Stress. A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.
We all experience it.
It can be manageable in intermittent does.
What can be hard is to find our way OUT of chronic stress without intentional work. If we don’t take time to stop and get curious, we’ll keep defaulting to unhelpful stress habits. This does not make for better workdays, or evenings for that matter.
Today I want to offer tools to better manage our stress, specifically Curiosity and a 3-step format.
Curiosity, defined as a strong desire to know or learn something, is a key trait in someone with strong emotional intelligence, which leads to better self-regulation and better life outcomes. Curiosity also has a strong link back to empathy, which is another key emotional intelligence trait.
Without a strong desire to learn about and understand how to better manage stress, you may find yourself reacting (and even over-reacting) to the same situations over and over. I believe this is the definition of insanity. I can share what this looked like from my personal experiences over the last 18 months.
I used to believe my stress propelled me to work harder and more effectively. I could get a lot done when I was pushing myself to the max.
Then I would encounter an obstacle. Something that wasn’t on my timeline, my plan, or within my control.
THEN I’d find myself over-reacting to seemingly small things. For example, my computer wouldn’t print when I expected it to. I would instantly become highly agitated. My thoughts would hyper-focus and sound something like this, “YOU HAD ONE JOB!” (As if this would have any impact on finding the cause of the printing issue.)
As another example as I was pushing through my stress, I would start to wonder why others weren’t replying timely to my emails and texts (but remember, this was according to MY efficient timeline.)
I could once again feel the agitation rising. My thoughts would once again hyper-focus, saying things like, “THEY are impacting MY ability to make progress!!” My heart rate would increase, my cortisol would surge, and I would suddenly have a craving for something sweet and calorie-rich (which is apparently a thing with stress… it can also cause unhealthy eating habits.)
In both examples, I was able to apply what I have learned about curiosity to avoid negative outcomes, like projecting anger onto my laptop or gaining 10 pounds of stress weight.
And these are just two examples out of many others. The more we’re able to deal with our stress, at all levels, the better outcomes we’ll experience.
When getting curious about stress, I want to offer these three steps:
- Identify Your Default Stress Habit(s)
- Identify Your Trigger (Cortisol)
- Reframe and Regain (Dopamine)
Step 1 is to really get curious about your initial reaction to stress.
These three default stress habits from Dr. Karen Horney. Think about yourself under times of stress, or take the next week to really observe yourself under times of stress. Do you:
- Start to say “yes” to things you may need to say no to, even if it creates a burden for you.
- This is a people-pleasing stress response, which actually increases your stress level over time.
- Become verbally defensive and challenging, feeling the need to “win?” Do you feel you have to take on the workload yourself, or it won’t get done?
- This is an aggressive stress response, moving against those who may be able to help us, which also leads to even more stress.
- Check out – of the conversation or even the room – when you are feeling overwhelmed?
- You may end up “going along to get along,” even though it leads to you being in situations you didn’t want, but wanted to avoid, which is increasingly stressful.
Once you know which of these is most like you, you’re ready to move to Step 2.
Step 2 is to Identify Your Trigger.
This step comes from the great work of Jim Tamm, a former judge and author of Radical Collaboration, with more than 40 years’ experience in union negation.
Jim asserts that as humans, our stress will be triggered in one of these predictable situations:
- We are feeling incompetent
- We are feeling insignificant
- We are feeling unliked
I really like Jim’s simple model and how true it is, when we really stop to get curious about our stress triggers.
Let’s apply Step 2 to the two examples I shared earlier.
In the first example, when I couldn’t figure out how to get my printer to work, my primary feeling was incompetence. I wanted it to WORK, it DIDN’T, and I didn’t immediately know how to FIX IT. I started to spiral into thoughts about how this was going to take forever to fix and that I would have to figure it out myself… etc. This triggered my stress and kicked off a cortisol concoction in my brain. I was hijacked, over a seemingly small thing.
In the second example, when others weren’t responding to my emails in (what I considered) a timely fashion, it triggered feelings of being insignificant or even unliked.
What I love about Jim’s work is that it helps us see how each of us can have a different reaction to the same situation, but we will all generally become stressed for one of these three reasons.
While other may not have reacted as strongly to the printer example, it helps me when I can pinpoint WHY my cortisol may have been activated. I don’t have to blame myself or feel like I’m flawed, and I don’t have to dig deep into my past to explain it. I just need to know it’s a normal reaction to stress, and that my over-reaction is a clue that it’s time to slow down and get curious.
This now leads to Step 3.
Step 3 is Reframe and Regain (Your Dopamine)
If Cortisol is the stress hormone which can be negative in large quantities, Dopamine is the positive neutralizer. It’s a natural chemical created by our brains to help get us back “online.”
Unfortunately, to access dopamine consistently, we have to train our brains. It doesn’t just “happen.” It’s no different than building up our muscle strength by working out at the gym.
Step 3 can take some time to develop into a new habit, but that’s just part of the process.
It first starts with Steps 1 and 2, and recognizing what triggers you and how you NATURALLY want to respond.
For me, when the printer didn’t work, I was triggered by feeling incompetent. I then NATURALLY wanted to respond by verbally attacking the printer, even though I knew that wouldn’t be a productive use of time or even lead to a positive outcome. Still, I WANTED to yell at the printer.
Instead, I had trained my brain long enough to know I needed to apply Step 3: Reframe and Regain (Dopamine).
This looks like asking yourself questions like,
- What will my default reaction achieve? (Nothing productive) Is this helpful? (No)
- I’m feeling incompetent when it comes to fixing the printer. What will I learn from this that I could use next time? (Which YouTube video to refer to next time it happens)
- What do I want more – to yell at the printer and create more cortisol or to acknowledge that I’m feeling vulnerable, and grab a drink of water to reset my cortisol? (The latter. THIS TIME.)
As I walked myself through these questions, my brain naturally started to move back online by getting hits of dopamine. Getting a drink of water also created more dopamine and having to get up and get the drink activated my body, which can also create dopamine. This all helped neutralize the cortisol.
If you are feeling like Step 3 is beyond where you’re at right now, that’s ok. Judging yourself for not being further along will just trigger more cortisol! To really succeed at these steps, it’s important to find someone you can work with who can stay judgment-free and curious to help you stay accountable.
Step 3 takes some work, but it’s worth it.
When applying these three steps of curiosity toward your personal stress habits, I also recommend building your skills by starting with the smaller things, like printers not working, and working your way up to things that really trigger your stress, like difficult family dynamics, challenging coworkers, or not asserting yourself.
Just like working out your muscles, you have to start with the 5 and 10 lb weights before you move up to the 100 lb weights. It doesn’t happen in a day, or a week, but it will happen when you are intentional.
Think of what your stress habits are costing you now:
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Making this investment in yourself, to mitigate unhelpful stress habits and build up your natural dopamine, will naturally lead to more positive outcomes. It’s possible, regardless of your situation. I’d welcome a conversation.