Stress is inevitable. We cannot wish or hack it away. However, by being smart—and playful—about stress, we can rob its power over us. We can be proactive instead of reactive. Similar to the skilled practitioner of martial arts like judo (which translates as “gentle way”), we can artfully deflect stress rather than trying to meet it head-on.
Science tells us that we can get a jump on stress by executing strategies that give us the upper hand. Stress is most debilitating when it builds up over time—when we ignore the subtle symptoms and instead try to tough it out. By the time we can no longer ignore it, it has evolved into chronic stress.
The strategies below should be implemented in conjunction with everyday healthy habits that raise our baseline mood and improve our resilience. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and restorative sleep help us thrive and ward off stress. Attending to our connections, both at work and in our lives, counters the loneliness that is a well-known driver of stress.
1. Do not keep calm and carry on
Certainly there are times when an unproductive emotion like anger arises, and the best course is to pause, reset, take a breather, walk away, or sleep on it.
There are other times—such as before a big presentation—when willing ourselves to be calm will not work, and may even be counterproductive. In these cases, research shows, the best strategy is to re-label stressful anxiety as positive excitement.
Anxiety is a high arousal state. Our blood is pumping and our senses are alert. We cannot shift immediately from a high gear to a low one any more than our cars can. Instead of trying to downshift, shift to a more productive high arousal state—a state of excitement. Across several different activities, researchers found participants who told themselves they were excited performed better and exhibited less stress.
2. Take off the rose-colored glasses
The field of positive psychology is sometimes confused with the power of positive thinking—making an effort to be optimistic and see the glass as half full. While positive psychology embraces the benefits of a positive outlook, it also tells us we should begin by viewing the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.
The false optimism of seeing the world as we wish is to be can sometimes set us up to stumble. Conversely, seeing the world as it is, and then accepting what we cannot control, changes our focus toward what we have control over—our attitude and mindset.
3. Talk to yourself
Negative self-talk is one of the most debilitating aspects of stress. A surprisingly powerful technique is to bring that self-talk out into the open and to spin it in a positive direction.
A series of studies at the University of Michigan finds that pre-performance pep talks can help us view a potentially stressful situation as an opportunity rather than as a threat. Interestingly, the research says we can gain valuable psychological distance by referring to ourselves by our first name or in the second person “you” rather than the first person “I.”
In the end, this is one of many ways you can train yourself to become your own coach—which is a big theme of my work as an executive wellness coach.
4. Describe three things
Rumination is a telltale sign of stress. When we ruminate, we get lost in telling ourselves regretful stories of the past or anxious stories about the future. A simple observational exercise can nudge our minds away from rumination and back into the present.
Step away from your to-do list (and your devices) and take note of three things around you. In your mind, describe their shape, size, texture, color, or anything else that stands out. The exercise works both indoors and outdoors.
This mindfulness technique replaces rumination with attention to the here and now. Moreover, it activates the task-oriented part of your brain, which is geared to solving problems and not worrying about them. Finally, it defuses stress by focusing your attention momentarily on objects that have a neutral association.
5. See green
Paying attention to the present moment and staying on task is healthier than worrying—but it can also leave us vulnerable to what psychologists call “directed attention fatigue.” Attention is a muscle, and we can exert it for so long before it grows weary.
Rachel and Stephen Kaplan have devoted their lives to studying the restorative effects of green environments. It turns out that mother nature offers one of the most potent antidotes to stress. Surrounded by nature, we replace effortful attention with effortless wonder. Getting away for a walk in the park is great—but even a glimpse of trees and grass out a window can go a long way toward bringing calm and clarity to our minds. Photographic representations of nature can be effective as well, so think green when choosing your device screensaver.
6. Stand up!
Poor posture exacerbates stress by cutting off circulation and suppressing energy levels. According to a Harvard study, it can also produce higher cortisol levels. The costs of sitting for long stretches are well-documented.
Taking a quick break by standing up and walking around the room can do wonders. It restores circulation and gives our eyes a break from the computer. Moreover, as Amy Cuddy points out in her popular TED talk, our body language shapes what others think about us, and how we perceive ourselves. Preparing for a stressful situation by adopting a strong and confident pose is a powerful way to tap into our best selves.
7. Practice stress
Just as we can inoculate ourselves against certain viruses by exposing ourselves to a small strain, we can inoculate ourselves against stress by intentionally stepping out of our comfort zones.
Spending time outside of our comfort zone is not about creating unnecessary stress—think of it as a dress rehearsal for a potentially stressful situation. According to one stress researcher, deliberately stretching ourselves can affect our future hormonal response to stressful situations. Ways of practicing stress can include training for a challenging physical feat or taking a public speaking class.
Experiment and find the stress busters that work best for you. Try meditation, yoga, dark chocolate, chamomile tea, acupuncture, laughter. Music is a great way to reset your mood. Have fun. One of the first things stress does is to steal our sense of humor.
We are most vulnerable to stress when we feel a lack of control—when it seems as if life happens to us. Reaffirming your sense of agency with effective action steps puts you back in the driver’s seat and puts stress in the rearview mirror.