9 Ways to Reduce Stress & Anxiety
During these stressful times, it’s hard to not feel some anxiety. As a neurocognitive and behavioral expert, I have developed some useful strategies and ways to reduce stress & anxiety.
Inside the human brain and stress
First, what exactly is stress? It’s the brain’s reaction to perceived danger. Although our lifestyle has evolved dramatically over time, the brain’s reaction to stress is still located in the primitive part of the brain. Stress is a survival mechanism that developed from responding to real threats, like a bear or lion attacking us. In the early stages of humanity, we only had three choices: to fight, run away, or play dead. You may have heard of this “fight or flight” response.
In the past, this response didn’t last very long—just 15 to 20 minutes (because if you were fighting a wolf or a bear, it generally wouldn’t take longer than that for one of you to win). But after that initial 15–20 minutes, the brain begins to release cortisol. The effects of this are really damaging because cortisol attacks our brain cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that’s in charge of memory and one of the only parts of the brain where new cells are created.
The creation of new cells or “neurogenesis” is linked to optimism, youthful energy, and lust for life. Low neurogenesis is linked to depression and anxiety. Stress lowers neurogenesis directly, so managing stress is critical for maintaining quality of life—and for keeping your employees happy and engaged at work. In my Udemy course Stress Management: 40 Easy Ways to Deal with Stress, I explore how stress affects the brain and offer strategies to help people better manage their stress.
In my course, I provide 40 ways to deal with stress. Here are 4 strategies to help you and your employees reduce stress and 5 ways to prevent stress in the long run.
4 ways to reduce stress
The first four strategies are ways that people can reduce stress and eliminate cortisol from their bodies.
1. Physical relief strategies
By “physical” relief strategies, I am referring to movement or physical activity. When you move, you sweat, and sweating is the best way to get cortisol out of your body. Whether it’s going for a run, aerobic exercise virtually, or other forms of exercise, the key is to do a high-intensity activity that produces sweat.
2. Sensory relief strategies
People are very sensitive to their surroundings, and the magnitude of sensory input can affect stress. For example, music can be very soothing when it’s played at a low level, but when it gets to be too loud, it creates stress. This is why it’s important to encourage snoozing social media notifications during important tasks or meetings and non-work hours, listening to soothing music, and going for walks to get fresh air.
3. Cognitive relief strategies
When people are stressed, they activate the primitive part of their brain. One way of overcoming this is to activate the prefrontal brain, which is more logical and reasoned. The prefrontal brain helps us put things in perspective, so one simple way to activate the prefrontal brain is to turn statements into questions. If employees hear themselves saying “This is the end of the world,” they can stop and ask themselves, “Is this really the end of the world?” This gives them the opportunity to activate the prefrontal brain, reflect, and reduce stress in that moment. My Udemy course Stress Management: 40 Easy Ways to Deal with Stress discusses some tactics for employees to activate their prefrontal brain.
4. Emotional/social relief strategies
On a very simple level, laughing and crying are very effective stress-release strategies. Just as sweating helps get cortisol out of your body, crying has the same effect. Another important strategy is to talk about problems with a sympathetic friend or coworker. Sharing problems with a close friend, family member, or coworker stimulates the release of oxytocin, which combats the negative effects of cortisol. In a work setting, I strongly recommend creating a “stress buddy” system. Every employee is paired up with someone else and they have an agreement that they’ll always make themselves available to talk when the other person needs them. In your personal life, make sure you have a “stress buddy” either a family member or friend you can reach out to in times of stress.
5 ways to prevent stress
The four strategies above have mostly focused on stress relief—how you can feel better when they’re already experiencing stress. Now let’s look at prevention strategies that will keep neurogenesis high. This will help you and your employees be less susceptible to the negative effects of stress.
1. Maintain a healthy diet
A Mediterranean diet is the way to go: lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, etc. The brain consists primarily of water. Take out the water, and we end up with fatty acids (fat). There are all kinds of fats. Some are bad for us (like the grease we fry food with), some are good. And the very best fat is Omega 3. Omega 3 is the building block of the brain, but the body does not produce Omega 3 by itself. We need to get it from our diet. We can find Omega 3s in fatty fish like mackerel, salmon, and herring, and nuts like walnuts and seeds such as flax seeds and chia seeds. Things to avoid include things that are fried, processed, microwaved, and burned (such as barbecue), and alcohol. Even mild but regular consumption of alcohol strongly reduces neurogenesis.
2. Move regularly
I know I mentioned movement earlier as a relief strategy, but it also helps to develop resilience against future stress. People who do regular strenuous physical activity build up a defense against stress, so they’ll be more resilient when confronted with stress in the future. If possible, people should strive for high-intensity physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day or an hour every other day.
3. Embrace novelty
One of my favorite quotes about brain health is: “The brain awakens in the new.” Having a day-to-day routine can be helpful, but people should break out of it from time to time. Learn new things and try new things. Taking online courses on Udemy like yoga and photography or learning a new language or how to code will help keep your brain stimulated.
4. Foster social connections
Strengthening existing social connections is another important stress-prevention strategy. People release oxytocin when they talk about their feelings, hug a close friend or family member, or pet their dog or cat. However, other people can also be one of the biggest sources of stress. I really encourage managers to think about the way they interact with their direct reports because putting people under a lot of strain will ultimately be counterproductive. Managers must learn to genuinely and authentically care for their people, earn their team’s trust by being part of the group, and empower their team to challenge them. There are numerous courses on Udemy for Business that can help managers and employees improve their emotional intelligence and communication skills such as Developing Emotional Intelligence on Teams and Understanding and Developing Emotional Intelligence.
5. Get sufficient sleep
Eight hours of sleep a night is the ultimate building block of a healthy brain. If there’s only one thing you can do, make sure you sleep enough and sleep well. The short-term effects of sleep deprivation include lack of focus, the inability to listen, and a reduction in creativity and work quality. But in the long-term, lack of sleep can lead to cognitive impairment, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. As an employer, encouraging work/life balance and discouraging working long hours into the night will result in more productive and engaged employees in the long run.
Reducing and preventing stress is not easy—especially in these trying times. But it can be done, and the impact it will have on your well-being is worth it. Strategies to reduce and prevent stress can help you transform perceived danger into a positive challenge, change nerves into excitement, and give you and your employees the confidence and strength to approach life and work.
Last Updated May 2020
Stress relief and burnout prevention. Don’t let stress control your life. Beat anxiety and worries. Live, Laugh, Love. | By Gregory Caremans – Brain AcademyExplore Course
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