Place two people in a high-pressure environment. One thrives while the other crumples. Why? And what does this tell us about coping with stress?
The answer lies in how we create the stress ‘mind mood’. Picture an iceberg. At the top we have body state. In stress we experience this as tension, shallow breathing, perhaps a quickened heartbeat. Blood flow moves to the large muscles, stolen from the gut and affecting digestion. In acute stress this is resolved by fight or flight. With chronic stress the state lingers.
Now let’s look beneath the waterline. This is where the stuff that really matters hides: our sense of control.
A young lass who cuts herself with a razor blade as her parents fight at night, and then puts on a calm face in the morning regains some sense of control with this act, in what she sees as an otherwise powerless situation.
The alcoholic who downs a bottle of vodka each day is not escaping. He is empowering himself, albeit in a manner that is harmful to himself in the long term, and often to others as well.
By contrast a sales rep who thrives in a commission-rewarded environment sees himself in control of his destiny. This is a game to be won and so becomes a job that brings pleasure.
Similarly, the boss who is in at work all hours of the day and night because she thrives on this behaviour does so because she feels in control. She is the one who sets the rules.
We need to feel a sense of power over our life and our choices. Sure, if it is possible to remove a stress trigger then this can help. Advice on work-flow management might be the solution. A task adjustment may work. Perhaps addressing personal expectation could be the answer.
Alternatively, exercise can be used to periodically rid the body of stress hormones. Lunch away from stress triggers can resurrect a calm body. Walking in nature or listening to music can help shed recurring triggers from the mind.
But management or coping strategies do not need to come from removing triggers from our environment. In truth mind sits above our emotions. We can choose to feel however we want and pay attention to whatever we want. The simple act of reframing a situation can gives us back that sense of control, and dissipate the physical response. This is discussed more in my upcoming book, Design Your Mind: Everyday tools to make every day better.
You can affect how you feel directly, through shaping your body's attention. Slow, deep breaths that fill the lower portion of the lungs trigger nerve cells in the brain stem as well as basal ganglia of the brain that tell the body to calm down. By contrast short, repetitive sniffs do the opposite, triggering alertness and feeding a state of wary attention.
Avoid breathing in through the mouth too, when stressed, since this is a form of breathing that pulls on muscles around the ribs, filling upper parts of the lungs where sympathetic nervous system receptors sit, in preference to filling the lower, calming regions. Breathing out through the mouth is fine.
Coping with stress can seem tricky but by understanding how the mind makes moods through combining how we use our body, what we pay attention to, our sense of control and how we feel about this, a solution becomes clear. Default responses can be handy, as pre-packaged choices, but they do not have to be accepted. It is up to you what mind mood you choose for every situation. Realising this is incredibly empowering.
In the following post we will look at a commonly used method to adjust mind mood.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb