How Calm People Achieve Success: The Benefits of a Stress-Free Existence
Have you ever noticed that in many movies, books, games and other forms of media, the best protagonists usually have that cool, calm and collected persona? They are the type who come in with confidence, calm the situation down, leave their love interest in a hot fluster with their awesome one-liners and generally save the day. Well, it may not come as a surprise then that studies have shown up to 90% of top performers have similar traits, being able to control stress and remain calm and in control when the proverbial hits the fan.
It’s also no secret that undue stress can cause quite a bit of havoc on one’s mental and physical health, affecting lifestyle, job performance and overall ability to cope when the going gets tough. Don’t get me wrong, a little bit of stress is good; in fact, stress is one of our most primal survival instincts. Back in the Palaeolithic Era and beyond – where you could be attacked by a wild beast at any moment – stress was the emotion that kept you on your toes long enough to see the mastodon, aurochs or sabre-toothed tiger before they saw you (fight or flight response). Stress is also an emotion that drives motivation. It’s stress – among other emotions – that compels you to answer your baby’s cry, to go out and hunt (work) for food to feed yourself and your family or to defend yourself against people who threaten you or treat you badly. Stress also plays a huge part in peaking your performance when you actually do need to run away from that ancient wildcat that has a taste for human flesh, or – in more modern terms – when you want to win a race or beat a deadline.
Stress is clearly a reaction that we all still need, despite thousands of years of evolution. The problem with stress in modern times though is that it hasn’t evolved along with us to translate well into our current lifestyles. This means that, while we are experiencing a lower intensity of stress (not as many short, sharp bursts of stress activity), the stress we are experiencing is prolonged and a lot of this has to do with the way our brains work. Our cave-dwelling ancestors would have reacted strongly to a stressful situation within their immediate environment, confronted the issue at hand, then dealt with it all by basically forgetting about it and getting on with life and other tasks. Modern humans are a completely different kettle of fish though, with our complex brains. We react to stress by dwelling on it, even long after dealing with the initial stressor. We let it gnaw at us slowly and consistently, then we have another stressful event and our stress is compounded.
It’s this prolonged stress that causes problems. Physically, prolonged stress can cause heart disease, adrenal issues, obesity and greater pain intolerance. Mentally, it can cause depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, a decrease in cognitive ability and has even been shown to cause degeneration in the area of the brain that’s responsible for self-control. It’s a nasty little bundle of possible symptoms, but the good news is that stress is primarily subjective, meaning you can control it!
That’s where the abilities of the Zen-like top performers mentioned earlier come in handy. By following their tips, you too can develop the ability to reduce your stress levels, by honing your coping strategies and using them during times of stress. Here are ten of the best tips that will help you feel as cool, calm and collected as James Bond:
Think happy thoughts
You know the old saying “mind over matter”? It really does work! Positive thinking mitigates stress by distracting your thoughts away from the thing that’s stressing you out. Yes, it’s as simple as that. Even on the toughest days, if you’re able to consciously focus your attention on a positive aspect – whether that’s thinking about something good that happened in the past, something positive in the present or even something exciting in your future – your effort will be rewarded as positive thoughts tend to sprout from each other.
A good example of how thoughts tend to run on tracks can be made with horror movies (bear with me now). You can feel completely comfortable in your surroundings, but as soon as you watch a scary flick, you’re suddenly jumping at sounds and shadows that wouldn’t have worried you at all before you creeped yourself out. This is because once your mind is on a certain track, all successive thoughts tend to follow this mood. If your initial thoughts contain fear, your brain will continue to conjure up scary thoughts. If you’re sad, you’ll probably continue to think of sad moments in your life. If they are happy thoughts, you’ll continue to have happy thoughts.
People who are grateful for what they already have experience so much less stress than those who aren’t, simply because being grateful increases overall happiness, which ties into the previous tip. Appreciating your life also prevents the unnecessary feelings of social competitiveness that comes with ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. In fact, research performed at the University of California has found that fostering an appreciative attitude can reduce the stress hormone, cortisol, by up to 23%! This reduction in cortisol improves mood, energy levels and other key health factors in the long term. If you’d like to explore how to improve your gratitude, visit http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/expandinggratitude for information and resources.
Check your attitude and accept the things you can’t change
Tying in closely with the previous two tips, your overall negative perspective of events can cause undue stress. If things like bad traffic, the cost of your shopping, the mess your kids make, tight deadlines at work or similar are raising your blood pressure, it might be time to re-evaluate the way you respond to these events. Next time you find yourself stressing out about something, stop and consider whether or not your reaction is proportional to the issue at hand. For instance, is the traffic jam you’re in really that bad? Is it threatening your life? If not, why are you so stressed about it? Sure, you’re probably just anxious to get home after a hard day at work, but adding stress to a situation you have no control over isn’t doing anybody any good.
Avoid the ‘what ifs’
Dwelling on what could be, or what could have been, is a sure way of increasing stress. When you’re faced with a difficult choice, you will almost always feel a release of stress once you’ve made a form decision. That means that avoiding decision making by dwelling on the what if questions will prolong your stress. Similarly, contemplating whether a past decision was right or not can also cause stress. Be confident in your decisions, make them as quickly as possible and you will reduce your stress dramatically.
Incorporate positive thoughts into your routine
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of using negative thinking when facing life in general. Thoughts like “I never get a to enjoy my lunch break in peace”, “I always get caught in traffic” or “this is the worst day ever” are just that – thoughts. Whenever you have a thought like this, consider whether your thought is actually true (is it really the worst day ever?). If it is true, is it really that bad that you need to stress over it? If it is true and you do feel you need to stress over it, is there anything you can do to change it (like leave work at a different time to avoid traffic or find a different place to enjoy your lunch, uninterrupted)? If it’s true and you can’t change it, see the previous tip… Just let it go.
Catch plenty of Z’s
There’s now so much evidence that getting a good night’s sleep is beneficial in innumerable ways, particularly for reducing stress and improving your emotional response. During sleep, your brain goes through a recharge phase, where all of your previous day’s memories are sorted, stored or discarded so that you have a clean slate the next day. If this process isn’t given a chance to occur, you end up being deficient in memory, attention and self-control. Sleep deprivation also naturally increases stress hormones, so if you’re already stressed, lack of sleep compounds it.
Find some Zen
No, you don’t need to learn the art of yoga or hire a guru to teach you how to meditate – all you need to do is breathe! Whenever you’re feeling stressed, stop whatever you’re doing and take a moment to focus on your breathing. That’s it – just sit comfortably, close your eyes, try to empty your head of thoughts and breathe deeply, focussing only on the feeling of taking each breath and being aware of the feeling of its warmth as it slowly escapes your mouth or nose. If you have trouble emptying your mind of thoughts, let them happen, but then try to gently push them out of your mind once you become aware of them. All you need is a few minutes of this whenever you feel stressed (although practicing this meditation method every day will help you to reduce stress overall) and you’ll notice a dramatic reduction in your stress levels.
Pull the plug
Thanks to our modern technological lifestyles – where most people check their smart phone or tablet constantly – the amount of stress we experience has increased dramatically. Even people who aren’t dealing with a constant barrage of emails and sms’ from work can experience stress via social media. In fact, recent studies have shown that people experience ridiculous levels of stress when they perceive that their social media posts don’t receive a high enough level of attention, if they feel envy over others’ lifestyles, if they feel left out when they see others participating in something they haven’t been invited to or if they are experiencing online bullying. There’s only one sure way to completely stop the stress our plugged-in lifestyles are causing… Pull the plug!
Whether it’s just an hour or as long as a week or more, going ‘off the grid’ for a while may seem like a stressor in itself, but if you just do it, you’d be surprised how quickly you’ll forget about the worries associated with being online. This doesn’t mean you need to pack up and go camping for a week; instead, it’s beneficial to designate some time each day that you reserve as ‘me time’. During this time, turn off your phone, shut down your computer and hide your iPad in the cupboard, then get up and do something fun or snuggle up on the lounge with a loved one and chat for a while. It’s such a simple and effective way of reducing stress, but it is rarely done, unfortunately.
Cut out the coffee
Drinking high-energy drinks containing caffeine and other uppers trigger an adrenaline response. This adrenaline response – or the ‘fight or flight’ response – mimics the effects of stress, meaning you’re creating an artificial stress response in the body. Because these drinks have a long half-life, this stress response can last for hours, meaning that any other stress you experience is compounded. It’s ok to drink coffee in moderation if you just can’t bear the thought of missing out on your morning pick me up, but if you’re trying to avoid the three o clock slump, try an apple instead. They have been shown to be more effective than caffeine in boosting energy! Plus, they are obviously healthier in general.
Lean on others
Let’s face it, sometimes you simply cannot handle everything yourself. In order to ‘keep calm and carry on’, sometimes you need to admit you have weaknesses, bite the bullet and ask someone else for help. Whether you ask a work colleague to take on some of your work, a friend to talk you through a problem or a family member to do some shopping for you, when you’re experiencing a time of high stress, having one less thing to worry about will reduce the severity.
Think about the people in your life right now and identify who you could ask for help at work or at home. Doing this will save you the worry when you do need help. Sometimes, just asking for simple advice is enough to greatly mitigate your stress, as a second opinion from somebody not as invested in the problem at hand can be very productive. Remember though, asking for help does involve a bit of give and take, so remember to also pay back their kindness by offering to help out when they need help. Doing this has the added benefit of strengthening relationships and trust, which in itself helps to promote feelings of happiness and security, which – of course – reduces stress!