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How I control stress and why it’s important

Performance, happiness and continuing to live life to the fullest are key objectives of mine. But with that comes stress, it’s part of the package. Stress is good and bad. In the right dose it is helpful – it gets me charged up to get things done and it unlocks those competitive forces. But too much stress left unchecked is a problem.

As I have gotten older I have noticed that I am more sensitive to stress and more careful about exposing myself to stressful situations. So to continue to do the things I do and continue to take on sensible risks and challenges, like starting a new business, I’ve had to develop an effective stress management practice.

Here’s how it works for me…

 

My Principles for Stress Management

We all have a stress bucket – which is a metaphor for our level of tolerance to stress. Some of us have bigger buckets than others and as a result can tolerate more stress. But when we constantly add stress to the bucket without emptying any out, our bucket overflows and that’s when our health starts to suffer. So here’s my “bucket emptying” routine.

  • Avoid unnecessary stress – Dealing with stress takes a lot of energy so I would prefer to conserve my energy for the unavoidable stress and for the stress I decide to take on. The obvious unnecessary stress is from lifestyle – not sleeping well, eating the wrong foods, poor exercise habits, drinking too much alcohol and not having enough down time.
  • Improve resistance to stress – This is really the opposite to the above. Eating the right foods, sleeping well, exercising correctly and exposing yourself to controlled doses of stress can all help improve your tolerance (increase the size of the bucket). Also the comfort of knowing you have an effective stress management routine will give you the confidence to take on stress and build up your resistance.
  • Reduce the impact of stress – Once again, sleep well, eat the right foods, proper exercise (is this sounding familiar?) downtime, relaxation, stress discovery and rebalancing all help reduce the impact of stress.

Here’s how I put these principles into practice:

1. Sleep

Sleep is the crown jewel not just for managing stress but for overall health and wellbeing. It is our internal clean and repair system that mops up the damage and helps empty the stress bucket ready for the fill that is coming the next day. We all know what it is like to get a good night’s sleep. Problems don’t seem as big or as challenging and we are more able to cope with stressful situations.

The problem is that chronic stress disrupts sleep which makes it harder to recover from stress. A vicious cycle. I’m not the best sleeper in the world but I have a sleep routine that helps me get more good night’s sleep than bad. In times of stress when I know my sleep is at risk I focus on eliminating sleep disruptors and ramping up sleeping promoting activities. For my tips about this read my post Hacks to get a good night’s sleep.

2.  Eat Clean and Healthy 

I eat clean and healthy most of the time. I enjoy it and love the way it makes me feel. But when I’m stressed I’m even more vigilant about what I eat. Stress has something about it that fills you with an overwhelming urge to eat crap food. Processed sugary stuff and fast food seem to the go-to fare. But just like poor sleeping, bad food adds to your stress. It might give you a pleasure boost and energy spike, but the effects are short lived.

To manage stress, you need clean nutritious foods that don’t tax the system and provide the nutrients your body needs to boost energy and strengthen your stress fighting machinery.

3. Balancing the nervous system

We have an autonomic nervous system which has two limbs – the parasympathetic (rest and digest system) and the sympathetic (the stress response system). Stressful situations trigger the fight or flight mechanism. When this happens, the sympathetic autonomic nervous system goes into overdrive, causing a cascade of stress responses. These are helpful when our life is under threat but not that helpful when it is not.

I am sympathetic dominant which means I have a heightened sensitivity to stress and find it difficult to turn down the stress response. Increased anxiety, brain fog, rumination, fatigue, distractedness are typical symptoms of my bucket overflowing.

My two go to practices to help me dial down the stress response and rebalance the nervous system are breathing techniques and meditation. When it comes to breathing I use alternate nostril breathing and box breathing. Both of these are great techniques to use on the go, just before or during a stressful event.

I also meditate on a regular basis, 20 minutes a day for at least 5 days a week. I have practiced mindfulness and TM (transcendental meditation) but more recently I have been using a technique called HeartMath. HeartMath is a scientifically proven stress management system that helps you synchronize your brain and heart for optimal stress resistance and mental performance. Using heart focused breathing while tapping into feelings of love and gratitude rebalances your nervous system and trains you to optimize your heartbeat to relaxed calm levels. There is also a nifty app that help you measure your progress. I highly recommend this technique; so much so that I am training to become a Certified Add Heart Facilitator.

4. The right exercise at the right time

Exercise is important for improving our resistance to stress. But too much of the wrong type (constant cardio or HIIT sessions) or not allowing the body to sufficiently recover from exercise can exacerbate stress and quickly lead to the bucket overflowing. I exercise far less than I used to and I will only do hard exercises when my stress levels allow it (which is usually 1-2 times per week). I assess my exercise readiness by measuring my heart rate variability (HRV is the gap between your heart beats which is a proven indicator of stress). If my HRV is in the red zone I won’t exercise at all.

5. Connect with nature

I find that connecting with nature is a great tonic for stress. Getting out doors and going for a walk in the bush or along the beach and taking in the full sensory experience helps me relax. If I can I will take my shoes off and go barefoot.

I also find that outdoor active play, rather than typical exercise works well. Throwing the frisbee, kicking the footy, playing cricket etc gives you a moderate workout in the fresh air as well as connecting you with friends and family. All good stress reducers.

Gardening is also great. My wife is an avid gardener, I’m the labourer, but I find just getting in the garden and pulling out weeds (and sometimes plants by mistake, much to the chagrin of my wife!) is relaxing and helps me get in the present moment.

There are also other things I do from time to time like take supplements (occasionally I will take adaptogens like Ashwagandha or Rhodiola) or just chilling out and getting lost in a Netflix series.

So that’s the core of my stress management routine. It works for me and enables me to continue to perform at a high level and at the same time maintain my health and happiness.

Let me know how you go about managing stress.

Until then, be Powerful.


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