Three Strategies to Counter Stress

Guest blog by: Carrie Zarotney, Certified Human Potential Coach and Mindfulness Facilitator, Nurtured Healing

Stress.

At work it can be triggered by…

  • Long work hours
  • An unexpected, firm email from your boss
  • A call from your major event’s top sponsor pulling out due to budget cuts
  • Demanding grant requirements
  • Misaligned board expectations 
  • Fundraising deadlines

Many things can bring it on and some days it may seem like everything is playing a role. Is it just an inevitable part of nonprofit work? Or life?

Of course, situations will always arise that do not go to plan. The challenge is that when we are under stress our brain and thinking is negatively impacted. 

The late Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist from Rockefeller University, illustrated this when he said, “Because stress changes the way the brain’s neurons communicate with each other, chronic stress can cause our brains, nervous systems, and our behavior to adjust to a vigilant and reactive state.”

Essentially, chronic stress constantly sends your body and brain signals that you are under threat. If left unchecked, it can wreak havoc on your overall well-being and eventually bring you to the point of burnout. I picture this underlying current of stressors, large and small, as cracks in our resilience and ability to respond rather than react.

When our high alert signaling is tripped our pre-frontal cortex or “thinking brain” goes offline. This area of our brain is not only responsible for cognitive behaviors, it also controls our emotional-regulation and self-regulation abilities. It’s no wonder why it’s so easy to feel out of control when stress strikes.

Today, we are all feeling a collective stress on top of our everyday stressors. Any life and work fault lines that existed pre-pandemic have been strained further. At times it can seem that the odds of actually managing or reducing stress are stacked against all of us. 

While it may feel unlikely, you do have options to help ease your stress response and bring your thinking brain back online. Below you will find three strategies to experiment with in your own life. 

 

Your Body is Protecting You
The first step is to recognize that if the situation was actually life-threatening your body’s response would be appropriate. When your body feels threatened it triggers a biochemical reaction that you can feel. You are flooded with cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones while your heart rate and breathing quicken. Your muscles also tense, and your blood pressure increases. 

You are preparing to fight or flee (flight). There is also a third state called shutdown (read more about the three primary states of the Polyvagal Theory here). Your body responds in an effort to protect you. It’s a part of your survival response. A natural response to a threat - actual or perceived. You may even notice that you have a particular physical sensation or pattern that arises when you are stressed, i.e. chest tightness. 

Regardless of what state you are in, becoming aware of your body’s effort to protect you  can help you feel less out of control when stress strikes. There may even be an opportunity to reserve self-judgement and have gratitude for your body doing it’s job to protect you.

 

Calm Your Stress Response
Stress can be such an automatic response that often we don’t realize that we have the ability to influence it. According to Stanford University neuroscientist, Andrew Huberman, our breathing and vision are two bodily processes that offer “easy and accessible releases from stress.” The techniques that he shares can help bring a sense of safety back to your nervous system and body. 

The first related to breathing goes beyond the standard advice to “take a deep breath.” Huberman’s team identified a “real-time tool” of incorporating 1-3 physiological sighs when feeling stressed as a way to shift the response. He says you take 2 inhales through your nose and an exhale through your mouth.   

The next breathing technique is called box breathing. First you exhale for a count of 4, then hold your exhale for a count of 4. Next inhale for a count of 4 and hold your inhale for a count of 4. Experiment with breathing in this pattern for 2-5 minutes.

The eyes, which are actually part of the brain, can also be influenced following this automatic reaction. When you are stressed there are changes in the optics of the eye, the eyes dilate and rotate slightly toward the nose to bring the stressor into more focus. Huberman describes it like, “portrait mode” on your phone. 

Changing the way you view your environment by expanding your focus to include all that's present in your periphery - above, below and to the sides of you - can help turn off the stress response.  

 

Recognize and Rewrite the Story
Your mind is a meaning-making machine. When your body sends you a stress signal, the information is fed up to your brain. It is then your brain’s job to create a narrative to explain why you are stressed. 

Justin Sunseri, LMFT says that “Our thoughts in a flight/fight state are going to be anxious or angry, directed at the outside world. And in a shutdown state, ​our thoughts will be more apathetic and probably directed inward.” 

When you recognize what type of thoughts you are having, it can help you identify what state your body is in. You can then focus on the challenge you’re facing and ask yourself: 

  • What is the story I am telling myself related to this situation? 
  • Is it the truth or reality of the situation? 
  • Am I fast-forwarding to the future or living in the past?
  • Can I rewrite the story to move forward? 
  • What is the next smallest action I can take?

 

Practice Makes Progress

With time and practice the above strategies can widen your window of tolerance and help you respond rather than react to work and life stressors. Just be sure to be gentle with yourself along the way - the goal is progress, not perfection. 

 

Carrie Zarotney is a Certified Human Potential Coach and Mindfulness Facilitator who helps people and workplaces manage stress and make change. To learn more visit www.nurturedhealing.com.  

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