Stress is something I’ve faced in a deep and personal way, and have overcome successfully. Living with stress is surprisingly common – according to the American Psychological Association, approximately 60% of Americans are stressed with concerns over money, job pressure and health contributing to 76% of stress.
Numerous studies have shown that stress has a strong negative impact on well-being and prolonged stress has been associated with anxiety, depression, coronary diseases and sleep problems.
It’s clear that to live a happy and fulfilled life, we need to learn how to respond to life’s challenges without getting overly stressed. However, stress itself is complicated. There are many different types of stress and there is no easy one size fits all solution.
In this article, we’ll dive deeper to examine the real cause of stress and how to manage stress and turn it into success.
Table of Contents
- Where does stress come from these days?
- Symptoms of feeling stressed
- How to manage stress (a step-by-step guide)
- Turning stress into success
Where does stress come from these days?
Stress is an evolutionary response to a threat in our environment. In our caveman days, stress helped us survive by triggering our ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response to help us run away from wild animals or fight to defend our territory.
In today’s modern world however, stress has evolved as a coping mechanism to help us manage mental and emotional overwhelm such as dealing with demanding bosses, managing our finances or surviving health issues.
As these are daily problems, we simply do not have the emotional strength and mind space to respond effectively each and every day – this is how stress becomes chronic and starts to interfere with our lives.
Symptoms of feeling stressed
Symptoms of stress can be very obvious or buried deep in our psyche depending on how we’ve dealt with stressful experiences through our lives.
Overt (or obvious) symptoms of stress
Symptoms of stress commonly manifest in terms of physical, mental or emotional discomfort.
- Physical signs include headaches, tiredness, an upset stomach or an inability to sleep well
- Mental signs include feeling overwhelmed, being ‘down in the dumps’ and unable to enjoy yourself or switch off
- Emotional signs include being irritable, impatient, anxious, nervous, depressed, lonely and feeling like there’s no way out
Deeper (or not so obvious) symptoms of stress
Many times, we tend to avoid dealing with stressors head-on, thinking that avoiding problems will make them go away or keep us from getting anxious. In psychological terms, this is known as avoidance coping a.k.a “What you resist, persists”.
Avoidance coping doesn’t work in the long-term because not dealing with our problems only increases anxiety instead of diminishing it.
We also tend to adopt other not so obvious ways of coping which can be even more detrimental to our health and well-being such as:
- Emotional eating or overeating – Turning to food when we are stressed is very common because food helps us feel better in the moment by triggering our brain’s reward system. Often, we end up overeating to numb our feelings so we can avoid thinking about them. This often ends up leading to compulsive or binge eating where we can feel that we don’t have any control over our food choices.
- Reliance on substances like alcohol – Similar to food, some of us turn to alcohol or other substances to help us relax in the moment. However, by doing this over and over again, it can easily become an addiction.
- Nervous behaviors like chewing nails – Since we are not dealing with stress directly, we end up releasing our nervous energy by biting nails or pinching our skin.
- Procrastination – One of the most common consequences of avoidance coping is procrastination which only serves to increase our anxiety and makes us feel even worse than we started with. We end up questioning our motivation, willpower and discipline which can lead to low self-esteem and feeling stuck in life.
- Passive aggressiveness – The stress of being stressed makes us irritable and more aggressive than normal as we usually want to be left alone and don’t have patience in dealing with other people or routine tasks during the day. Often, this can lead to us pushing away the people we most love and makes us feel even more lonely and depressed.
- Rumination – Some of us keep thinking about the same negative stressors over and over again wondering why this is happening to us and brooding over the circumstances. This sends us even more into a negative spiral and unable to respond to life’s challenges in a proactive way.
- Chronic Illnesses – incidences of autoimmune illnesses such as IBS, Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis affect about 50 million Americans and is only increasing each year. Studies have shown that up to 80% of patients have reported high levels of stress prior to diagnosis leading researchers to hypothesize that increased production of stress-related hormones. This leads to immune dysregulation and cause auto-immune illnesses.
In a nutshell, not dealing with stress directly leads to what we commonly perceive as self-sabotage – engaging in behaviors seemingly against our own will and feeling a lack of control over our lives.
How to manage stress (a step-by-step guide)
To deal with stress in a healthy way, we need to understand what causes stress at the deepest level so we can deal with the root causes rather than just the symptoms.
Part A – Decode the 4 real causes of stress
Stress as we learned previously is primarily a threat to our survival, and these threats in the modern world occur in four different dimensions according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Identifying which of these are the biggest stressors for us can help us formulate an effective response instead of relying on ineffective coping mechanisms.
1. Safety threats
The first rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs states that we all have a basic desire for safety in terms of good health, financial freedom and a stable job. If any of these are missing from our lives, it is perceived by the body’s evolutionary system as a threat to survival which triggers our stress response.
At this point, ask yourself if you are facing any safety threats:
- Work pressure – Do you have a too demanding boss? Are you overloaded with work? Do you have annoying co-workers? Are you fearful of losing your job?
- Financial freedom – Are you anxious about having enough money to take care of yourself and your family? Do you not have a stable income source? Are your expenses more than your means?
- Health issues – Do you or anyone in your family have a health crisis or chronic illness? Do you feel like your health is not good enough to fully live life on your terms? Are you dependent on other people for optimum health?
2. Love and belonging threats
The second rung of Maslow’s needs states that we are all seeking to belong to a social group and that love is an important human need.
Are you feeling a sense of love, intimacy and belonging or is this something currently missing in your life?
- Do you have a happy marriage or relationship with a partner that fulfills you?
- Are you happy with your role as a wife, mother, daughter and sister? Or do you feel like you aren’t able to give your all to your family?
- Do you have friends or a social circle that you feel connected to?
- Do you experience feelings of loneliness or lack of love and support?
3. Self-esteem threats
The third rung of Maslow’s needs are a key motivator for many of our actions – our need for self-esteem. This is reflected in our confidence, achievement and the respect we receive from others.
If your self-esteem is affected:
- You maybe constantly seeking for validation from external sources, not from within yourself
- Your confidence and belief is high when you are praised or when you achieve something, otherwise you feel depressed.
Are you experiencing any of these feelings?
For many of us, our self-esteem can also be low because we are too tough with ourselves – for example, we may have many achievements but we judge ourselves based on our weight, our clothes size or what we didn’t get done instead of recognizing what we are doing well.
Dictated by societal pressures and our own perfectionism, this leads to artificial stress which we create for ourselves. Often escaping from this stress makes us so obsessed with the task at hand.
For example, to lose weight, we may go on extreme diets that we end up self-sabotaging (for example, binge or emotional overeating to stop feeling stressed about our weight) which then makes us even more stressed and creates a vicious cycle (diet – binge – diet cycle for example).
4. Self-actualization threat
The final rung of Maslow’s needs is the ultimate goal of all human existence – to fulfill our potential and be our best selves. When we are able to do this, we can chase our dreams and have the autonomy to be creative, spontaneous and engage in activities that are meaningful to us.
If self-actualization is your biggest cause for stress, ask yourself:
- Do you feel like you are holding back? Do you feel like you are not living up to your full potential that you could be so much more?
- Is there a dream, a deep desire to change the world that you’ve been holding back on?
If you feel like you are holding back either because you don’t know what to do, you’re experiencing a mid-life crisis or because you’re valuing stability over chasing your dreams, then finding a way around this is your biggest challenge. Finding your Motivation Engine will help you get over such challenge:
Summing it up
Once you’ve gone through these 4 causes and the related questions, identify your biggest stressor and which bucket it falls into.
In the next section, we will talk about how to manage the stressor without getting stressed.
Part B – Change your mindset to turn stress into success
There are two key mindset changes that are crucial to not only overcoming stress, but using it to turn a stressor into something successful.
1. Use the “thinking brain” not the “primitive brain”
Like we saw before, stress is our primitive brain’s response to survival which activates our fight or flight systems. While this was incredibly useful for our survival as a species in caveman times, it’s this very response that causes us to freeze, feel overwhelmed and unable to think when we are in a stressful situation today.
When we can’t think, we respond to stress unconsciously – with negative feelings of anxiety, worry, sadness or anger.
While we can’t stop the primitive brain from responding to stress with such emotions, we can simultaneously engage our thinking brain to decide how to respond to these emotions.
Our “thinking brain” can make reasonable and conscious choices in regulating our response to stress.
It can help us decide that although we are experiencing emotions of anxiety (which is a biological response), we can choose not to feel anxious. As feelings are a result of how we respond to our emotions, we are fully in control of how we feel when we are confronted with a stressful situation.
Our feelings are not our emotions. Our feelings are how we choose to respond to our emotions.
Recognizing that we are in fact in control of how we respond to a stressor is a key realization necessary to manage stress better.
2. Use stress as an incentive to be better
The second mindset change needed is to recognize that stress is just a symptom and not a cause of our anxiety or unhappiness.
When we start looking at stress as a way to diagnose what’s missing in our life, we can then use it to make changes that will help us live more satisfied, calm and relaxed lives.
Stress then gives us an opportunity to have better careers, more loving relationships and to fulfill our potential without which we might have never done and just “settled” for whatever life threw our way.
Part C – A step-by-step guide to manage stress
With the key stressor identified from Part A and the new mindsets adapted from Part B, you now understand that you are in control of how you respond to and feel about the stressful events in your life.
The following four simple steps can help you fully manage stress positively:
1. Accept the stress instead of avoiding it
The first step to managing stress positively is to accept it. By accepting the stress, we can be fully present and connect with our emotions. This is when we recognize our emotions and know that we can decide how to respond to stress in a healthy manner.
Avoiding stress effectively negates any positive impact from dealing with stress and instead only hides it temporarily. In most cases, it leads to vicious cycles like binge eating, procrastination and self-sabotage that we learned about in the previous sections.
Effective therapies like ACT (used in depression, anxiety and addiction) also tell us that acceptance is the key to healing.
2. Be proactive in making a change
The second step now that we’ve accepted the stress is to do something about it if it’s in our control.
For example, from Part A, if you realize that your biggest stressor is that your self-esteem is mostly dependent on your weight and body image, you can decide to focus more on your other achievements. Maybe you also developed emotional or binge eating as a coping response to this stressor, then you can get help from mentors who’ve been through the same experience.
Taking an active part in changing the conditions or environment that cause the stress will reduce stress. Think it’s too late to make that change? Sure no! Take a look at this first:
3. Practice the “Circle Of Influence” mantra
Popularized in Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Circle of Influence” tells us that focusing on the things we can control – i.e., what we eat, who we spend time with, – will make us more effective in making proactive changes.
Instead of worrying about or reacting to conditions over which we don’t have much influence, the third step to managing stress is to focus on the activities that we can actually change.
This means we can stop comparing ourselves to others or worrying about what others think of us. We can focus on doing our best and being motivated internally (what you need is Intrinsic Motivation) – all positive and healthy habits.
4. Develop grit
Dealing with any stressful situation requires a keen interest to make a change and tenacity to push through difficult challenges. This combination of passion and perseverance is the key to success according to psychologist Angela Duckworth.
Passion is a combination of chasing a meaningful goal and being internally motivated to keep chasing it. Passion is not just a fiery burst of energy or willpower but an internal drive that will help us push through challenges.
At the same time, persevering through difficulties requires us to be aware of our blind spots. It’s important to be realistic to set achievable goals, prioritize, focus and motivate ourselves by recognizing our efforts. For high performers who are used to instant results and achievement, this can be very difficult.
Understanding ourselves and our blind spots can help us persevere in the face of challenges.
With these 4 steps, we can now start to not only manage stress but thrive under it and use it to become even more successful.
Turning stress into success
Stress is our response to how we deal with life’s pressures. We can change stress from being an unconscious behavior to a conscious response by using our “thinking mind”.
By re-framing stress to be a positive tool for self-improvement, we can use it to identify our biggest need (safety, belonging, self-esteem or self-actualization). Then, use the 4-step process to accept the stress and be proactive about dealing with it to turn stress into success.
Even though you may feel like you are not stressed, but you’re dissatisfied with life or having coping mechanisms like binge eating or procrastination, your stress is just hiding beneath the surface. Use this 4-step process to build a happier, relaxed and more satisfied life starting today.
Featured photo credit: Kaboompics via kaboompics.com
|||^||American Psychological Association : What is Stress?|
|||^||International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology: The link between stress, well-being, and psychological flexibility|
|||^||Mind: What are the signs of stress?|
|||^||Scleroderma News: 10 Facts and Statistics About Autoimmune Diseases|
|||^||NCBI: Stress as a trigger of autoimmune disease|