Toolkit to Use Stress to Build You Up, Instead of Break You Down
1) Change your stress mindset.
Your mindset is the mental lens through which you look at the world.
It’s like a framework for organizing your beliefs, assumptions, and perspective.
Your mindset makes meaning out of your experiences. In turn, it shapes your actions and responses during those experiences.
In a sense, your mindset is a self-fulling prophecy.
When you believe stress is an asset you’ll be more likely to:
Feel, think, act, and respond in ways that improve your performance and encourage flexibility and resourcefulness
Engage in active coping behaviors, and actually resolve your problems
Notice evidence of your resilience, which reinforces your belief
Long-term, build deep health and fitness, making you even more capable and resilient in future
Meet new challenges, and believe you’re able to meet those challenges
When you believe stress is harmful you’ll be more likely to:
Feel, think, act, and respond in ways that make you less resilient and more at risk of negative consequences of stress
Focus on how bad you feel, finding plenty of evidence of your “failures” and distress
Fear the future and what could happen, because you don’t trust your own ability to deal with it
Steer clear of situations that could lead to growth
Cope with stressors unproductively, avoiding or ignoring your problems (ironically making stressors bigger and longer-lasting)
Actionable item: Do a stress audit.
Shifting your mindset can take time and practice. And, you may have to purposely face challenging events to learn that you can recover from them.
However, you can begin to change your stress mindset with this exercise:
Make three columns.
> In the first column, list all the challenging or stressful events you’ve experienced in the last year or two. Some of those were probably really difficult to go through. While you were ‘in it’, it might have been hard to see your way out. But here you are.
>Now, in the second column, note what you learned from these events. What skills were you forced to develop, and what wisdom did you gain from them?
>Last, in the third column, list the resources that helped you manage and overcome these challenges. What knowledge, emotional resilience, or social support did you draw on?
Consider what you have in front of you.
Sure, there are some experiences that we would never wish to repeat, and not all stressful events make us stronger. (Again, it’s important to distinguish between healthy stressors and burnout or traumas.)
But you might notice that many challenges—even the unwelcome ones—serve you in the long term, making you more compassionate, gritty, or wise.
When you consider future challenges, draw on this list.
What can you borrow from previous experiences that might help you?
Or, are there any areas that you might want to develop to help you be better equipped?
When you believe your ability to cope matches or exceeds the demand of a situation, you’re more likely to look at that situation as a challenge rather than a threat.
2) Develop productive coping strategies.
Ironically, avoiding and ignoring stress, or trying to reduce it across the board, can create a vicious cycle: The more you try to run away from stress, particularly using unhelpful coping strategies, the worse it gets.
However, there’s also a virtuous (positive) cycle that can go in the exact opposite direction: You embrace stress, use productive coping mechanisms to help yourself process and recover, and actually improve your health—not to mention your resilience to future stressors.
The below table describes the differences between these two coping styles:
Actionable item: Practice a productive coping style with 5-minute actions.
Tiny, strategic, 5-minute steps can help you start approaching and proactively dealing with stressors—especially when they feel overwhelming and make you want to run away, There’s no benchmark of 5 minutes. It could be 10 seconds, or 1 minute, or 10 minutes.
The point is:
It’s something that’s very, very small.
It’s an action—something you do.
It feels easy and simple.
It moves you in the direction you want to go.
So, consider the thing you’re stressed about.
Then pick ONE small action you can take TODAY to help deal with it.
To identify an action that will actually help you achieve your larger goal, check out The 4-Circle Exercise.
Here’s an example:
If you’re stressed about your eating habits, your 5-minute action might be to place an online grocery order, so you have access to healthy foods for the next week.
Each time you choose a productive coping strategy instead of an unproductive one, it’s like a biceps curl for your resilience muscle. Eventually, your instinct to choose productive coping gets stronger, and stress actually becomes a catalyst for growth.
3) Learn how to turn on productive stress… and how to turn it off.
Being a little amped up is great when you’re trying to make a presentation, when you’re writing an exam, or when you’re having an important, meaningful discussion with your partner.
However, you also want to be able to turn off your stress response when you need to rest.
You want “stress flexibility.”
In practical terms, that means:
A strong sympathetic nervous system response to mobilize action when it’s “go time” (such as a job interview, audition, or athletic competition).
A strong parasympathetic nervous system response to calm you down when it’s “chill time” (such as bedtime).
A relatively calm but attentive baseline in between.
More resilient people can rapidly turn their stress response on and off as needed, and match its intensity to the challenge at hand.
Actionable item: Practice coping flexibility.
To be able to turn “on” and “off” when you need to, you’ll want to have a full toolbox of coping strategies to help you deal with, process, and recover from different types of stressful situations.
This is called “coping flexibility.”
There’s no one best (productive) coping method that works for everything and everyone, but these are some useful ways:
Make time and plan ahead: Organize your schedule and routine to focus on valued activities (such as sleep), and anticipate reasonable obstacles.
Do a mind/body scan: Take 5 to 10 minutes to mentally scan your body from head to toe, noticing physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts.
Have a crucial conversation: Have important yet difficult discussions; confront and discuss that cringey issue you’re avoiding with someone you care about.
Practice self-compassion: Offer care, kindness, and grace to yourself during difficult times. Ask yourself: ‘How can I be most kind to myself during this experience?’
Identify bright spots: Focus almost exclusively on what is going well; ignore problems and setbacks unless they’re actively causing damage. Ask yourself: ‘What is going well, even just a little bit? What strengths, resources, and opportunities do I have right now?’
Just breathe: Use breathing techniques to energize or calm your body. (Try “box breathing”: Inhale for 4 to 5 seconds, hold that breath for 4 to 5 seconds, slowly breathe out for another 4 to 5 seconds, and then hold your breath for 4 to 5 seconds more. Repeat as many times as you like.)
Seek support: When possible, avoid going into the proverbial woods alone. Be it friends and family; your dog who always listens without interrupting; or a qualified counselor or therapist—find support, allies, and buddies to walk the path with you.
If you honestly assess your life and your ability to affect it, you’ll usually find plenty of areas that are within your control.
So when that big life-avalanche comes barreling your way, you don’t feel doomed.
Instead, you might think, “I’m ready. I can ride this beast.”
Twitter Thread of the week – strategies for prioritizing self care even when it’s really, really hard
Strategy #1: Start with just 5-10 minutes per day: Five minutes a day might not feel like enough time, but it can help you start to show up for yourself. How to try it:
Make a list of small, 5-minute activities that would help you check the “self care” box. Pick ONE to try every day for a couple weeks.
After that, consider adding more minutes, or another short self-care activity, to your routine.
Remember: Self care isn’t just about nutrition and exercise. It’s also about your emotional and mental health, the people around you, your environment, and your overall outlook on life.
Strategy #2: Embrace the three Ds: Delete, Delegate, Do Less:
How to try it:
Get clear on exactly how you’re spending your time. Keep a time diary for a day to get granular. Now you’re ready to scrutinize.
Delete one or more activities. Are there obligations that aren’t actually necessary? Habits (TV, Twitter, Facebook) that actually don’t serve you anymore? What would happen if a given task doesn’t get done at all? What might be the worst outcome?
Delegate whatever you can. Consider each task and ask yourself, “Who else can do this?” Could your partner do the bed? Can I use a cab/driver while I finish my tasks in the back seat? Can your kids fold their own clothes? What’s the worst that could happen?
Do less. Do less. Challenge yourself: What is “good enough” for this thing? Is it necessary to have A + in all activities. Everything does not need to be perfect.
Strategy #3: Separate your “shoulds” from your “coulds.” Sometimes we’re so used to thinking about what we “should” do, we forget what we really want or need to do. But needless “shoulds” just end up stealing our time, wasting our energy, and keeping us from feeling healthy and fulfilled. If we take a more critical look at our “shoulds,” we might find they’re not all that necessary.
Remember: You’re in charge of what you prioritize, and what trade-offs you’re willing to make. Ultimately, you get to decide what is most important to you.
This topic and points have been adopted from my course book of Level 2 Health coaching with Precision Nutrition. They are the best in this field. You can visit and learn about them at Precisionnutrition.com
January 8, 2023