An infographic posted on the website for the American Institute of Stress has a startling headline: “Stress Is Killing You.” The disturbing statistics (culled from a variety of respectable published sources) include:
- 44% of Americans feel more stressed than they did five years ago
- 1 in 5 Americans experience “extreme stress”
- Work stress causes 10% of strokes
- Stress is the basic cause of 60% of all illness and disease
- Stress-related ailments cost $3 billion per year in medical bills and lost productivity
- Stress increases the risk of heart disease by 40%; heart attack by 25%; and stroke by 50%
The mission of the American Institute of Stress is “to improve the health of the community and the world by setting the standard of excellence of stress management in education, research, clinical care and the workplace.” They do this by fostering an environment and culture of education, discovery, and innovative change in how we deal with stress. To highlight the need for a cultural antistress focus, the broader stress community has designated April as National Stress Awareness month to increase our national conversation about stress and our response to it.
Rewiring Your Perception of Stress
If you’ve ever looked for information about how not to stress, you’ll notice language that creates a perception of stress as bad, negative, toxic, and something to be avoided at all costs. Commonly used words such as “cope,” “manage,” “deal with,” “relieve,” “eliminate,” “beat,” “reduce”—and, my own personal favorite, “combat”—paint stress as an experience from which we should back away. Perceiving stress as always a bad thing, however, only increases the burden we carry. Instead, Dr. Heidi Hanna, author of the New York Times best-selling book The Sharp Solution: A Brain-Based Approach for Optimal Performance, as well as Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship with Stress, recommends that to have more energy and respond to stress with added strength, we need to start by changing the language we use to describe it.
“Stress itself is just a stimulant for change,” Hanna explains. “I think we’ve given it a bad name by putting anything negative into the category of stress. Stress actually causes us to grow. When it becomes negative is any time that we don’t have the energy to generate that change.”
A quick look at how you experience stress can offer a visceral example of what Hanna means. Imagine back to a morning when you woke up, thought of the day ahead, and already felt overwhelmed by the hours to come. Rather than springing out of bed, you might have had the urge to hit the snooze alarm, roll over, and pretend the day wasn’t starting. Imagining difficulties to be experienced in the future can slow down, stall, or incapacitate you in the present. While a little stress can keep you motivated and alert, too much can lead to anxiety and even depression, which means that learning how not to stress is not only useful but imperative.
Hanna suggests, “If we can change the way the brain perceives stress, we can actually start to seek out things that are going to help us to adapt and feel stronger, and that’s ultimately how we change our relationship to stress: We become stronger than the stress.”
Three Ways to Embrace Stress
Your brain understands and organizes perceptions of the current environment by analyzing and encoding information from your five senses. This information creates pictures in your brain (usually so quickly that you don’t even notice them) that lead to interpretations that create thoughts (chemical reactions in your brain) that create sensations (feelings) in your body. That’s why you can imagine the pressure of a looming deadline and suddenly feel you’ve got the weight of 1,000 bricks on your back. You interpret the pressure of the deadline as something uncomfortable and overwhelming.
According to Hanna’s approach, however, learning how not to stress is all about learning how to reclaim control over the way you perceive stress so that you experience it in a new, positive, and empowering way. Hanna suggests this three-step process to rewire your stress response so that you remain in control, rather than giving your power over to stress:
- BALANCE chemistry: Balance the brain by practicing relaxation consistently. Breathwork, for example, gets the brain into a better chemical state so that you can begin shaping it the way you desire. Hanna suggests that a practice as short as three to five minutes several times a day can produce significant change.
- BUILD brain health: Implementing consistent healthy nutrition choices and exercise routines help condition the brain’s well-being. Hanna also recommends gratitude as a way to build brain health because it adds nourishing nutrients to the brain.
- BOOST brain power: Hanna defines this as “strategically training your brain to work the way that you want.” Achieve this by consistently focusing on an intention, which trains your brain to zero in on what’s important.
The beauty of Hanna’s three-step process is that it can be done according to your schedule. Working these three steps multiple times per day can teach your brain to function more optimally and access resilience more quickly, which means a big reduction in stress.
Learning to Transcend Stress
Rewiring your relationship with stress can transform the 1,000 bricks on your back into a sack of feathers. Even if your stress response was trained in childhood and entrenched over decades, change is still possible. Your brain loves to learn new things and thrives on repetition. So the same repetitive strategy that trained your brain to activate your current stress response can be used to initiate the development of a new response altogether. This process takes time but absolutely can be done. To overcome resistance to or lack of consistency in this new type of conditioning and brain training, Hanna highlights the value of support. “Find a buddy,” she says, “and both commit to doing this for a week. We will let ourselves down over and over again, but we don’t let other people down.”
Beyond the brain science of how not to stress, there’s another benefit to Hanna’s program: When you deliberately balance, build, and boost your brain, you shift yourself out of fight/flight and into a much more success-oriented emotional state: action mode. This transformation from feeling powerless to powerful reduces stress, activates a sense of self-efficacy, and allows you to make effective choices and take efficient actions. While the results dramatically increase your ability to face any challenge in the present, they also give you payoffs in the future. In consistently altering the way you perceive and experience stress, you change how you perceive and experience what it means to be you. Over a period of time, this alteration enjoys a top-down movement from a purely cognitive and mechanical effort to a neurophysiological change that affects every cell in your body. More than that, it alters your belief systems—the framework for your entire experience on earth.
April may be National Stress Awareness month, but that’s just a launchpad for rewiring your relationship with stress. The real metamorphosis comes from what the American Institute of Stress feels is most important: what you do every month of the year. Collectively as a society, culture, and community, we can naturally reduce the percentage of illness and disease by endeavoring to change ourselves, to share what we learn, and to choose a buddy in the mission of change.