Being able to manage stress is critical since it can weaken the immune system, raise cholesterol levels, accelerate hardening of the arteries, disrupt the digestive system, and lead to overeating and obesity. And according to Tiffany Chow, in her book, The memory clinic, it can also increase the risk of developing dementia.
When you’re under stress, you don’t think clearly. You could find yourself in the state of panic, getting more stressed by the minute. But once you have calmed down and feel in control once again, things go back to normal.
The source of our emotions is believed to be the amygdala, two small almond shaped regions of the brain. It’s our “fire alarm” that signals danger both real and perceived. It really can’t tell the difference between a life-threatening emergency or simply the need to get to a meeting before it starts.
When you feel stressed, you don’t have to immediately start deep breathing or meditating. You merely have to take control of the situation. This involves looking at the stressful situation objectively and determining how critical it really is. For instance, if you can’t find the agenda you received for the morning’s meeting, is it really going to matter? You could probably share a copy with someone else or even take a quick snapshot of someone else’s copy with your iPhone.
Once you know that you can deal with the situation, and you calm down, it’s amazing how often you will then remember where you placed the original agenda in question.
That sudden feeling of panic when you can’t remember something or feel unprepared for a presentation or think you may be late for an appointment cannot be prevented. It’s a product of your automatic nervous system, which regulates the release of adrenaline, blood pressure, heart rate, hand temperature and other physiological changes. It’s an automatic response to a perceived danger, real or otherwise. Don’t expect the part of your brain that pushes the panic button to distinguish between a slight concern and a major crisis. That’s not its job. You have to activate another part of the brain located in the prefrontal cortex to take on that task.
You have to use your brain’s executive centre in the prefrontal cortex to pay attention to the alarm, think it through clearly, focus on what is really important and take any necessary action. You don’t relieve stress by taking deep breaths and telling yourself to calm down, you have to pay attention to the signal, and take control of the situation.
The opposite of stress is not being relaxed calm or half-asleep, it is the feeling of being in control. You’re in control when you feel that you are able to handle whatever life happens to throw at you at the time.
There is such a thing as building stress tolerance. That’s one of the brain-based executive skills discussed in my ebook, Strengthen your brain’s executive skills, published by Bookboon.com.
To build stress tolerance, make sure you schedule adequate leisure time, build quality relationships with others, laugh often and keep healthy and physically fit. Get plenty of sleep, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Meditation or mindfulness can also help you change the way you perceive potentially stressful situations. A Newsweek special issue, Your Body (October, 2014) suggested that taking 15 minutes a day for silent meditation can help lower stress levels and prevent it from increasing in the first place. Studies have shown that even taking a few deep breaths can lower cortisol levels. And it helps to maintain a positive attitude
Don’t be a slave to your cell phone. According to the Newsweek article referenced above, studies show that taking three or four hours each day away from the Internet and digital communication is not only a healthy distraction, but also a partial antidote to stress.
And believe it or not, orderliness seems to help as well. UCLA researchers discovered that the sight of clutter can induce the production of stress hormones. So be sure to organize both your working and living environments.
The secret to handling stress is to take charge. You do that with your mind – the real you.