Understanding and managing stress

Building stress resiliency

If you have completed one of our workshops with our stress resiliency experts, Andy Roberts or Dr Delia McCabe, you will already know some powerful insights from the session.

Here are some of the main takeaways:

When we face an emotional trigger, we might engage in the stress response or SNS. This prepares us to fight, run away or perhaps freeze, or procrastinate. This is not a flaw but an ancient response to a modern challenge – our caveman brain responds to a trigger as though we are under attack from a wild animal.

It’s crucial to recognise that emotional triggers are unique to each individual. For some, it could be the fear of public speaking, giving feedback, or meeting new customers. Others might feel triggered by a sense of being out of control or uncertain about their tasks. And for some, the stress might stem from the pressure of time and resources to meet high standards.

Outside work is the life stressors of wanting to fit in with other people, cost-of-living concerns, and many other factors as we engage with the sometimes messy business of family and friend life.

Of course, the stress trigger could be internal. At Breathe Australia, we work with hundreds of high-performing individuals who take great pride in their work and take personal responsibility for supporting their teams. Some of these people’s internal narratives might be self-critical when they occasionally fail to live up to their sky-high personal standards.

This short article is not about solving workplace organisational challenges, addressing career concerns or going to the heart of addressing relationship issues. But it will give you some powerful tools to help you lean into stress with self-compassion and help you bounce back (or rather bounce forward) from setbacks. You will also understand how stress management applications go hand in hand with building emotional intelligence and being a collaborative teammate.

Understanding your SNS response (sympathetic nervous system)

Switching on your PNS (parasympathetic response):

When you feel tension, heaviness, tightness, or heat, there’s a good chance you have an SNS response. In the short term, this can help you feel energised and alert and direct your attention to your challenge.

However, too much SNS negatively impacts your health and harms your work.

How will you identify your good stress/bad stress tipping point? Reach out to a colleague at work to help identify each other’s behaviour changes at times of stress. For example, do you become withdrawn or speak in a fast voice? Do you become shaky? Do you become argumentative? Where in your body do you feel the tipping point happen?

When you know the tipping point, you can use the following techniques to engage the PNS response (the rest and restore response).

When the PNS response is switched on, we:

  • communicate clearly
  • breathe calmly
  • store information well
  • move with purpose
  • listen attentively
  • nurture our muscles and power up our brain cells

When the SNS is switched on, we experience surges in cortisol and adrenalin, which adversely impacts our ability to regulate our emotions and impacts the working of our hippocampus. The hippocampus is our short-term memory – at work, we might become forgetful or fail to pick up key points from colleagues.

Switch on PNS to revive and thrive

Watch this short video on switching on the PNS, and then, with a colleague, reflect on which techniques you will use in the coming months. Make a note of these (we’ve numbered these below) and discuss your findings with your colleague. Record whether the lifestyle changes help you handle stress, be effective in your role and collaborate well.

Try these other strategies for handling stress (for at least one month):

1 – Supplements

The building blocks of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenalin, are the same as feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin. Being stressed (with SNS switched on) can rob us of these building blocks—supplementing can help. Some key ingredients for creating feel-good neurotransmitters that help us feel calm and centred include vitamin C, magnesium, and fish oil supplements. When a stress state is switched on, we are depleting our reserves of these essential building blocks.

a) Use a B-complex multivitamin (for example, Activated Bs from Herbs of Gold), plus extra Vitamin C (for example, powdered forms with bioflavonoids, like WILD C, Eden Health Foods) and magnesium glycinate (for example, Nutri-Life Magnesium Hi-Zorb), which are all useful for supporting the stressed body and brain.

b) Purchase high-quality fish oil supplements such as Bioceuticals EPA/DHA Plus.

Read and follow the directions for use. If you’re a vegan you may need extra B-12, which a simple blood test can determine. Don’t take B vitamins or Vitamin C close to sleep as they’re energising; use the magnesium supplement at night to aid sleep.

2 – Handling overwhelm

When you feel overwhelmed or start ruminating, ask yourself whether everything you’re juggling and concerned about is your responsibility. If not, practice delegating it, deleting it from your mind, or writing it down on a to-do list.

Check in with someone else to see if you need to be more sensitive or anticipate a challenge needlessly. This may take some practice to perfect; physically stepping away from the stressful space can also improve perspective and clarity of mind.

3 – Take back some control

At the beginning of each month, make a list of what you need and want to accomplish. Refer to this monthly list as you create your weekly or daily task list. Regularly reflecting on the monthly list will help you align your daily tasks with what’s truly important to you and nudge you toward your goals.
While making your lists, check to see if someone else’s priorities have snuck onto your to-do list. Separating these items allows you to prioritise and introduce space into your days.

4 – Watch your blood sugar levels

Keep your blood glucose stable by preparing for optimal nutrition. Avoid the sugar highs, which lead to crashing lows. When we experience a sugar crash, we double down on the stress response, creating cortisol and adrenalin in this state.

  • Be mindful of high glycemic index carbs such as potatoes and white bread – these are converted into sugars, which the system can’t cope with, leading to a sugar high and then a crash. And when the crash happens, we produce cortisol, elevating stress levels. Other examples include a sugary pastry and coffee for breakfast.
  • Focus on nutrient-dense meals and snacks, prepare breakfast the night before and use leftovers for lunch.
  • Make sure that you have good-quality fats in your diet
  • Use green or herbal teas to replace some coffee, and enjoy any of them away from your workspace. Too much caffeine makes us double down on the stress response – we produce cortisol
  • Take your “stress-resilience” supplements in the morning and at night.
  • Go for a walk after you’ve eaten – it helps regulate your sugar levels and reduces stress.
  • Commit to completing your rings – 10,000 steps a day greatly impacts blood sugar levels and stress.

5 – Other strategies for engaging the PNS rest and restore response

Move more and laugh more—during the day and at the weekend. Find someone else to move with, even during lunchtime, preferably looking at a green space. This will make you accountable to someone else and can increase new habit formation. Movement and laughter are natural stress reducers. They also allow us to see challenges from a different perspective, which supports creative thought. Take a micro break and walk up a flight of stairs – this one simple technique changes your blood sugar levels, your stress levels and helps you think more creatively.

Breathe – you engage PNS when you focus your breath on your belly. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. Imagine breathing in and out through a straw, pursing your lips – it slows the exhalation and helps switch on PNS. Get into the habit of breathing before and after work and when you feel heightened workloads or notice the stress tipping point.

6 – Device awareness

Be mindful of your device use. Every new image, ‘like’ click, or emoji added uses mental energy, so consistently engaging with technology drains our mental – and physical – energy.

  • Switch off your devices at least an hour before bedtime, and don’t scroll while eating a meal or watching TV simultaneously.
  • One device at a time rule – TV or device?
  • Turn your notifications off at certain times of the day.
  • Leave your devices off the table when you are with friends and family.
  • Look at your colleagues when you are talking to them.

Creating a new habit – learning to switch on your PNS

Make a note of your new habits. Share them with a friend or colleague and hold each other to account. A great way to embed these habits is by using “Habit stacking” – make a note of your existing habits and add a new habit on top of it. Example:

“after dinner, I’ll set a timer for two minutes and practice breathwork”

“before each meeting, I’ll stand and stretch”

And to deepen your understanding of how two create new habits, read “Atomic Habits” by James Clear or “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. This short video explains some of the concepts about creating identity based goals. The identity based goal from this article is to understand that you can take some control to switch on your PNS at pinch points:

“I can switch on PNS when I need to at work and have several tools which work for me.”

Share these insights with friends and colleagues