• Anya Smirnova

Managing stress

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

The stress itself is a healthy reaction to certain situations. What is out of tune is our adequate use of the stress response.

It's National Stress Awareness week. Given we are a community of lawyers/professionals who are also mums, the topic of stress resonates on so many levels.

Lockdown 2.0, birthing in times of Covid, caring for a newborn, elder children boycotting washing and dressing up for school, US presidential election, forgetting about a work meeting, endless to-do list, slow internet. Whatever it is, we all experience stress and want to remove it from our lives. Though is it possible to fully remove stress? Would it be a good strategy? And what are the effective ways to manage stress?

Here is how stress works

Knowing the anatomy of stress explains a lot about stress management.

  • There is a perceived threat.

  • The Amygdala sends a stress signal. The Amygdala is the part of our brain responsible for identifying threats to our wellbeing. It is so fast at sending warning signals that we often react to a supposed threat faster than our Cortex (the part of the brain responsible for thought and judgment) is able to assess our actions and their consequences.

  • Fight/flight/freeze response activated.

  • Stress hormones get released: Adrenaline (flight), Noradrenalin (fight) and Cortisol (an on/off switch).

  • Neurotransmitter chemicals get released so that you experience a spurt of energy.

  • Physical changes: Heart rate increased. Breathing increased. Fats and Glucose released for energy. Blood flow diverted from non-essential body areas to muscles and brain. Perspiration increased. Immune system suppressed. Able to laser focus (reminds me of late-night work before deal closings).

  • You are now ready to fight/flight/freeze.

  • Threat resolved.

  • Hormones levels lower.

  • The body goes back to normal.

Stress is not a bad guy

A few thousand years ago, stress was helping our ancestors to deal with danger. Their stress was about life-threatening events, like extreme hunger and running away from sabre-toothed tigers. The stress-induced, instantaneous preparation for a fight/flight/freeze response allowed humans to survive, and thanks to that we are still here.

Fast forward to 2020. Many people feel severely stressed over situations that are far from life-threatening, and it is when this happens that problems occur.

Of course, there are true stress triggers, like health issues, redundancy, avoiding a car driving at you. But those do not happen often, and most of the time we are bombarded with fake stress signals.

Due to our fast-paced lifestyle, multiple responsibilities and information overload, we are exposed to fake stress triggers more often than arguably any other generation before us. We live in the superhero culture (think of the modern movies and cartoons, picture-perfect Insta-mums-who-manage-it-all, glossy magazines) which leads us to create unrealistic expectations of ourselves, tempts us to compare ourselves to others which inevitably makes us feel like a failure.

Stress is used and even abused in workplaces as a performance trigger. Stress is not the same as pressure. Working under pressure is healthy and provides the opportunity for individuals to stretch their abilities and grow. The difference is that under pressure, individuals still feel in control. While under stress, you feel out of control and stress response kicks in depleting your health and ability to perform effectively.

Ironically, we stress about experiencing stress.

The volume of the triggers is overwhelming. The Amygdala does not remove its hand from the alert button. Real and fake stress signals trigger the same response, making small and big stresses feel the same (i.e. always big). The stress cycle does not manage to finish itself naturally. Stress accumulates and becomes hard to shake off, so we often use unhelpful stress release tools to manage it; alcohol is a top suspect here.

The stress itself is a healthy reaction to certain situations. What is out of tune is our adequate use of the stress response.

what works

There are two sides to a stress situation: there is a stimulus, and there is your reaction to it.

You guessed it right. You can change the environment to reduce stress stimuli. Stimuli can be internal (e.g. perfectionism, expectations we put on ourselves) and external (e.g. work, family, social media).

Information diet is a topical tool in reducing external stimuli. For example, I am a very visual person, and checking the Insta thread was leaving me drained. I have now put limits on my Insta use to 10 min on Fridays for work only. I have put a note on my social media that calling me is better than texting me – hearing someone's voice and catching up in a live conversation is hugely energising for me while chatting steals a lot of my time for zero connection. I also allow myself 10 min a week to check the Covid news, and it's proven to be more than enough.

However, there are many external stimuli you cannot control. What is always within your control though is how you manage your internal response to the stimuli, focusing on (i) your overall health, (ii) relaxation and (iii) inner-resilience. These make up your bank of resources.

what you can do for your overall health

  • Get enough sleep

  • Eat food that is delicious and nutritious

  • Get outside

  • Stay active

  • Social support & socialise (safely)

  • Take vitamin D

  • Have five portions of fun a day

  • Practice relaxation

  • Choose/create a pleasant working environment

Sounds familiar, or even boring? Well, traditional and alternative medicine, neuroscience, psychology and coaching, supported by a massive amount of research, all come to the same conclusion that these simple things make the foundation of a balanced life.

According to the Private Eye, these measures will also help you prevent Covid. I concur.

what you can do for relaxation

We tend to think that being busy-busy, doing things all the time makes us achieve more. It might make us look like high-achievers. However, neuroscience shows that our brain needs quiet time to process the experience. This integration is one of the most productive places for our brain function.

Here is what you can do:

  • Walk slower. This one is my favourite because it’s so simple. It sends your brain a signal that there is no need to run, there is no danger, that your brain and body can relax.

  • Get lost in play! Whatever brings you joy in a healthy positive way: go for a run, play a board game, take a bath, play an instrument, read a fiction book (Denise Mina’s crime stories is my recent discovery), trapeze.

  • Try breathing techniques (Yoga breathing, square breathing). When we stress, we often hold our breath. Breathing techniques remind you to breathe!

  • Try sitting practice”, otherwise known as mediation or mindfulness. Some people when they hear meditation, feel the pressure to achieve something, they start trying too hard. Calling it “sitting practice” does not have this effect. Here is how to start one:

How to start a sitting practice: Sit on a chair, feet on the floor, or sit on the floor; hands relaxed on your knees, palms up. Take three deep breaths, then gently close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. It helps to count the breaths to 10 and then restart from 1. Start with 5 minutes a day, mornings are better to start off your day in this mindset. Put an alarm with a gentle wring to remind you of the time. At first, the monkey that your brain is will go nuts, it's used to many stimuli and just sitting and counting breaths will seem boring, but that's the whole point of the practice - to show your brain monkey what a relaxed mind looks like. When thoughts come in, imagine you have a very soft feather and just gently touch incoming thoughts with that feather and go back to counting your breath. The secret to this practice is - do not try too hard. The Headspace app offers free guided sessions and cool video explanations for newbies.

How you can build your inner-resilience

Resilience is not about blocking stimuli, it’s about how we respond to it. Here are three powerful tools which you can do at home:

  • Learn your stress response. What are your common triggers, what thoughts come to mind, where you feel it in your body, other signs of stress? Reflecting on your usual stress response creates a relationship with it. Next time you experience a stress response, you will not be facing an unknown enemy but having a discussion with an old friend.

  • The top tool of resilient people is to control what you can and let go of the rest. Make a list of things that stress you. Seeing them on paper will already reduce their hold on you. Then use the Resilience Tree tool to assess each one in turn. It takes time, but it trains your resilience muscle and releases stress.

  • Gain perspective. Often, crises situations (illness, loss of someone close) give us a perspective on life, on what is important, our daily worries start to feel trivial. But even such strong experiences wear off. Ask yourself what is important to you in life? Might you be overdramatising things? We all sometimes can start to drown in a glass of water. Life is a balancing act.

  • Notice the positives in your life. In 2005, a 6-month study showed that tuning into the good brings higher levels of happiness and reduces depression. At the end of each day, find the three good things that had happened to you that day. Introduce sharing the three good things as a family practice. As a bonus, watch this moving TED talk on building resilience.

Bad stress management techniques

The NHS use this image of a bucket for stress management which many people find quite helpful.

Problem-solving, building up your resources, worry management through relaxation/distraction reduce the stress level in your bucket.

While quick stress release tools, like alcohol, neither resolve the cause of stress nor strengthen your resources. Stress released that way comes back into the bucket. It does not mean you can't enjoy a glass of your favourite beverage, just do it responsibly, for pleasure and do not expect it to resolve your stress.

If you take away only three things:

  • The formula is simple: if the demands that are made of you in everyday life are matched by resources, you are unlikely to suffer from stress. Review the demands and build up your resources.

  • Start low, go slow. We love the “how to” tips, and this article has many. But having too many tools can be overwhelming and add to the stress. Choose one baby step you can manage and own it. Pat yourself on the back! If you are looking for a deeper change in life, reach out to me for a bespoke coaching programme.

  • If you are hijacked by stress, start by rebuilding the basic safety needs (see the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and reach out for help. Your GP, BACP and MIND are good places to start. In an emergency, go to your local A&E, or call the Samaritans on 116 123 for 24/7 confidential emotional support.

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