3 unexpected ways to radically reduce stress
Have you seen how dogs show they’re stressed? They can pant and salivate (more than usual!), pace up and down (just like humans do), lick their lips, tremble or growl when you approach them. You will see some of these symptoms even when dogs are not stressed, but a combination of them, more than usual, is typically an indication that they’re under stress. We humans are much better at hiding stress symptoms. We can either hide them altogether, pretending the world is fine and we’re cool, or we mask our stress with a happy face and making jokes.
But as good as we think we are at hiding or masking stress, it inevitably shows up. Sometimes when we least expect it, and often when we can least afford it.
The imperative to survive
Our bodies and minds have evolved with one primary directive: survive. We’re hard-wired to spot danger, analyse it faster than we can think (literally) and get our first response ready: fight or flight.
In today’s society, there’s a different kind of danger that causes stress. These are low-key, long-term stresses. Things that we don’t always realise is raising our stress levels, but nevertheless do. Think of things like financial worries, continuous streams of doom, gloom and outrage from the news networks, traffic getting worse every day and thousands of marketing messages telling us we’re not quite good enough, our teeth are not white enough and we’re losing out because we don’t drive the latest and greatest.
All of these low-key, long-term stress factors trigger our fight or flight responses, but because we know the danger is (mostly) not immediate or life-threatening, we just live with them. But they’re there, and over time they build up until something triggers an outburst. Usually when we really don’t want it to.
So we need a way to cope with these stresses. I’ve found some things that really help me reduce stress, but never expected them to. Here they are.
Unexpected Way 1: Get it out of your head
Every Friday morning one of the first things I do is a weekly review. I write in a personal journal that nobody else will ever see, and use five headings:
Wins - things that I accomplished or did that life me up;
Learnings - things that I learnt that didn’t work; every failure is a lesson in disguise;
Personal - how my personal relations (my wife and family) are doing;
Mindset - where my head has been the past week; and
Gratitude - for the people, circumstances and things like health I can all too easily take for granted.
I’ve not always been good at sticking to my weekly journal entries - and every time I skip a week, the following week is not nearly as productive as it should have been. And more importantly, the weekend is not nearly as enjoyable, damaging my personal relationships and taking just a little bit of joy out of my life.
The main point of these weekly journal entries is that I get shit out of my head. Call it reptile brain, monkey brain or just brain chatter, stress in our lives causes an inner dialogue that we’re not even always aware of.
Just the act of writing down the things that are stressing me out is an immediate stress reliever.
Getting stuff out of your head and onto paper (or in my case an electronic journal) gives you perspective. It gives your brain permission to let go of the thing that’s stressing you out, and there’s an immediate stress relief.
The additional upside: when we’re less stressed, we can better handle the things that are causing us stress in the first place.
I never expected these benefits just from writing things down. Now, I stick to my weekly journal entries religiously; the upside is worth way more than the half hour I spend doing it. Your mileage may differ - you may get better results from daily journal entries - but I can personally vouch for just how good this is.
Unexpected Way 2: Get shit done
Stress is not all bad of course. The right kind of stress helps us perform better, focuses our minds and helps us get stuff done. There’s nothing like not being able to pay the rent, or the mortgage, or the car payment, to focus our minds on the things that are important right now. There’s nothing like a bit of stage fright to make us hyper-aware of the audience we’re going to present to, the message we’re trying to get across and the engagement we get when we’re in great form.
But stress has a nasty way of de-focusing us. Too much stress causes the monkey brain to chatter, throwing up worrying thoughts and taking our focus away from the thing we’re supposed to get done right now.
We need to tell the monkey brain to take a rest so we can get shit done.
One of the techniques I used to get stuff done is time blocking. Very simply, every week there are set times in my calendar for specific things. My Friday morning weekly review is one of them. My daily writing is another. Lunchtimes are blocked out for lunch, email and social media. These time blocks are reserved just for this activity, and my monkey brain already knows that he’s not allowed to interfere during that time.
So I get stuff done, and as it turns out, getting stuff done is a great stress reliever.
Every time I get something done, my stress levels drop and I feel better. It sounds terribly logical of course - getting stuff done will of course make you feel better. But there’s a physiological explanation: the dopamine levels in your brain increase every time you get something done. The reward and pleasure centres in your brain are stimulated, so you feel good.
I thought that getting rid of stress was all about calming my mind, letting go of shit, being like a rock in a stream. But it turns out getting shit done is an even bigger stress reliever. I didn’t expect that.
Unexpected Way 3: Get feedback
We’re our own worst critics. It’s easy for us to focus on the things that are not quite right yet, and worry and stress because we’re not where we want to be.
In some ways, this is understandable - if we’re not where we think we need to be, we’ve created our own “danger”. And our bodies and minds respond to this self-created danger just like any other kind of danger; our stress levels rise and the fight or flight response mechanisms start kicking in.
To appreciate that we’ve actually come a long way from where we were, it’s useful to get feedback from someone else.
Every second Friday I join a group of friends for an informal mastermind. We’re all building businesses of some form or another, and we’re mostly solopreneurs or in small businesses. We have a fairly loose structure to the meeting; each of us take a turn to talk about what was good, what was bad and ask for help with challenges we’re facing.
When I look back over the last couple of years, almost every single big breakthrough in my business has come from one of these meetings - when I’m forced to explain to others what I’m doing, what I’ve done the last two weeks and what I’m struggling with.
But there’s an additional upside I didn’t expect.
Being forced to explain what I’ve achieved - my wins over the last two weeks - forces me to look at the good stuff. The stuff that I normally would not make time for (because I have stuff to worry about). Talking about those wins gets acknowledgement from my peers - who will be just as brutally honest when I’m blowing bubbles.
That kind of feedback is invaluable - and I never expected just how good it would make me feel, and how much stress I could let go of because I got to know just how far I’ve come.
There are many other ways to reduce stress, of course. These three were the ones that I didn’t expect, and they’ve made a huge difference in my life.
Getting stuff out of your head gives your brain permission to let it go. You will reduce mind chatter, lower your stress level and be able to deal more effectively with the stuff that caused the stress in the first place.
Getting stuff done is the ultimate stress reliever. I get more done using time blocking and closing down all distractions to get deep work done.
Feedback from other people will force you to acknowledge just how far you’ve come and give you a better perspective on the stuff you’re still worrying about.
I didn’t expect these stress-relieving benefits. I hope they can help you too.
How to reduce a dog’s stress
Animals are a lot easier to understand than humans, and reducing their stress is a lot easier too.
Sometimes you just have to back off and give them space without leaving them totally alone. Sometimes you have to give them comfort (for example, if they’re afraid of thunder) and sometimes you have to set boundaries.
But most importantly, you have to reduce your own stress levels. Animals will pick up when you’re stressed and that will raise their stress levels too. If you remain calm, chances are they will calm down because you’re setting the mood.
If you’re a dog owner, this article may help. Update for dog lovers: the team over at Your Dog Advisor published this great article on dogs recovering from surgery - a recommended read if you’re in this situation. 🐶
What you can do now
Stress will always be part of our lives, but it doesn’t need to rule us. Take one of these unexpected stress relievers and make it part of your life for a month; keep track of your stress levels and whether this new thing helps. Then add the next one.
And remember: you’re not alone. All of us have to deal with stress, and stress comes and goes for all of us. If you’re really struggling, reach out. Someone will be there.