The Scientific Way To Stay Sane Under Stress

Are you sometimes so stressed, you feel as if you're going insane? Use these 6 tips and science-based tools to keep stress out of your life and away from your business.
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
September 04, 2013

As many as four in 10 adults in each region of the U.S. report that their stress levels have increased in the past year, according to the latest report from the American Psychological Association. More than 70 percent regularly experience physical and psychological symptoms caused by stress. These include irritability or anger, fatigue, feeling overwhelmed, muscle tension, teeth grinding and changes in sleeping habits.

What's more, stress is now becoming an accepted norm for many. "Previously, it was seen as something to be fought against," says Marie Dacey, psychology professor at MCPHS University. "People are not identifying stress as stress but as part of the norm. Our culture really applauds and rewards that." This is detrimental because it results in letting stress take hold, and not being proactive in managing it.

Dr. Charles F. Stroebel reported long ago that we experience approximately 30 "heart hassles" a day. He defines these as "irritating, frustrating, or distressing mini-crises." They include incidences such as disappointments, delays, ambiguities, annoyances, disagreements and conflicts with others, to name a few. They are a vexation to the spirit and they metaphorically drive us insane.

Small-business owners and entrepreneurs are no strangers to stress. Try these science-based tools to help you maintain your sanity so that you can preserve your health, and focus your mental energy on your success.

1. Use a Grounding Exercise

In How To Stay Sane, (a part of the School of Life helpful guides to modern living), psychotherapist and writer Philippa Perry explains that self-awareness is one of the cornerstones of sanity. By observing ourselves in a non-judgmental way, we can become responsible for our reactions to stressful events, rather than be a puppet with no control. Perry provides a helpful "grounding exercise" to accomplish this. It involves asking yourself the following questions:

1. How am I feeling now?

2. What am I thinking now?

3. What am I doing at this moment?

4. How am I breathing?

These simple questions are important because when you have answered them, you are in a better position to proceed to the next question: What do I want for myself in this moment? We need to be able to use our emotions rather than be used by them. As Perry puts it, "there is a difference between saying 'I am angry' and saying 'I feel angry.' The second statement is an acknowledgment of your feeling and doesn't define your total self in that moment. It separates you from your feelings. The same applies to your thoughts in that moment: by examining them, rather than being them, you can notice whether your internal mind chatter is serving you well. (You can watch Perry elaborate on how to stay sane in her speech.)

2. Adopt the Five-A-Day Program

This recommendation stems from The Mental Capital and Wellbeing report issued by a U.K. Government think-tank. The scientifically based, five-step process includes: connecting (invest time in developing relationships with family, friends, colleagues and neighbors); being active (step outside, do sports or hobbies, or just take a daily stroll or run); being curious (notice the beauty of everyday moments and appreciate them); learning (try something new, rediscover an old interest, fix a bike or cook your favorite food); giving (help anyone in your network; thank someone).

If you are struggling with a stressful lifestyle, can you make a commitment to yourself to include these five habits in your schedule, every day? Perhaps start with just one and work from there to include all five.

3. Practice the 6-Second Quieting Reflex

The Quieting Reflex is a 6-second exercise developed by Stroebel. It's a quick and easy tool that can be used at any time, with your eyes open and without anyone noticing. As soon as you become aware that you are becoming tense, or annoyed, smile inwardly. The smile stimulates a release of endorphins to counteract the stress hormones. Then breathe in slowly and tell yourself "Alert Mind"; exhale slowly and tell yourself "Calm Body." This counteracts the stressful thoughts that accompany a tense or annoying incident. End with a nice, slow breath. If practiced regularly, it will make you adept at interrupting the stress cycle as soon as you feel it occurring. Give it a try.

4. Know Your Habitual Stress Triggers and Responses

In Was That Really Me?: How Everyday Stress Brings Out Our Hidden Personality, psychologist Naomi L. Quenk, explains that when we're at a low ebb, fatigued or going through a stressful event in our professional or personal life, we show a hidden side of ourselves. Annoyances and stresses can bring out the worst in us, as the proverbial expression goes. For example, some may become uncharacteristically adversarial or excessively critical; some might become inflexible and start to emphasize logic to the extreme; others might withdraw and become unusually quiet, or adopt a martyr stance. Knowing what our habitual patterns are when we are under stress helps us manage them the next time we're in the throes of a stressful event. 

Equally important is knowing your stress triggers. For example, it might be constantly changing deadlines that force you to wing it, or lack of follow-through by your colleagues. Broadening your knowledge of yourself in these circumstances can yield powerful information to help you restore your equilibrium. The Myers-Briggs personality assessment can help you uncover the particular manifestations of stress for your personality type, and give you type-specific information on how to get yourself out of a stress cycle.

5. Curtail Discretionary Activities

A recently released OECD Better Life Index places the United States as the 28th nation in the category of "work-life balance." That's ninth from the bottom of the list. We work longer days, take less vacations and cram our schedules with all sorts of planned activities. From the moment we wake up in the morning, most of our day has been mapped out. There is very little room for idleness, contemplative pauses or serendipity.

Who among us hasn't experienced elation when an event is cancelled and we find ourselves suddenly with an unexpected free stretch of time? If you lead a hectic lifestyle, think about what you can safely eliminate in order to salvage some idle time. Idleness gets a bad rap. It's a sanity booster. Perhaps this is what Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard meant long ago when he said: "Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good." In the context of stress management, this is a wise statement.

6. Enjoy the Mozart Effect

The daily commute to and from work is a source of stress for many people. A driving music survey discovered that those who tune into rock music while commuting are more inclined to experience road rage, while those who tune into classical music stay relaxed and focused. Research shows that listening to Mozart lowers blood pressure. Music profoundly affects our body and our mind. It's one of the most easily available salves for stress.

How do you combat stress in your daily life? Share your tips with the community in the comments section below.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

Photo: Thinkstock