We all know that living under stressful conditions has serious emotional, and even physical, consequences. So why do we have so much trouble taking action to reduce our stress levels and improve our lives? Researchers at Yale University have the answer. They found that stress reduces the volume of gray matter in the areas of the brain responsible for self-control. So, experiencing stress actually makes it more difficult to deal with future stress because it diminishes your ability to take control of the situation, manage your stress, and keep it from getting out of control. A vicious cycle, if there ever was one.
The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure has a direct link to your performance. Individuals with high EQ are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control. The tricky thing about stress (and the anxiety that comes with it) is that it’s an absolutely necessary emotion. Our brains are wired such that it’s difficult to take action until we feel at least some level of this emotional state. In fact, your performance peaks under the heightened activation that comes with moderate levels of stress. As long as the stress isn’t prolonged, it’s harmless.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, revealed an upside to experiencing moderate levels of stress. But it also reinforces how important it is to keep stress under control. The study, led by post-doctoral fellow Elizabeth Kirby, found that the onset of stress entices the brain into growing new cells responsible for improved memory. However, this effect is only seen when stress is intermittent. As soon as the stress continues beyond a few moments into a prolonged state, it suppresses the brain’s ability to develop new cells.
“I think intermittent stressful events are probably what keeps the brain more alert, and you perform better when you are alert,” Kirby says. For animals, intermittent stress is the bulk of what they experience, in the form of physical threats in their immediate environment. Long ago, this was also the case for humans. As the human brain has evolved and increased in complexity, we’ve developed the ability to worry and perseverate about events, which creates frequent experiences of prolonged stress.
In addition to increasing your risk of heart disease, depression, and obesity, stress decreases your cognitive performance. Fortunately, however, unless a lion is chasing you, the majority of your stress is subjective and under your control. Top performers have well-honed coping strategies that they employ under stressful circumstances. This lowers their stress levels regardless of what’s happening in their environment, ensuring that the stress they experience is intermittent and not prolonged. The sooner you start managing your stress effectively, the easier it is to prevent unexpected stress from causing damage in the future. Luckily, the plasticity of your brain allows it to mold, change, and rebuild damaged areas as you practice new habits. Therefore, implementing healthy stress-relieving techniques can train your brain to handle stress more effectively and decrease the likelihood of ill effects from stress in the future.
While I’ve run across numerous effective habits that emotionally intelligent people rely on when faced with stress, what follows are 14 of the best. Some of these may seem obvious, but the real challenge lies in recognizing when you need to use them and having the wherewithal to actually do so despite your stress.
1. Appreciate what you have:
Taking time to contemplate what you’re grateful for isn’t merely the “right” thing to do. It also improves your mood, because it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%. Research conducted at the University of California, Davis, showed that people who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved mood, energy, and physical well-being. It’s likely that lower levels of cortisol played a major role in this improvement. The Davis study participants had one simple task: Pause during the day to contemplate what they were grateful for. Lowering your cortisol is that easy.
2. Stay positive:
Positive thoughts help make stress intermittent by focusing your brain’s attention onto something that is completely stress-free. You have to give your wandering brain a little help by consciously selecting something positive to think about. Any positive thought will do to refocus your attention. When things are going well, and your mood is good, finding a positive thought is relatively easy. When things are going poorly, and your mind is flooded with negative thoughts, this can be a challenge. In these moments, think about your day, and identify one positive thing that happened, no matter how small. If you can’t think of something from the current day, reflect on the previous day or even the previous week.
Or perhaps you’re looking forward to an exciting event that you can focus on. The point here is that you must have something positive that you’re ready to shift your attention to when your thoughts turn negative. Research from University College London might give you a little extra motivation to stay positive. Researchers there found that negative thinkers have a significantly greater chance of developing dementia over just a four-year period. Dementia wasn’t the only problem pessimists faced. Those who ruminated about the past and worried about the future developed more plaque build-up in their brains, had more memory impairment, and experienced greater cognitive decline than those who were positive.
3. Avoid asking “What if?”:
“What if?” statements throw fuel on the fire of stress and worry. Things can go in a million different directions, and the more time you spend worrying about the possibilities, the less time you’ll spend focusing on taking action that will calm you down and keep your stress under control. Calm people know that asking “What if?” will only take them to a place they don’t want—or need—to go. If you do find yourself having trouble letting go of a particular “What if?,” take a moment to consider your plan of action should it come to fruition and move on.
Given the importance of keeping stress intermittent, it’s easy to see how taking regular time off the grid can help keep your stress under control. When you make yourself available to your work 24/7, you expose yourself to a constant barrage of stressors. Forcing yourself offline and even—gulp!—turning off your phone gives your body a break from a constant source of stress. Studies have shown that something as simple as an email break can lower stress levels. Technology enables constant communication and the expectation that you should be available 24/7.
It is extremely difficult to enjoy a stress-free moment outside of work when an email that will change your train of thought and get you thinking (read: stressing) about work can drop onto your phone at any moment. If detaching yourself from work-related communication on weekday evenings is too big a challenge, how about the weekend? Choose blocks of time when you cut the cord and go offline. You’ll be amazed at how refreshing these breaks are and how they reduce your stress by putting a mental recharge into your weekly schedule. If you’re worried about the negative repercussions of taking this step, first try doing it at times when you’re unlikely to be contacted—maybe Sunday morning. As you grow more comfortable with these breaks, and as your coworkers begin to accept that you spend time offline, gradually expand the amount of time you spend away from technology.
5. Limit your caffeine:
Drinking caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline. Adrenaline is the source of the “fight-or-flight” response, a survival mechanism that forces you to stand up and fight or run for the hills when faced with a threat. The fight-or-flight mechanism sidesteps rational thinking in favor of a faster response. This is great when a bear is chasing you, but not so great when you’re responding to a curt email. When caffeine puts your brain and body into this hyper-aroused state of stress, your emotions outrun your behavior. The stress that caffeine creates is far from intermittent, as its long half-life ensures that it takes its sweet time working its way out of your body.
I’ve beaten this one to death over the years and can’t say enough about the importance of sleep for increasing your emotional intelligence and managing your stress levels. When you sleep, your brain literally recharges, so that you wake up alert and clear-headed. Your self-control, attention, and memory are all reduced when you don’t get enough—or the right kind—of sleep. Sleep deprivation raises stress hormone levels on its own, even without a stressor present. Stressful projects often make you feel as if you have no time to sleep, but taking the time to get a decent night’s sleep is often the one thing keeping you from getting things under control. Many of us don’t know what appropriate sleep hygiene is or why we have such lousy sleep.
7. Reframe your perspective:
Stress and worry are fueled by our own skewed perceptions of events. It’s easy to think that unrealistic deadlines, unforgiving bosses, and out-of-control traffic are the reasons you’re so stressed all the time. You can’t control your circumstances, but you can control how you respond to them. So, before you spend too much time dwelling on something, take a minute to put the situation into perspective. If you aren’t sure when you need to do this, try looking for clues that your anxiety may not be proportional to the stressor.
If you’re thinking in broad, sweeping statements such as “Everything is going wrong” or “Nothing will work out,” then you need to reframe the situation. A great way to correct this unproductive thought pattern is to list specific things that are actually going wrong or not working out. Most likely, you will come up with only a few things (not everything), and the scope of these stressors will look much more limited than they initially appeared.
The easiest way to make stress intermittent lies in something that you have to do every day anyway: breathing. Practicing being in the moment with your breathing will train your brain to focus on the task at hand and get the stress monkey off your back. When you’re feeling stressed, take a couple of minutes to focus on your breathing. Close the door, put away all other distractions, and just sit in your chair and breathe. Your goal is to spend the entire time focused on your breathing, which will prevent your mind from wandering.
Think about how it feels to breathe in and out. This sounds simple, but it’s hard to do it for more than a minute or two. It’s all right if you get sidetracked by another thought. This will happen at the beginning, and you just need to bring your focus back to your breathing. If you struggle to stay focused on your breathing, try counting each breath in and out until you get to 20, and then start again from 1. Don’t worry if you lose count. You can always just start over. This habit may seem too easy or even a little silly, but you’ll be surprised by how calm you feel afterward and how much easier it is to let go of distracting thoughts that otherwise seem to have lodged permanently inside your brain.
9. Say no:
Research conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, showed that the more difficulty that you have saying no, the more likely you will experience stress, burnout, and even depression. Saying no is indeed a major challenge for many people. “No” is a powerful word that you should not be afraid to wield. When it’s time to say no, avoid phrases such as “I don’t think I can” or “I’m not certain.” Saying no to a new commitment honors your existing commitments and gives you the opportunity to successfully fulfill them.
10. Neutralize toxic people:
Dealing with difficult people is frustrating, exhausting, and highly stressful. You can control your interactions with toxic people by keeping your feelings in check. When you need to confront a toxic person, approach the situation rationally. Identify your emotions, and don’t allow anger or frustration to add to the chaos.
In addition, consider the difficult person’s viewpoint and perspective so that you can find solutions and common ground. When things completely derail, take the toxic person with a grain of salt to avoid letting them bring you down. This is easier said than done, which is why there’s a separate chapter on techniques and habits for neutralizing toxic people.
11. Don’t hold grudges:
The negative emotions that come with holding onto a grudge are actually a stress response. Just thinking about the event sends your body into fight-or-flight mode. When the threat is imminent, this reaction is essential to your survival, but when the threat is ancient history, holding onto that stress wreaks havoc on your body and can have devastating health consequences over time.
In fact, researchers at Emory University have shown that holding onto stress contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease. Holding onto a grudge means you’re holding onto stress, and emotionally intelligent people know to avoid this at all costs. Letting go of a grudge not only makes you feel better now but can also improve your health.
12. Practice mindfulness:
Mindfulness is a simple, research-supported form of meditation that helps you gain control of unruly thoughts and behaviors. People who practice mindfulness regularly are more focused, even when they are not meditating. It is an excellent technique to help reduce stress, because it helps you reduce the feeling of not being in control.
Essentially, mindfulness helps you stop jumping from one thought to the next, which keeps you from ruminating on negative thoughts. Overall, it’s a great way to make it through your busy day calmly and productively. There’s a separate chapter on how to practice this technique.
These strategies were adapted from the new book, “Emotional Intelligence Habits” by Dr. Travis Bradberry. To order, click here. For more strategies that can help you improve engagement at your organization, check out our training programs or contact us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Travis Bradberry, Ph.D.
Dr. Travis Bradberry is the award-winning co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and the co-founder of TalentSmartEQ® the world’s leading provider of emotional intelligence assessments and training serving more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies. His bestselling books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries.
Dr. Bradberry is a LinkedIn Influencer and a regular contributor to Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur, The World Economic Forum, and The Huffington Post. He has written for, or been covered by, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Fast Company, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Harvard Business Review.