (or worse).
Dwindling self-control is particularly scary when you consider that stress affects physiological functions in the brain, contributing to chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes. And stress doesn’t stop there—it’s linked to depression, obesity, and decreased cognitive performance.
The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure has a direct link to your performance. TalentSmart has conducted research with more than a million people, and we’ve found that 90% of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control.
The tricky thing about stress is that it’s an absolutely necessary emotion. Our brains are wired such that it’s difficult to take action until we feel at least some level of this emotional state.
While I’ve run across numerous effective strategies that successful people employ when faced with stress, what follows are 11 of the best. As simple as some of these strategies may seem, they are difficult to implement when your mind is clouded with stress. Force yourself to attempt them the next time your head is spinning, and your efforts will pay dividends to your health and performance.
They Say No
Research conducted at the University of California in San Francisco shows that the more difficulty that you have saying no, the more likely you are to experience stress, burnout, and even depression. Saying no is indeed a major challenge for most people. “No” is a powerful word that you should not be afraid to wield.
They Appreciate What They Have
Taking time to contemplate what you’re grateful for isn’t merely the “right” thing to do. It also improves your mood, because it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%. Research conducted at the University of California, Davis found that people who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved mood, energy, and physical well-being. It’s likely that lower levels of cortisol played a major role in this.
They Avoid Asking “What If?”
“What if?” statements throw fuel on the fire of stress and worry. Things can go in a million different directions, and the more time you spend worrying about the possibilities, the less time you’ll spend focusing on taking action that will calm you down and keep your stress under control. Successful people know that asking “what if? will only take them to a place they don’t want—or need—to go.
Given the importance of keeping stress intermittent, it’s easy to see how taking regular time off the grid can help keep your stress under control. When you make yourself available to your work 24/7, you expose yourself to a constant barrage of stressors. Forcing yourself offline and even—gulp!—turning off your phone gives your body a break from a constant source of stress. Studies have shown that something as simple as an email break can lower stress levels.
They Limit Their Caffeine Intake
Drinking caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline. Adrenaline is the source of the “fight-or-flight” response, a survival mechanism that forces you to stand up and fight or run for the hills when faced with a threat. The fight-or-flight mechanism sidesteps rational thinking in favour of a faster response. This is great when a bear is chasing you, but not so great when you’re responding to a curt email. When caffeine puts your brain and body into this hyperaroused state of stress, your emotions overrun your behaviour. The stress that caffeine creates is far from intermittent, as its long half-life ensures that it takes its sweet time working its way out of your body.
I’ve beaten this one to death over the years and can’t say enough about the importance of sleep to increasing your emotional intelligence and managing your stress levels. When you sleep, your brain literally recharges, shuffling through the day’s memories and storing or discarding them (which causes dreams), so that you wake up alert and clear-headed. Your self-control, attention, and memory are all reduced when you don’t get enough—or the right kind—of sleep. Sleep deprivation raises stress hormone levels on its own, even without a stressor present. Stressful projects often make you feel as if you have no time to sleep, but taking the time to get a decent night’s sleep is often the one thing keeping you from getting things under control.
Getting your body moving for as little as 10 minutes releases GABA, a neurotransmitter that reduces stress by soothing you and helping you stay in control of your emotions. Exercise is one of the first things busy people let fall by the wayside when they are stressed and under a lot of pressure. Once you understand that exercising is going to make you feel better and help you to get more done by lowering your stress levels, that should be all the motivation you need to make it happen.
They Don’t Hold Grudges
The negative emotions that come with holding onto a grudge are actually a stress response. Just thinking about the event involved sends your body into fight-or-flight mode. When a threat is imminent, this reaction is essential to your survival, but when a threat is ancient history, holding onto that stress wreaks havoc on your body and can have devastating health consequences over time. In fact, researchers at Emory University have shown that holding onto stress contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease. Holding onto a grudge means you’re holding onto stress, and emotionally intelligent people know to avoid this at all costs. Learning to let go of a grudge will not only make you feel better now but can also improve your health.
They Don’t Die in the Fight
Emotionally intelligent people know how important it is to live to fight another day. In conflict, unchecked emotion makes you dig your heels in and fight the kind of battle that can leave you severely damaged and stressed. When you read and respond to your emotions effectively, you’re able to choose your battles wisely and only stand your ground when the time is right.
They Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a simple, research-supported form of meditation that is an effective way to gain control of unruly thoughts and behaviours. People who practice mindfulness are more focused, even when they are not meditating. It is an excellent technique to help reduce stress because it allows you to reduce the feeling of being out of control. Essentially, mindfulness helps you stop jumping from one thought to the next, which gives you laser-sharp focus and keeps you from ruminating on negative thoughts. Buddhist monks appear calm and in control for a reason. Give it a try.
They Squash Negative Self-Talk
A big, final step in managing stress involves stopping negative self-talk in its tracks. The more you ruminate on negative thoughts, the more power you give them. Most of our negative thoughts are just that—thoughts, not facts. When you find yourself believing the negative and pessimistic things your inner voice says, it’s time to stop and write them down. Literally stop what you’re doing and write down what you’re thinking. Once you’ve taken a moment to slow down the negative momentum of your thoughts, you will be more rational and clear-headed in evaluating their veracity.
You can bet that your statements aren’t true any time you use words like “never,” “worst,” “ever,” etc. If your statements still look like facts once they’re on paper, take them to a friend or colleague you trust and see if he or she agrees with you. Then the truth will surely come out. When it feels like something always or never happens, this is just your brain’s natural threat tendency inflating the perceived frequency or severity of an event. Identifying and labelling your thoughts as thoughts by separating them from the facts will help you escape the cycle of negativity and move toward a positive new outlook.
- Ideas from a Travis Bradberry article, author of the bestselling book Emotional Intelligence 2.0