Updated: Mar 31
The World Health Organization calls stress the health epidemic of the twenty-first century. Most people can probably relate, especially after all the things that happened in 2020.
Moving into the new year, my goal with this article is to help you become an effective stress manager. Stress management isn't a nice-to-have skill, it's a must have. Doctor Rangan Chaterjee explains that poor stress management will lead to illness over the long-term.
“As a GP (General Practitioner), about 80% of what I see on any given day is in some way related to stress.” –Dr. Rangan Chaterjee
Dr. Chaterjee then gives many examples of problems from his patients, such as anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, poor memory, inability to focus, poor digestion, obesity, and high blood pressure. He states that all of these seemingly separate issues have stress as a root driver.
Stress is not just a problem for individuals either, it's also a big problem for organizations and society. According to a 2019 Harvard Business Review article,
"Workplace stress is estimated to cost the U.S. economy more than $500 billion dollars, and, each year, 550 million work days are lost due to stress on the job. Another study by the APA claims that burned-out employees are 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job, 63% more likely to take a sick day, and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room."
The big question is: How can we manage our stress better and be more stress-resistant?
This article will explain seven habits of stress resistant people:
They exercise consistently
(You can click on any one to jump to that section)
Stress comes from three sources: physical, mental, and spiritual. Physical stress occurs when we treat our bodies poorly. Mental stress comes from the way we think. Spiritual stress comes from a lack of connection and purpose.
The 7 habits mentioned above address stress from all three sources. Habits 1 to 3 manages stress physically. Habits 4 and 5 approaches stress mentally. Habits 6 and 7 overcomes stress spiritually. The more of these habits you can implement in your own life, the better your stress management will be.
Habit 1: Eat Healthily
There are lots of different opinions out there about what constitutes a healthy diet, such as vegan, paleo, keto, and intermittent fasting. Each diet program also has scientific studies to back them up. While there are lots of different advice for what we should eat more of, pretty much everyone agrees on what foods are unhealthy, and that’s highly processed and packaged foods. Examples include
boxed foods like cereals and pizzas
wrapped foods like bread, pastries, candy
reconstituted meats lie sausages, nuggets, and fish fingers
sodas and other sweetened drinks
These super processed foods have added sugar and salt, artificial ingredients, refined carbohydrates, and trans fats. As a result, they taste great, but they increase inflammation in the body, and inflammation is basically stress for the body. You might feel happy while eating processed food, but shortly after, you might feel drained with little energy because your body is using energy to heal from the negative effects of that food.
If you find it really challenging to resist these great-tasting foods, it's not your fault. As Dr. Mark Hyman explains in this short video, these companies have designed these foods to be chemically addictive. Therefore, saying no to these foods isn't saying no to their great taste, but saying no to being unfairly manipulated. It's also saying yes to your health.
Dr. Chaterjee gave an example of one of his patients, who was a teenager named Devon experiencing depression. He asked Devon what food he eats, and Devon replied with lots of processed junk foods. Dr. Chaterjee told him,
“You tell me you’re hungry every two hours and you need to eat. But because of the foods you’re eating, because you’re on a blood sugar roller coaster all day, when you feel you’re hungry, that’s not just a hunger issue. That’s your blood sugar falling rapidly. At that point, your stress hormones are going to go up (cortisol and adrenaline), which in turn will have an impact on your mood hormones.”
The solution? Eat more natural foods in their whole forms.
As Michael Pollan said,
“If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant [factory], don't.”
For example, eat raw or steamed vegetables instead of canned vegetable soup. Eat real fruit instead of candy bars and chocolate. Cook your own dinner from raw ingredients instead of microwaving a packaged dinner.
Dr. Daniel Amen is perhaps America's best known brain doctor, and he gives an even more extreme example of the impact of food on our stress and mental health in this interview. He says,
"The first thing I do with almost all of my patients that aren't getting better is I put them on an elimination diet. And I have to tell you, the nutritionists in my clinic, they have more success than the psychiatrists."
The elimination diet is when we remove all possible troublemaker foods for 2-3 weeks, then slowly re-introduce the foods one at a time for 2-3 days at a time. Troublemaker foods include gluten (bread), dairy, processed sugar (like candy, but not fruit), corn, soy, eggs, artificial coloring, and preservatives. These things are all extremely common in highly processed foods.
To give an example, Dr. Amen had a client with suicidal thoughts, and nothing was working for this patient. Dr. Amen told him to go on an elimination diet. This was the patient's last hope, so the patient listened. Three weeks later, the patient came back and said he was feeling dramatically better. Then they added the food items back one at a time. Nothing happened with gluten. Nothing happened with dairy. But when the patient ate something with corn, he had suicidal thoughts within 20 minutes. So Dr. Amen told him to stop eating corn, and the patient's depression has not come back since.
While your situation may not be as extreme as that patient, the example highlights how much food affects our mental health. The troublemaker foods mention in the elimination diet are so common in modern society now that most of us don't know what we would feel like if we didn't eat them. If you feel stressed all the time or struggle with mental health, it's highly worth the effort to experiment with the elimination diet.
Habit 2: Exercise Consistently
We all know exercise is good for us. But many of us think we need to work out for 30 minutes a day or 3 hours a week to get any benefits. While it would be great if you could do that, the reality is that most people feel like don’t have that much time or motivation. Here’s the great news: Even 5-7 minutes of exercise a day can have tremendous benefits!
In his book, Feel Better in 5, Dr. Rangan Chaterjee gives many 5-minute workout routines involving simple exercises like push-ups, lunges, squats, and yoga. Here is an example of a 5-minute exercise video that you can do it your kitchen without changing your clothes or getting any special equipment:
There’s also a famous program called the 7-minute workout, which you can easily find videos on YouTube for.
Exercise also helps us improve our sleep, which brings us to the next habit.
Habit 3: Sleep Well
Getting enough quality sleep is key to restoring our body’s energy and emotional wellbeing.
Dr. Chaterjee explains that sleep is like the garbage man taking out the accumulated garbage in our brain and body. When we lack sleep, our emotional part of the brain (amygdala) goes into overdrive and the logical part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) diminishes. That's why we become more emotionally reactive and unable to concentrate if we lack sleep.
According to Shawn Stevenson, author of Sleep Smarter and host of The Model Health Show, long-term sleep deprivation is a catalyst for disease since it weakens the immune system. Here are eight tips from Stevenson for improving sleep:
Tip 1: Avoid blue light from screens 60 minutes before bed.
Blue light keeps us awake and reduces the quality of our sleep. We also get stimulated from the activities we do on our devices, so we should stop using our devices 60 minutes before sleep. If you really have to use your device, then at least install a blue light blocker app like f.lux.
Tip 2: Sleep at the right time
Stevenson calls 10PM to 2AM “Money Time Sleep” because between those hours, humans get the most amount of restful recovery sleep. One hour of Money Time Sleep is worth twice as much as sleep outside those hours.
Tip 3: Avoid caffeine in the evenings
Stevenson recommends avoiding caffeine by 4PM, though the time could be even earlier for those more sensitive to caffeine.
Tip 4: Sleep in a completely dark room
Humans have evolved to sleep better in a dark environment.
Tip 5: Use your bed only for sleep
Many people watch TV in bed or play on their phones in bed. As a result, when they get into bed, they don’t feel like sleeping. Their body thinks it’s time to watch TV or play on the time. Stevenson calls that "sleep suicide." Furthermore, even if you do fall asleep, these electronic devices emit radiation that disrupt sleep quality.
Tip 6: Calm your mind
You can calm your mind using meditation, which has been proven to lower stress and inflammation in our bodies. See below under habit 5 for examples of relaxation meditations. UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) has some good free meditations here. You can try their 3 minute body scan or 13-minute pre-sleep meditation before bed if you have trouble quieting your inner voice when trying to sleep.
Tip 7: Wake up early
Humans have evolved to rise with the sun. That will help you tune into the natural sleep pattern and feel sleepy earlier.
Tip 8: Keep cool
When we sleep, our body temperatures naturally drop. Studies show that the optimal temperature for sleep is around 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit). Above 24°C (75°F) or below 12°C (54°F) will make it harder to sleep.
One extra tip from Dr. Amen is to stop eating at least 2-3 hours before bed because it's hard to sleep when our stomachs are full.
Now that we've finished the three habits on managing stress physically, next we'll look at managing stress mentally.
Habit 4: Reframe Stress Stories
When stressful events happen, we justify our stress by pointing to that external event as the reason. For example, maybe you have an important exam, presentation, or interview coming up, and your partner says, “Geez, you’re so worked up recently!” You might respond by saying, “Of course I’m stressed! I have an important test coming up!”
But think about this: How come there are people with even more stressful things happening in their lives that aren’t acting all stressed and worked up like you are? The secret is that the external events don't cause you to be stressed, but rather the way you view that external event makes you stressed.
When we focus on the things outside of our control, and when we always want things to go our way, then we get stressed. When we can be proactive by focusing on the things within our control and accept the things outside our control, then we can reframe stress into power.
As Ryan Holiday said in his book, The Obstacle is the Way,
“You will come across obstacles in life — fair and unfair. And you will discover, time and time again, that what matters most is not what these obstacles are but how we see them, how we react to them, and whether we keep our composure.”
Dr. Chatterjee gives 5 steps to reframe a stressful situation and keep our composure:
Write down the thing you are stressed about.
What is one practical thing you can do to prevent or prepare for it?
What is one reason why it's probably not going to be as bad as you fear?
What's one reason you know you can handle it?
Name one good thing about the situation.
Step 1 helps us to get clarity on what exactly is stressing us out. If we aren't even sure what's making us stressed, that uncertainty makes us more stressed! When you write, be as specific as you can. For example, don't just write "School is stressing me out." Write, "The fact that I have two projects due in two days, and I haven't rested enough, is stressing me out."
Step 2 is about being proactive and focusing on what is in your control. Rather than stressing out about the problem, re-direct your energy and attention to solutions. Maybe you can ask the teacher for an extension. Maybe you can get rid of unnecessary time commitments to make more time.
Steps 3 and 4 are about affirming yourself. As the common saying goes, "You have to believe to achieve." Maybe you remember that you've overcome stressful events in the past, or think of all the training and lessons you had that prepared you for this event.
Finally, step 5 forces us to think positively about the situation. Think about what you can learn from the situation and what you can be thankful for. For example, you might realize how you need to improve your time management skills so that a similar crisis does not happen again in the future. You can also think about how you appreciate your family for all the little things they do like cook your meals so that you have more time to study.
Another great way to reframe stressful situations positively is to see them a a test of your virtues: can you remain proactive, humble, and calm? Or do you get caught up in complaining, inaction, and entitlement? You can thank the event for giving you a chance to build your virtues.
By reframing the way we think about external events, we can change our response from stress to power.
Habit 5: They Meditate
Tim Ferriss has interviewed hundreds of the world’s top performers in all areas ranging from business to sports to science to writers. He noticed that 80 to 90% of the world’s top performers all have some sort of meditation practice.
Ferriss explains meditation as training the mind to have control over emotions and to reduce emotional reactivity. He says,
“I find that meditation is very helpful for avoiding anxiety and it’s the reset button for the rest of the day… it’s basically a warm bath for your brain.” –Tim Ferriss
Ray Dalio is the founder of Bridgewater Associates, viewed by many as the most successful investment company in history. As of April 2020, the company has 1500 employees and manages US$138 billion in assets. Being the leader of such a company is surely stressful! Dalio attributes much as his billion dollar success to mantra meditation, saying,
“Meditation more than any other factor has been the reason for whatever success I’ve had… It’s the ability to be centered and to approach things in a calm, centered way without all those fears.” –Ray Dalio
There are many different ways to meditate, such as mindfulness meditation, mantra meditation, breathing exercises, and visualization.
Mindfulness meditation is when you focus on being aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without judgment. It helps center the mind on the present rather than thinking about the past or future. For example, a mindfulness meditation you can do before bed is to lie down and really notice the sensations in your body from toe to head, then mindfully let each body part relax.
Mantra meditation, also known as Transcendental Meditation (TM), is when you repeatedly recite a series of sounds called a mantra. There's usually a meaning behind the mantra. You can recite silently in your head or out loud with your voice. People often do it for 15-20 minutes twice a day while sitting with their eyes closed. For example, a popular mantra in Buddhism is to recite Amitabha (ah-mee-tah-bah), which means infinite life and infinite enlightenment. When you understand the meaning, you're more willing to recite it. Who wouldn't want to have more life and enlightenment?
Breathing exercises use conscious breathing to center the mind. In his Ted Talk, Change Your Breath Change Your Life, Lucas Rockwood explains that our breath affects of nervous system, and conscious breathing can help us to reset our nervous system from stress back to normal. To do that, we simply need to breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds, then out through the nose for 4 seconds. Do that 10 times. If we want to really relax and calm down, we can breathe in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 8. Do it 10 times, and you should feel much more relaxed. Give it a try!
Visualization is when you imagine a positive emotion in great detail. For example, you can close your eyes and visualize love and gratitude for someone you love as a ball of energy, and then imagine sending that energy to that person. Another example is to imagine the future event you’re anticipating and how you will act as your best self in that event. Then when the actual event comes, your mind will feel calm and prepared like it did during the visualization meditation.
Those are the four common types of meditation. If you don’t meditate yet, why not pick a method and try it? I recommend trying some of the free guided meditations from UCLA. They have mindfulness, breathing exercises, and visualization. If you don't like the idea of sitting still with your eyes closed or trying to recite a mantra, then I suggest try the Wim Hof breathing method. It's very active and it leaves you feeling calm and focused after just 10 minutes.
Now that we've looked at how to approach stress mentally, next we will look at how to overcome stress spiritually, which is arguably the strongest way.
Habit 6: They Nurture Relationships
Professor Robert Waldinger is the fourth and current direct of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which tracked the lives of 724 men over 75 years. It is the longest study done on researching what makes a happy and healthy life, and Waldinger shares the results in his TED Talk.
“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” –Robert Waldinger
The study found that people who are more socially connected to family, friends, and community, are happier, physically healthier, and live longer than those who are less well connected. But it’s not about the number of social connections, but rather about the quality.
Waldinger explains that good relationships aren’t necessarily relationships where people never have conflicts. Some healthy couples do bicker with each out a lot. The important thing is that you feel you can really count on the other person to be there for you when things get rough. That’s a good relationship.
On the other hand, relationship conflicts are extremely stressful and toxic to the body.
“Our most happily partnered men and women reported, in their 80s, that on the days when they had more physical pain, their mood stayed just as happy. But the people who were in unhappy relationships, on the days when they reported more physical pain, it was magnified by more emotional pain.” –Robert Waldinger
If you have great relationships with family and friends, you can turn to them to help you during stressful times. If you have bad relationships with them, then they will be a source of stress, and you should work on improving those relationships. If you're looking for advice on how to improve relationships, you should not look for tactics and quick fixes, but rather start by improving your character.
Habit 7: They Connect to a Strong Purpose
In this context, purpose means serving others. When we use our strengths to serve others, we are living a life with strong purpose. When we only think about satisfying ourselves, or worse, only expecting others to satisfy others, then we will live a stressful life.
Dr. Viktor Frankl went through enormous amounts of stress in the concentration camps of World War II, and he studied the differences between those who survived and those who didn’t. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he explains that those with a strong purpose in life survived. He says,
“If you know your why, any how is possible.”
—Dr. Viktor Frankl
In other words, when you have a strong purpose, you can endure more stress.
Dr. Karl Menninger was a leading psychiatrist in the US, and one time, he was giving a keynote speech to 5000 psychologists and psychiatrists. After the presentation was the Q&A period. Somebody asked,
“Dr. Menninger, if you were to meet a person about to have a nervous breakdown, what would you advise them to do?”
The audience all thought he might say get some professional help since they all are in that profession. But Dr. Menninger surprised them. He said,