I spent the better part of the past decade writing about stress in columns for CNN Health and, eventually, in a book about our quest for health and happiness in the age of anxiety. And so I’ve heard more than my share of, “You don’t stress anymore, right? Since you’re an expert?”
“No,” I always joke. “The title of my column and book was ‘Seeking Serenity,’ not ‘Found Serenity.’”
Look, I definitely don’t have stress all figured out and, in the quite interesting times we live in, am suspect of people who say they do. But what I have learned is how to stress better. That is, I now have a completely different story about stress, which makes a huge difference in the way stress impacts me physically and mentally. That’s because when it comes to stress, your perception of what’s happening matters – and the stories you tell yourself and others over and over again about that stress matter even more.
I also know what I have to do to engage in … here comes that buzzword of the moment … self-care – or, as I’ve come to refer to it, courtesy of stress researcher Firdaus Dhabhar, “breaks, buffers and protective factors.”
Dead or Zombie
The word “stress” is imbued with all kinds of emotional baggage, but a stressor in the broadest sense is any stimulus that knocks you out of balance. And – here’s the important part -- that stimulus doesn’t have to be real, and it doesn’t even have to be bad. Leaning in for a first kiss is a stressor. Giving a great speech is a stressor. So, remember this, not stressing is not an option unless you’re dead or a zombie (which is a scenario I’d be interested in exploring, but not here and not now).
The Best Stressed
You can’t eliminate stress from your life (and wouldn’t want to), but you can learn how to see it in nuanced ways across a spectrum, differentiating between toxic stress, acute stress and tolerable stress. Toxic is the bad kind. It’s strong, unrelieved and there are no breaks, buffers or protective factors. And it lasts for a long time, as long as months or years. This is the kind of stress that’s damaging.
Acute stress comes in short spurts and, as Dr. Dhabhar’s seminal research showed, helps mobilize the resources you need in all kinds of ways: enhanced immune response, boosted brain plasticity, enhanced memory and learning, greater focus and alertness. If it sounds a bit like a superpower, that’s because it is. While doing a story with elite athletes, I learned that a crucial part of their training involves them purposefully moving into stressful situations so they can learn and practice how to stress better. And that is how they win.
And finally, tolerable stress: that which does not kill you, which has the potential to make you stronger. On its face, this can look a lot like toxic stress, but it includes a choice to see the difficult circumstances you’re in as the pathway to growth and opportunity. It requires an (often-excruciating) effort to reframe the challenge in a way that serves you. (Just to be clear, this does not in any way mean that you should remain in dangerous or abusive situations.)
As a culture strategist, I often see a pattern during organizational crises. Most everyone sees and feels the adversity. Most everyone tells similarly vexed, troubled stories about what’s happening and the impact it’s having. But there will sometimes be one or two people who take those set of dire circumstances, and create and share these productive, hopeful, growth narratives about what they mean and where they might take the organization and its people. These visionaries (who are not always a company’s most senior people, by the way) are the ones who become the leaders that the others will follow to the ends of the earth.
Which brings us to what to do you when you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you’ve got to go through it.
Going Through It
Most of us are going through our days in a series of endless high-stress peaks. That’s not only excruciating, it’s unsustainable. Self-care involves an intentional designing of your days, weeks so that you alternate between peaks of high stress and valleys of low to no stress. How do you accomplish this? By building in breaks, buffers and protective factors into your day.I will warn you that this is where perfection often becomes the enemy of the good. The nightstand/bookshelf/cupboard/desk/computer/smartphone overflowing with books/articles/apps do not count if you do not use them.
If you’re one of the millions among us who can’t seem to manage self-care, I suggest you start small:
Take deep breaths for a minute.
Get up, go outside and sit in the sun or walk around the block.
Write down 3 things you’re grateful for.
Throw on some headphones and listen to one song.
Downward dog for 30 seconds or spend some time snuggling a dog.
Sniff some essential oils.
Sit in a dark room or closet for a few minutes.
Shoot the breeze with someone you really like.
Close your eyes and just be.
Start with whatever it is you will do and build from there. And if you can’t remember to take your breaks, set a timer for once an hour or two.
Self-care also requires that you occasionally turn off the devices. All of them. Because effectively bombarding yourself with bad news and polarizing and upsetting events around the clock is another form of going from peak to peak without rest.
We may or may not be living in the age of anxiety, but we are certainly living in the age of disruption, where old, outdated institutions are crumbling around us and where we are forced to redefine and recreate our norms, values and institutions. It’s not easy work, but you will never be able to give anything that you don’t have.
#MeToo activist Tarana Burke spoke at this year’s United State of Women. “My other charge to you is this: Be gentle with yourself,” she said. “There’s a lot of work that we have to do. There’s always going to be a lot of work for us to do. But you have to take care of yourself. And so I charge you to not let your life be consumed by the work, ’cause taking care of yourself is a part of the work.”
Amen to that.
Amanda Enayati is The 3% Movement’s head of culture innovation and the author of Seeking Serenity: The 10 New Rules for Health and Happiness in the Age of Anxiety. You can find her @AmandaEnayati on Twitter and Instagram.