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Stress proof

In today’s chaotic period, you can quickly go from short bursts of inevitable stress to chronic stress, with devastating consequences for your health and work. Here are practical strategies for strengthening your natural defenses in order to fight back.

When you’re stressed, your body gears up for a real or metaphorical battle, changing its “set points” — baseline levels for blood pressure and hormones — to a higher level to prepare for a challenge or danger. Normally, when the danger has passed, your set points return to normal. But if perceived threats never pass or are too frequent, your set points stay elevated, which is when you suffer the negative mental and physical consequences of chronic stress. But, happily, there are things you can do to help your mind and body become more resilient. In her 2017 book Stress Proof, Cambridge-trained neuro-ophthalmologist Dr. Mithu Storoni out- lines a multifaceted approach for building your stress resilience, based on her research into the concrete steps proven to strengthen cognitive and physical resistance. “When the mind is in its optimal state, it reacts differently. It is more resilient in the face of stress. It heals faster after a trauma. It thinks constructive thoughts and views the world rationally… It truly makes us more stress proof.”

Rational thinking and self-control: the two skills crucial to stress management

When you’re stressed, what Storoni calls the “rational brain” is overtaken by the “emotional brain,” leading to difficulties in regulating emotions, motivation and the ability to feel pleasure. The goal is to strengthen the rational brain and control emotions. People with good self-control cope better with stress, perceive fewer situations as stressful and react more calmly when faced with a challenge. The author suggests a variety of strategies, from short-term fixes, such as playing computer games that engage the rational brain when confronted by negative emotions, to more long-term solutions, such as focused attention meditation, yoga, and cognitive reappraisal, which help build self-control (See box “Long- term stress-busting practices”).

Want to stay calm? Take a step back and try to help others

When you’re in an emotional state, your mind focuses on identifying possible threats, which creates a negative bias. With this skewed perception of reality, you can miss more complex cues. Taking a second look at your situation after disengaging your emotional brain can help to yield a more accurate picture. One way to do this is by asking how and why. If you achieve success, Storoni suggests you ask the philosophical question “why?” Ruminating on a negative situation can create a downward spiral into negativity, but lingering on happy thoughts can only prolong your good mood. Meanwhile, in the event of failure, ask the less philosophi- cal, more pragmatic question, “how?”, which engages your rational brain and encourages fact-based analysis. Another stress-reducing strategy is to adopt a collaborative mindset at work rather than a competitive one. When problems arise, for example, instead of seeing the situation as “me vs. them”, train yourself to remember that your values are directed toward helping others, because they are your team members and allies. Try to focus on the overall journey of your team or business, not your own personal ambitions and ego: “Even if you are in a cutthroat competitive environment, this approach is likely to give you an edge as it may help you to say calm and focused.”

Small daily pleasures closely linked to stress resilience

The so-called reward circuit in your brain is essential to motivation. Chronic stress, however, can have a devastating effect on motivation, bringing on depression and an inability to experience pleasure. In experiments with mice, for example, a depressed state is induced when they are given a series of electric shocks which they cannot evade. At first, they try to escape but eventually become depressed and give up. Even if you later offer them an escape route, they won’t take it. They lose their motivation. To protect you from chronic stress and its damaging effects on your reward circuit, Storoni advocates actively cultivating pleasure in your daily life. Typically, when you’re stressed, you cut back on “nonessential” activities, such as things you do purely for pleasure. Gradually, you stop doing things that bring you pleasure completely; meanwhile, chronic stress increases negative emotions, and you get sucked into a negative spiral. “You must treat pleasure with the same importance with which you treat going to work or taking a shower, by allotting time for it every day,” Storoni writes. For this, she recommends creating an action plan, with clear steps set out in a checklist, no matter how simplistic or unnecessary it may seem (“check on swimming pool hours, get out swimsuit, pack a gym bag”). Simply completing steps triggers your reward circuit, as the mind likes closure. She also advocates turning to the arts for pleasure: reading an absorbing detective novel, watching a ballgame, watching a funny movie, listening to music.

Adopt a healthier lifestyle, because stress resilience is also physical

One simple way to return to baseline after a stressful experience is light exercise, such as a brisk walk around the block, which lowers the levels of cortisol that your body releases in the face of stress. (Note, however, that more intense exercise has been found to raise cortisol levels.)
Another basic recommendation is to make sure you get enough sleep, as sleep is “like taking your car to the garage after a long trip for a general tuneup, clean-up and replacement of worn-out parts.” Finally, rather than “stress-eating” a container of ice cream, why not take in nutrients that actually fight the effects of stress? Chronic stress tends to increase inflammation in the body. For this and other reasons, Storoni argues that proper nutrition is an important part of stress-proofing. In particular, she recommends eating natural probiotic yogurt, which has been shown to have a positive effect on mood, as well as aiding in digestive-tract health; keeping hydrated (dehydration can have a negative eff ect on mood); avoiding foods with refined carbohydrates and added sugar, which may increase cortisol levels; and getting enough salt, which also helps the body adjust to stress. In addition, she touts the benefits of matcha, a green tea whose powdered form delivers maximum levels of the amino acid L-theanine, which may improve emotional regulation and decrease depression. She also encourages adding the spice turmeric to your diet for its antidepressant and neurogenerative qualities.
Using this multifaceted approach in the face of fast-moving societal and technological changes, you can reset your body and mind so it is better able to adapt to challenges. Though it is best to address chronic stress on multiple fronts, Storoni admits that it may not be possible to implement all of her suggestions. However, controlling what you can control will go a long way to adding to your resilience reserve.

Stress reduction tactics 

A common mindset when you’re stressed is to take an overly negative view of the situation, even if it is not rationally warranted. To counteract this cognitive bias, 19th-century French philosopher Émile-Auguste Chartier proposed a strategy known as “Finding the pin”. Imagine a nurse who becomes increasingly frustrated by a crying baby because she imagines it is crying just for the sake of crying, until she discovers a diaper pin is pricking the baby and causing pain.
“Finding the pin” is about trying to understand why a stress trigger is present, and it has been shown to drastically reduce stress. For example, by trying to “Find the pin,” you may perceive that a person was curt with you because he just lost his job and is expressing his anger, which should help you not to take his curtness personally.
Cognitive reappraisal techniques like “Finding the pin” are useful when your emotional brain gives you a distorted, negative impression of reality. Reappraisal offers a chance to disengage your emotional brain and pay attention to evidence you might have missed. Another such technique is to shift from a first- to a third-person perspective when reflecting on a stressful memory, which can help you feel less immersed in the action and observe it with more critical distance.


  • Chronic stress can result in your “emotional brain” gaining the upper hand over your “rational brain”.

  • There are steps you can take to regain control, strengthen your rational thinking, and become more resilient.

  • It’s best to take a multifaceted approach to becoming stress proof, but a small step can go a long way toward reestablishing balance.

Excerpt from Business Digest N°283, February 2018

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Caroline Schuurman
Published by Caroline Schuurman