Plus 5 tips for reducing stress
The author of a new book about stress and how to fight it says the way we've been approaching the issue is all wrong: we need to treat the stress itself, rather than focus on its causes.
Sarah Laurie is a New Zealand author and life coach who has spent the better part of a year speaking with neuroscientists, psychologists and other experts about what causes stress and how people can reduce its presence in their lives.
Laurie was inspired to write the book, Stress Less, after her speech at a law conference where she was told all 350 people in the room would know someone who had ended their lives due to the stress of their jobs.
"I just couldn't let it go," says Laurie, who became obsessed with the idea that there must be something she could uncover about stress that could help.
Stress Less posits that stress is a learned response to situations we perceive as dangerous, which we can unlearn with the right tools.
"It's about recognizing this is a brain pattern change that is required, and the key thing about that is we've got complete control over that."
Laurie says one of the most stressful feelings of all is feeling out of control of your own
life, but the answer doesn't necessarily lie in changing these external situations.
She spent time at the University of California, Berkeley talking to experts on the subject.
"[I] worked with a woman there and out of everything we talked about I had one question for her, which was 'if we turn off the stress response, will our feeling of stress ease?'"
The answer, Laurie says, was a categorical "yes".
The stress response, Laurie argues, is a natural reaction to what we perceive as danger, which sends our brains into fight or flight mode and doesn't allow for the "executive functioning region" in the pre-frontal cortex to work through the problem.
In instances where stress is triggered it can be hard to remember mindfulness or breathing techniques, Laurie says, and we'd be better off working at re-wiring our responses day by day, to change our reactions for good over time.
"If the way we're experiencing our stress is the issue, then we need to learn to experience our stress differently," Laurie says in Stress Less.
"The way to do this is to manage our stress response, and this occurs in the brain. It's hard to get our head around the idea that it's not what's happening in our life that's causing our stress, but rather it's how we experience what's happening that makes the difference.
"This is one of the fundamental shifts required so that people suffer less."
Laurie recommends "disengaging" this fight or flight mode every day by stopping for a minute every hour and a half to reintroduce calm into your day.
"My wish is that people will start these patterns in a bite-sized method," she says.
Her book aims to help people in high-pressure jobs who feel so overwhelmed by stress they are unable to cope.
Sarah's 5 tips for reducing stress:
1. Decide to make the change, now.
When people are experiencing ongoing stress there is often an intention to change how they do things. However, they don't feel they have time. This is mostly a result of being 'trapped' in the cycle of being busy, as well as over-estimating how big those changes would be.
2. Acknowledge that the stress you are experiencing is due to the brain's stress response, and not solely due to the circumstances in your life.
This is a challenge, as we are used to evaluating our stress based on what's occurring in life.
3. Commit to short, concise, consistent behaviours that reduce the stress response.
Specifically, pausing and turning away from your screen or work for 60 seconds every 90 minutes. Or stopping and breathing into your stomach for 60 seconds every 90 minutes. The 90 minutes is key, because this frequency begins the new brain pattern that eases the stress response.
4. Think differently about your situation.
More than we realise, our brain forms patterns from our thinking. Therefore what you think most, will perpetuate. And secondly, a positive thought versus a negative one has a neural impact that determines how we view our circumstances. Not the other way around.
5. Focus on the good stuff
Every night, and in fact more regularly throughout the day if you are chronically stressed, specifically turn your attention to what is working well. This serves a dual purpose; it puts the challenges in perspective, by reminding yourself of what's good, and secondly, based on the above theory, when you think about something regularly it becomes a pattern - therefore you will experience a shift toward optimism.
Stress Less is available for purchase here