The article in Short
While acute stress responses in healthy people do not pose a threat to health and performance, the negative effects of long-term stress have been discussed in numerous studies and the general public. If you’ve ever been in a stressful period, either in your job or in your private life, you might know the feelings of anxiety and other effects like bad sleep, worse recovery, mood problems or even sickness.
In this article we will look at the minimalistic basics of stress and why it can be harmful. We will look at what we can do to control our stress level immediately as well as over a longer term. With those insights you will be able to improve your health, state of mind, mood and energy levels. Your life will become decluttered and less stressful in itself.
The most important takeaway might be a new perspective on stress, which can lead to an immediate improvement. No matter if you are having a busy job, leading a company or are struggling to get all your private projects into 24 hours, this article is worth a read.
What is stress?
Stress is an adaptive response to potential threats and has evolved over a long period of time. It can also be described as the reaction to a situation which threatens to exceed the resources we have available. A situation which exceeds our resources might lead to loss of life in a natural environment. If you can’t find food for an extended period of time, the energy expenditure threatens to use up all your stored fat, leaving you without energy. Without energy, you die. In today’s life we seldom face such existential threats but still seem to perceive ourselves as the most stressed generation ever.
This is partly due to the lack of differentiation the brain is able to make. For your body and your autonomic nervous system (which regulates heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate etc.) as well as endocrine system (which regulates your hormones), there is no difference between a presentation in front of 100 people and a tiger chasing you. In both scenarios your adrenal glands produce the hormones cortisol and adrenalin to get you awake and attentive. Your blood vessels contract to avoid bleeding out quickly when injured, while at the same time restricting blood flow to your brain. Your heart pumps at a higher frequency (higher Heart Rate) and more steadily to provide a constant blood pressure (lower Heart Rate Variability). You probably heard about the fight-or-flight response?
But stress itself is not the enemy! We need stress or arousal in order to be awake, focused and even motivated. Stress is absolutely necessary for the survival of a species. Problems start to arise when we are stressed over an extended period of time.
Over a longer period of time, stress might have the following effects:
- Inflammation in the body
- Slowed recovery
- Lowered immune system
- Inflammation in the brain
- Low mood and tendency for depression (also a state of inflammation)
- Lack of energy
- Lack of sex drive
All things we don’t want to experience as high performers. In order to perform at a high level, we need to find ways to manage our stress response. But wait a minute - didn’t we say the autonomous nervous system plays a huge role in the stress-response-system? A lot of different factors are involved in the stress response. Hormones, neurotransmitters, peptides and more. The autonomic nervous system, which controls functions such as the heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, urination as well as sexual arousal, acts largely unnoticed. That’s where the name comes from. It doesn’t need an active thought from you to work.
So if it operates outside of our consciousness, how can we influence it?
Lifestyle adaptations to lower stress
From the concept of Minimalism we can learn a lot about how to manage our stress-levels. As soon as stress is there, we can use techniques to lower its impact. Of course it's better to avoid stress in the first place, whenever possible. Why put out fires when you can avoid them altogether? Below we’ll look into the most potent concepts to reduce stress. Apart from the right mindset, I advise to look into the three macro categories for stress prevention:
- Time Management
- Sleep & Recovery
Mindset & Perception
We have seen that the brain cannot differentiate between what’s real and imagined. This means whatever you perceive to be true, is actually interpreted as true in your brain. The prime example: Stage fright. When you are trained in public speaking, with a lot of experience and sure about your content, your mind doesn’t perceive a threat. Even when speaking in front of 100 people, you might remain relatively calm. When you perceive the audience as hostile or extremely critical, that perception might change. You might feel scared, even there is no immediate danger. Your audience won’t hurt you just because you’re boring (hopefully), right?
The point is that your perception plays a huge role in the reaction of your body. Your endocrine system reacts to your PERCEPTION of reality, not reality itself. So how you perceive stress will determine how your system reacts. A simple shift in mindset might greatly reduce the pressure. Let's do a mind experiment:
- Remember a situation where you have faced severe stress (meeting with an important client, a pay-raise, starting your business,…)
- Rank the importance of that situation on your life/career/business from 1-10
- How did it play out? Did you master the situation?
Chances are that what comes to mind had a relatively large impact on your life. If the situation turned out well, it might have been a positive step in the direction you wanted to go. The situation increased your performance. So I’m telling myself that stress equals performance.
STRESS = PERFORMANCE
I can’t remember a situation in which I truly grew (in business, sports, my career and even my love life) and in which stress didn’t play a vital role. Stress is not the enemy, it's a sign of high performance. Of course after each performance, we need rest. That’s why it’s important to also recover and regain strength.
Scheduling buffer time
The underlying message of Minimalism is to focus on less, but better quality. The same principle can be applied to our daily schedule and planning. Do you know people who cram their days with appointments? Oftentimes it's even the schedule of kids that gets crammed with school, classes and courses. The constant switch of activities plus the time pressure are a reliable source of stress. Just imagine the last time you were running late for a job interview or an important meeting. How did you feel?
What if you could introduce a concept, which would give you enough time to switch between activities or locations? The simple method of BUFFER. Add a buffer into your daily schedule. Don’t be the person who leaves for an appointment 20 minutes before, when Google Maps says it will take you 20 minutes to get there. There is always a traffic jam or some neighbor who is telling you about his most recent purchase of a new lawn mower. Something always gets in the way. Adding buffer time will greatly reduce your levels of perceived stress.
Vision & Priorities
Are you familiar with the feeling of doing work because someone told you to and it's sapping your energy? If you can’t see the larger picture behind a task and the value it creates, it is hard to get motivated. Let me tell you a story describing this principle:
A monk walks past a large construction site, where 3 men are working on a wall. The first man is working slowly and looks very tired. The monk asks: “Say, what are you doing?” and the man replies: “I’m putting those stones on top of each other”. The monk moves to the second man, who is working a bit faster than the first but with a tired and sad face, and again asks: “Say, what are you doing?” and the men replies: “I’m building a wall for this project”. The monk moves on to the third man. He is different from the others, whistling a song, smiling across his whole face and working with a fast paced rhythm, putting up stone after stone. The monk asks: ”What are you doing?” and the third man replies: “I’m building a beautiful cathedral.”.
The difference between the third man and the others is that he has a larger picture in mind. He knows what he is working on and why his work matters. The same applies to our work-lives. We get stressed if our work doesn’t seem to matter, even though we put in a lot of time and energy. On the other hand, we can happily work 12 hours a day for a cause that matters to us. Just imagine a hobby you like and with how much motivation you can “work” on that. So what is important to YOU? What do YOU want to achieve?
Knowing your priorities and where you want to go will give you a PURPOSE. It will define what you are willing to tolerate and what not. It will define where you spend your resources (money, time, energy, attention,…) and what is important to you. You will experience far less stress because a lot of decisions are made by having a vision and clear priorities. When the pressure is on, you won’t perceive it as stress either. You will rather perceive it as opportunity for growth.
The process of building a vision is a bit time consuming and not that easy. It’s important to be detailed and use different senses in the creation of your future. But it will be the best hours you ever spent and will give you the highest ROI!
Immediate stress management techniques
When you are under pressure of stress, for example because you have to finish an important product and the workload is overwhelming, you need tools to calm down immediately. Luckily we have the capacity to tap into our autonomic nervous system and down regulate the bodies response. The below emergency responses are ranked according to my personal order of effectiveness and ROI, as well as applicability in stressful situations (you can’t go for a run or meditate when in an important meeting, right?).
Breathing is one of the rare body functions (if not the only) which can either run automatic or be consciously influenced. You can voluntarily take control of your breath at any time, with a bit of focus. Studies have shown that breathing has an influence on the heart rate variability (HRV), which means it's a way to actively influence the autonomic nervous system. Again: We can actively influence our autonomic nervous system by conscious breathing.
Just take a few deep breaths, starting to inhale all the way down into your stomach, then filling your chest and last but not least, inhale all the way up to the head to squeeze it all in. Then let go through your mouth, just relaxing your muscles. I call this a POWER BREATH, as it truly feels powerful to be back in control. If you take 6 deep breaths like that, your nervous system will switch from fight or flight mode (sympathetic nervous system) to the rest and digest system (parasympathetic nervous system).
Take a deep breath every now and then and you will feel its power. You can do it without anybody noticing it, which is why it is a great tool to keep your cool.
Movement exercises or even walking can reduce stress and anxiety. Especially walking in a natural environment or green space has beneficial effects on your stress levels. While moving is less effective in terms of improving mood and a relaxed state of mind compared to meditation, it is still a great tool, as you can usually apply it anywhere. Meditation requires a save and calm environment plus social approval. Walking is widely accepted in almost all environments.
If you feel stressed, take the time for a 10-15 minute walk outside. You will be able to focus much better and see things from a new perspective afterwards.
The undisputed champion of stress reduction is meditation. With a solid meditation practice you can effectively lower your heart rate as well as increase heart rate variability, both indicators of your stress level. It doesn’t have to be complicated or take lots of time either. There are many guided options out there which can be completed in less than 10 minutes. You will also find apps with great visualization, guiding you through the process.
To calm down and quickly and relax from a long day of work, I found the Minimalist Biohacker 10 Minute Meditation to be the most effective. Just one session reduces my heart rate by 50% and often doubles my HRV score. I feel refreshed and relaxed afterwards. Go and check it out if you need it.
With those tools you will be able to reduce the amount of stress occurring in your life in general, as well as manage your stress levels once they are up. Because if there is performance, there will be stress. It's unavoidable. But YOU determine how you react to and how you deal with stress.
Stress itself isn't bad. It’s the constant state of stress which puts a lot of pressure on our system in terms of health, mood and energy.
Luckily we are not solely victims in this situation and can own and improve our circumstances. How?
Your perspective on stress is what sends signals to your body (autonomous nervous system, endocrine system, etc.), which starts the production of hormones like cortisol or adrenalin and many more processes. So it's not the situation itself which is causing the stress, it is your perception of the situation. That makes sense if you look at the example of public speaking. Once we are used to speaking in front of people, our perception changes. We don’t perceive it as dangerous anymore, so our systems don’t produce the fight or flight hormones.
Did you hear of people that got sick just because they imagined to be sick? When you imagine to be sick, your brain interprets the data and makes the necessary adjustments in the body. Hormones and neurotransmitters are produced, systems are activated or deactivated and the cells start to respond. The imagination becomes reality. The same happens with stress. Does it make more sense now?
(If you think this is BS, imagine how you take a big bite into a brightly yellow lemon. Did something contract in your mouth? That’s the power of visualization and the lack of differentiation between reality and imagination. Welcome to the Matrix.)
If you see stress as inherently negative, your body will take follow-up actions and put you into fight or flight mode. If you see stress as the foundation of performance and as a necessary trigger to get things moving, your response will be completely different. Your body will not brace itself and you can keep your cool.
In order to control the incoming stress in your life, consider the following lifestyle adaptations:
Buffer - In work or private life, build some buffer time into your schedule. This will prevent you from running late on that job interview, or with some extra cash on the side, you will not panic if you get fired. It will help you gain some valuable time, keeping you from being hurried and all too busy.
Priorities - Define what your priorities are within the different roles you take. If family is your priority, it will be easier to say no to that late night team event. If your priority is to make career, you might avoid jumping head over heal into social responsibilities you can’t keep. To find out what your priorities are, work on your vision. Establish a vision of where you will be in 5 years from now, what's important to you and what your average day should look like.
As a short-term remedy for stress and pressure, use the power of the breath. By consciously controlling your breath, you establish a direct link to your autonomic nervous system. There are several different methods like the “box breath” but for me the most feasible version is just taking a deep breath. Use your stomach to inhale first, then the breast, than the top of the throat. Slowly inhaling through the nose, exhaling through the mouth. Repeat for six times and you will be back in control.
For deeper relaxation within only 10 minutes, check out the Minimalist Biohacker Meditation.
If you arrived all the way down here, you’re set for successfully reducing your stress. Why? Because you have noticed the problem and already inform yourself on how to fix it. Recognizing that stress is an issue is the first step to controlling it. By looking into your PERSPECTIVE on stress, the load will already reduce. Apply the LIFESTYLE changes and you will have more time for yourself, further relieving the pressure. If you still get trapped in a stressful situation, BREATHE.
You have all the tools to become a calmer and more effective version of yourself, ready for optimized performance.
If you liked the article and got some benefit out of it, I would be grateful if you would recommend it to people who should get that info, too. You help someone you love and at the same time spread the word about optimized performance. If you're interested in daily updates on better performance, follow @minimalist_biohacker on Instagram.