Stress is an epidemic. It’s one of the most widespread and debilitating conditions in the world, yet many people act as if it is completely natural. Stress sucks up the energy reserves you should be using to create more resilience.
Here are just a few things stress does to your body:
- It weakens your immune system.
- It makes you fat and shortens your lifespan.
- It can contribute to sexual dysfunction for men and women.
Stress holds you back in all aspects of life. It costs you precious time that should be spent enjoying life. It hurts your interpersonal relationships and alienates others. It decreases your ability to make rational decisions and perform at work. In short, stress sucks.
Most people have no clue how important it is to manage stress — or that it’s even possible. They go through life thinking they’ll just bear it until retirement or vacation. Or even worse, they convince themselves that they don’t really feel any stress because they don’t have a reason to feel it. In the mean time, they go through mini nervous breakdowns on a daily basis, mistreating themselves and the people around them.
Here’s the secret: stress is not a rational thing — it is an irrational feeling, and it will only get worse unless you learn to manage it. The good news is that stress, like everything else, is hackable, so you can convert stress into a tool that makes you stronger instead of sapping your energy.
The Science of Stress
Stress is the disruption of homeostasis — the balance and order in your body. Disrupting homeostasis is not always bad. Exercise, for example, is very stressful on your muscles, but it drives your body to grow. Similarly stressing your brain in new ways — learning a new language, solving a math problem, creating a new business/product — strengthens it and keeps it functioning well. You’re designed to handle intermittent bouts of stress and adapt to them. The trouble starts when stress becomes chronic.
Constant, prolonged stress is bad news, and its effects on your body are very real. The symptoms of stress come in four varieties: cognitive, emotional, physical, and behavioral.
Here is a short list of the various symptoms:
- Memory problems
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor judgment
- Seeing only the negative
- Anxious or racing thoughts
- Constant worrying
- Irritability or short temper
- Agitation, inability to relax
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Sense of loneliness and isolation
- Depression or general unhappiness
- Fat gain
- Aches and pains
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Nausea, dizziness
- Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
- Loss of sex drive
- Frequent colds
- Eating more, or less
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Isolating yourself from others
- Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
- Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
- Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
The first step to hacking stress is learning to identify it. Once your body becomes conditioned to respond a certain way, it’s hard to change that response. Rewiring your brain, heart, and nervous system hacks your stress response, allowing you to become far more resilient with more energy to use adapting to positive stress.
Here are six ways to simultaneously reduce your exposure to stress and improve your stress handling abilities.
The Top Six Ways To Reduce & Manage Stress
1. Have Fun
This is the easiest and most basic way to reduce your stress level. It sounds simple, but many people don’t practice it enough. It’s far too common for adults to forget to spend time having fun. Family and career considerations — and the ever-present email waiting for replies — can suck the fun out of life. It’s your job to schedule fun time the same way you schedule meetings. Spend some time with loved ones. Take up a hobby or sport. Go roll around in the grass with your kids or your dog. Enjoy yourself. It’s a key part of life.
2. Synchronize Your Heart and Brain with Heart Math
Technology can help you manage stress too. You’ve got options, and while there are sexier, more expensive ways to hack your stress, nothing comes close to Heart Math technology for reliably training your heart and brain to work together. A healthy, relaxed person has high heart rate variability (HRV), which means that the amount of time between each heartbeat is different with each beat. Low heart rate variability is a sign of intense stress. When your sympathetic nervous system is under stress, your body will release stress hormones, and your heart develops an inflexible unchanging beat. This state is correlated with a host of diseases and even overall mortality from all causes.
The emWave2 is a device smaller than an iPhone. It uses infrared sensors to calculate your HRV and then teaches you to control and consciously change it. Spending at least 10 minutes every day working with your heart rate variability is transformative. Doing it before bed can fix sleep problems, and it can help with emotional eating, daily stress, and even physical performance. This stuff belongs in every school.
The goal of meditation is to become more mindful, to be more selective with your attention, and to become responsive (not reactive) to your thoughts. Meditation allows you to identify, observe, and master your emotions. Instead of instinctively reacting to outside stimuli, you can optimize your thought process and react as you see fit.
Ways to meditate include counting, reciting mantras, breathing, practicing mindfulness, and using positive self-talk.
You can reduce the amount of stress you experience through mindfulness of your thoughts and feelings. At the same time, you become better able to cope with the stress you still face. When you learn to meditate well (hint: Heart Math is a head start), the stressful voices in your head start to silence themselves.
4. Pranayama Yoga
“When the Breath wanders, the mind is unsteady, but when the Breath is still, so is the mind still.” - Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Most people suck in air using the intercostal muscles of their chest. A more effective way to breathe is with your diaphragm, also known as belly breathing. This kind of breathing helps you relax and control your heart rate.
The best way to describe this type of breathing is to describe Pranayama Yoga.
Pranayama is the art of yoga breathing. One of the five aspects of yoga is breath control.
According to pranayama yoga, there are three kinds of breathing:
High Breathing: This is also known as clavicular, or collarbone breathing. This means you are breathing primarily with the upper chest and lungs. High breathing is shallow and inefficient, since a large amount of oxygen fails to reach the lower lung. This is the least effective form of breathing, and it’s the one you revert to when stressed or angry.
Low Breathing: This is the best possible form of breathing. It utilizes your lower abdomen and diaphragm to pull air in and out of your lungs. To practice low breathing, breathe into your stomach as you suck air through your nose. Your stomach will expand as you breath in and compress as you exhale. Your chest and shoulder blades will not move much — only your stomach.
Middle Breathing: As you might expect, this is somewhere in between high and low breathing. It’s “better” than the former, but not as good as the latter.
There are four phases of proper breathing.
- Inhale (Puraka in yoga-speak): This should be a continuous, long breath.
- Pause & hold (Abhyantara Kumbhaka): This is a pause before exhaling. You should not move any muscle during this process.
- Exhale (Rechaka): This should be a controlled, relaxed, continuous exhale.
- Pause After Exhaling (Bahya Kumbhaka): This is just like the first pause and starts the cycle over again.
Controlled breathing is a great first step to mastering stress. Even a few minutes a day, done for two weeks, can have amazing effects. Add it to your morning routine and see what happens.
You can use this technique any time you experience discomfort or tension. Instead of kicking a trash can or thinking dark thoughts about that screaming baby in the airport when your flight gets delayed, take a few slow deep breaths and put your focus only on what it is like to breathe. You’ll feel better immediately.
Here are two more great breathing techniques:
The One Minute Breath
- Breathe in to the diaphragm for 20 seconds.
- Hold for 20 seconds
- Exhale for 20 seconds
- Breathe in to the diaphragm through the back of the throat for 4 seconds
- Hold for 4 seconds
- Breathe out slowly through the back of the throat for 6 seconds
- Hold empty breath for 2 or more seconds
At first, it is common to feel like you’re going to die when you hold your lungs without air in them for even a second or two. Your brain rewires itself to be calmer when you practice slow breathing.
5. Improve Your Sleep
Sleeping well can combat stress and leave you refreshed, but stress can stop you from sleeping well. That sounds like a catch-22.
Fortunately, you have a few tools to tip the scales in your favor.
- Magnesium calms brain activity and actually protects your brain cells from stress-related damage. Taking some in the evening can help you relax and improve your sleep, especially if your mind races when you’re lying in bed.
- Vitamin D also improves sleep. About half the global population is deficient in vitamin D, and deficiency is linked to trouble sleeping. Try supplementing with vitamin D to improve your sleep and hack your stress (and check out this article for more about the beneficial effects of vitamin D on sleep).
- Meditation and the breathing exercises discussed above can also help you sleep more deeply. Doing the 4-4-6-2 breath as you fall asleep is particularly powerful.
6. EEG Neurofeedback
This is the Porsche of brain upgrades. It’s more expensive but faster, and worth every penny. You can pay to be treated by a professional (akin to renting a Porsche on a track with a pro driver) or, you can buy your own unit and learn to hack your own brain (buy a sports car and learn to drive it).
EEG neurofeedback, also known as neurobiofeedback or simply neurofeedback, is the process of understanding how your brain responds to certain emotions. Electrical sensors are placed on your scalp in various positions, and you are taken through a series of tests to try and alter your brain state. During the training, you receive real time information about what your brain is doing. This allows you to use various mental techniques to change the way your brain functions. You actually learn to change the electricity coming from your brain.
Stress is one of the most overlooked and under appreciated problems in modern life. Diet, sleep, and exercise are all important, but mental and physiological stress will undermine your best attempts at anything unless you mange them. By rewiring your brain and nervous system to handle stress more efficiently, you will become a more effective person in all walks of life, and the stress you do experience will be the kind that makes you stronger.