Simple Steps to Improve Your Stress Response
You’ve spent the last year planning your event down to every last detail. It’s three hours until go time and you receive the dreaded call — your gala entertainment has just cancelled. A wave of panic passes over your body, as your heart rate begins to rise and your mind starts racing through possible solutions.
While stress can often kick us into high gear, it rarely gives us our desired results. Instead, it negatively impacts our mood, limits our patience, and gives us tunnel vision, often leading us into the trap of rushed decisions.
We spoke with behavioural change expert Dr. Lisa Bélanger who shared simple exercises that we can all do in times of stress, and on a day to day basis, that require little investment of time and money but are guaranteed to improve how we respond in stressful situations. It all comes down to the four factors of good brain health — exercise, mindfulness, nutrition, and sleep — and taking the right actions to keep our mind strong and ready for whatever life throws our way.
Indulge in M&Ms: Movement and Mindfulness
The number one thing we can do in a moment of stress is move. Exercise is and will always be the best defense against stress. If you can manage it, take a breather and go for a walk.
Unfortunately, in many stressful situations, we don’t exactly have the freedom to just walk out — you can’t just leave your event to go for a jog should a moment of stress hit you. So, the next best thing, Lisa says, is engaging in mindfulness. Thankfully, Lisa’s exercises can be done anywhere, anytime and are subtle enough for you to do even in a meeting or a crowded event.
Mindfulness Exercise #1: Make Sense
This simple exercise helps you centre yourself by focusing on your five senses — sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. It brings your brain and body out of its stress response and returns you to a more normal state.
Lisa does this exercise every morning while enjoying her coffee. As she takes her first sip, she concentrates on what she is smelling, tasting, hearing, etc., to help calm her mind and prepare her for the day ahead.
This exercise can be applied in any situation you find yourself in. So, if you get that cancellation call while sitting in a conference session and you feel your stress levels rise, do yourself a favour: take a moment to bring yourself down by focusing on and answering these five questions:
- What do you see?
- What do you smell?
- What do you hear?
- What do you taste?
- What are you feeling?
Mindfulness Exercise #2: Box Breathing
Breathing controls our stress response. Lisa recommends box breathing as one of the most effective ways to bring down anxiety in moments of high stress, in fact it is often used by first responders, the army, and bomb diffusers! It has four simple steps:
- Breathe in for four seconds
- Hold for four seconds
- Breathe out for four seconds
- Hold for four seconds
Follow this pattern for 30-60 seconds. It may feel weird at first but with practice it becomes very effective in managing stress and has almost the same impact that going for a run would give you.
A simplified version of this (in case you want to work up to box breathing) is to simply breathe in for four seconds and out for 4 seconds.
In either version, you will immediately feel results. To enhance its effect though, Lisa recommends that you practice these exercises on a daily basis. This will actually change your brain and strengthen it so that it takes more to stress you out, and it takes less time to bring you back down to a resting state.
Prioritize Your Nutrition
Our approach to nutrition is cultural and habitual meaning it’s much harder to implement change in our daily food routines. But, there are actions you can take to ensure you keep energy levels up when you really need it, such as in the lead up to and on the day of your event.
Lisa recommends that you get “snacky” and ensure that you are always surrounded by healthy, nutrient-dense, high protein snacks. It may sound like a lot of prep work, but she gave us a few easy suggestions that will take no time at all, and satisfy your hunger pains while giving you sustained energy.
- Pre-cut fruit or easy to eat fruit such as apples and bananas with nut butter
- Portioned hummus with whole grain crackers or pre-cut vegetables
- KIND bars, or a similar brand of granola bars
- Homemade or low sugar trail mix
It’s important to avoid chasing carbs and scarfing down chocolate bars, no matter what you’re craving, because all they’ll give you is a sugar crash which is like a punch to the gut in stressful situations. Instead, Lisa says to focus on getting protein and healthy fat along with some carbs to keep your energy levels steady throughout the day.
Combat Stress with Sleep
Sleep is that precious time of day that gives our mind and body time to recuperate from the day’s events. Of course, when we need it most, too often we find ourselves watching the clock and counting down the hours until our alarm goes off. Unfortunately, we can’t think ourselves to sleep!
Engaging in mindfulness exercises (even the ones we mention above!) right before bed can help transition yourself from work to rest. Make it part of your bedtime routine, starting half an hour before you want to sleep.
If sleep still seems out of reach, Lisa recommends Yoga Nidra. There are a ton of YouTube videos that provide easy to follow instructions. This type of Yoga was created specifically to put your mind at rest so that even if you are unable to get that full eight hours of sleep, your mind will at least be rested making you more prepared to face the next day.
Change Your Mindset
One last tip that Lisa had for us was about changing our cognitive perspective. She encourages us to adopt a growth mindset that will increase our resilience and give us a competitive advantage. Plus, it’s a pretty simple change.
Instead of using words like “fail”, use “not yet”. You haven’t failed at something, you just haven’t achieved it yet. Making this subtle switch in how we speak to ourselves and others becomes a simple cue that changes the tone of a conversation from negative to positive and can yield better results.
Too often, these four factors of brain health — exercise, mindfulness, nutrition, and health — are devalued and overlooked by those looking for quick fixes. But, by making them a priority in our own lives, we can take back some control over our health, and even better, in how we respond to stress.
So, if you’re looking to have a more positive outcome in your day, remember what Lisa told us: “If exercise and mindfulness was a drug, it would be prescribed to everyone.”
With a PhD in Behavioural Medicine, Dr. Lisa Bélanger is an award-winning CEO who shows leaders and teams how insights from behavioural science research can be applied in the workplace to optimize the performance, productivity, and innovation of leaders and team. She has presented to clients throughout North America, such as Collins Barrow, the University of Alberta, and CEBS Canada.
Interested in learning more about Lisa and what she can bring to your next event? Email us at [email protected].