Chuck Martin, Richard Guare and Peggy Dawson, in their book Work Your Strengths, include stress tolerance as an executive skill. I would think that being strong in many of the other executive skills would help you to tolerate stressful situations, including emotional stress such as that caused by illness. But 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. So we will include stress tolerance as one of the executive skills.
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Stress tolerance is the ability to thrive in stressful situations. With strong stress tolerance, you are able to take things in stride, and work well under stress. If you don’t handle stress well, panic during crisis, and feel uncomfortable when things don’t go smoothly, you are weak in this skill.
Working memory, as discussed previously, allows you to hang on to memories long enough for them to be consolidated as long-term memories in the hippocampus area of the brain. And if we don’t protect the hippocampus from excessive stress, we may lose the ability to file these new memories, putting us at risk for Alzheimer’s.
Things we should not do to relieve stress is turn to drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. Tiffany Chow, in her book, The memory clinic, claims that smoking is a risk factor for heart disease, heart attacks, and high blood pressure and she mentioned that one study reported that it doubles the risk for dementia.
It’s usually impossible to relax, do deep breathing, meditate or go jogging when you’re in a stressful situation. But you’re not supposed to relax. The “flight or fight” response that you experience under stress is not something that you can avoid. 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 perceived danger. If it were someone threatening you with a knife, the response could save your life. Your increased strength and heightened awareness could get you out of danger. And the adrenaline would be used up as you take action.
But with an unrealistic deadline or an overload of projects, you’re not engaged in physical activity. The excess adrenaline causes you to feel terrible. You experience palpitations, dry throat, trembling. You’re nervous and upset. You weren’t meant to feel the adrenaline; you were supposed to be too busy to feel anything.
Relaxing is not what you should be trying to do. Relaxation is something you acquire when you’re not under stress. It’s preventative medicine, so to speak. It makes stress easier to handle. What you need at the moment is stress management. You need to take control of the situation, change your attitude, be assertive and accept life’s challenge.
Combine healthy attitudes with action and you have stress management. When you are faced with a stressful situation, look at it as a challenge. Take a positive approach and look at the bright side. You can’t do the impossible. The important thing is to be active, take control and be assertive. Activity dissipates the adrenaline, and along with it, the worry and ravages of stress. A Yale University study revealed that those who changed their outlook on stress after watching a video urging them to rise up to whatever challenge faced them showed improved psychological symptoms and better work performance.
To build stress tolerance, make sure you schedule adequate leisure time, build quality relationships with others, laugh often, keep healthy and physically fit, participate in relaxation exercises and massages, 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 showed that even taking a few deep breaths can lower cortisol levels.
You might also maintain a positive attitude, turn off your cell phone, and drink black tea to help develop a resistance to stress. 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. It also referred to a study by University College London that found that those who drank four cups of black tea a day for four weeks had a lower cortisol level in their blood when facing a stressful situation.
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 get organized.