How many of us are kind and compassionate towards ourselves in times of stress? Most have us have known that feeling when we’ve got a lot on our plates; challenging targets, multiple demands (often a combination of work and home) and tight deadlines.

Yet sometimes this just helps us focus; makes us resourceful, creative, efficient. We’re resilient in the face of pressure.

Sometimes it does the opposite. We feel stuck; as if we’re going to fail at something (possibly lots of things). The pressure overwhelms us. That’s when we need to be a compassionate friend to ourselves.

The impact of Control, Choices and Competence – or lack of it

I held an interactive webinar for the Get off the Hamster Wheel  group on Facebook to find out what caused them stress and how they dealt with it. Reflecting on the experiences and wisdom, I asked myself what they all had in common.

This is when those three Cs seemed significant.  Pressure is a form of stimulation, which we can use to help us, just as long as we think we have at least one (preferably two) of those elements.

I think that unconsciously we ask ourselves:

  • Do I feel as if I’m control?
  • Do I think I have choices?
  • Do I believe I have the skills to complete the multiple demands being thrown at me?

Notice the role of our emotions, thoughts and beliefs

None of the answers to those questions have to be objectively true – you just have to perceive it that way.  Which is why one day you can cope with pressure and juggling with calmness and clarity and the next day you might not.

What is stress?

Stress is a biological and psychological response to encountering a threat that we fear we do not have the resources (control, choice, competence) to deal with. It’s important to emphasise that we have a neurological and biological response; we feel stressed when our amygdala perceives danger and triggers our survival reflexes (fight-flight-freeze).

Amgydala response to stress

This response leads to the release of cortisol and adrenalin to help us focus and meet the threat.  Too much cortisol or adrenalin and we end up shouting, crying or “playing dead”.  The playing dead piece is when we minimise or deny that we are under stress, thus causing the release of even more of these stress hormones into our system.

Simple tips for dealing with stress

Just because these tips are “simple”, doesn’t mean they’re easy.  I’m going to simplify neuroscience a bit here, but broadly speaking all of these tips ask us to use the “newer” part of our brain – the neocortex – to in effect calm down the “older” parts of our brain, including the limbic system.

Tip #1 – Become ruthlessly aware

Just noticing how you are feeling is an important step in reducing stress.  Why?  Because the ability to reflect on our feelings is what makes us human and what makes us human is the processing power in our frontal cortex.  As we use this “new” brain, it sends messages to the limbic system which can calm it (us) down.  The thing is we have to use language – so this is where talking to ourselves – naming our situation – helps.

Tip #2 – Practice mindfulness

This will help you to generate awareness as well as notice patterns of thoughts and feelings that might be getting in the way.  There is an increasing amount of neurological evidence to support what the Buddhists have believed for thousands of years; making the effort to stop and pay attention to the inner dialogue in our heads and to assert control over that dialogue will lower your blood pressure and reduce depressive and angry thoughts.

Tip #3 – Write it down

Even more effective than talking to ourselves, is to write down what we are thinking and feeling. Our thoughts get mixed up with our feelings and the more stressed we are the more our emotions sway our thoughts.    Experiment with writing down the situation as you see it.  Just keep writing until you run out of steam.  Now look at it.  How do you see the problem? Get creative – don’t feel you have to write if drawing does a better job for you.

Tip #4 – Ask the two questions that will silence your amygdala

  1. Is it true?
  2. How do you know?

Tip #5 Seek connection

Dealing with stress

From a neurological point of view, we need to balance the energy-out hormones – cortisol and adrenalin – with the energy-in hormones of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin.  These come from hugging and laughing with others, from being with people who care about us.

Stress can make us feel alone, as if we have to solve everything all by ourselves or cover up what we see as our mistakes or failings.  We can often prolong or deepen our stress by avoiding others or seeking to numb our feelings with food, alcohol, drugs or television.

We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”

― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Tip #6 Ask yourself what you’d tell your best friend

Warning! This is the killer tip – without this, the other tips might be difficult to successfully implement.

Consciously ask yourself how you think things might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend when he or she is suffering?

  • Would you be critical or encouraging?
  • Would you condemn failure or encourage learning?
  • Would you reject them or accept them?

So let’s learn to be as kind to ourselves as we are to our best friends.

How I can help

Getting away from it all in Africa isn’t possible for everyone, but a facilitated Campfire Conversation in your own country can still provide a unique and powerful opportunity to slow down, fully engage all of our senses and reconnect with what matters to each of us.