Stress is inherent

Living × Coping Ahead of Time is How to Live Well

Living a stress-filled life seems inevitable. The hustle and busyness are even celebrated as markers of success and achievement. We wear our exhaustion like a badge of honor, but should we?

We have created lives with such little room for managing the aftermath of our stressors, that managing our stress feels like an unsolvable predicament. It doesn’t have to be. The problem – our evenings and weekends aren’t long enough to repair the damage done to our bodies during the week. And waiting for retirement isn’t the answer either. The solution – cope ahead of time! 

All over the world people are experiencing unmatched levels of stress. It permeates every aspect of our lives, yet we are not taught how to navigate life with stress effectively.

We are born with a biological system that is pre-programmed to respond to any environmental or psychological threat. Once a threat is detected, our bodies automatically release stress hormones that lead to a physiological change within our sympathetic nervous system. From an evolutionary perspective, our ancestors having a well-tuned ‘fight or flight’ response is how we are here today!

To put this into context, our ancestors used this system to survive potential animal attacks, food shortages, or deadly weather conditions. Today, we are using this system to answer emails, meet deadlines, manage our calendars, have conversations, and deal with traffic!

On any given day, your stress system is activated. We experience stress from major life events – planned and unplanned – and also from daily stressors. We are constantly reacting to our stress-filled lives. Our biological systems were not meant for this. The silent creep of stress that goes unaddressed is concerning. It is one of the reasons why we have so many people experiencing burnout.

Researchers like Dr. Kelly McGonigal have helped us understand that it is not the stress itself that is linked to negative outcomes, but our perceptions of stress. Responding to and working with stress can allow us to live our healthiest, happiest, most productive lives in this unwell world.

With people all over the world trapped in a chronic stress cycle, how can we proactively prepare for stress instead of reacting when it arises?

The answer? We need to find kinder ways of stressing. To be well – personally and professionally – in these ever-changing and challenging times, we need a new approach. We need to learn how to stress wisely!

Rather than trying to address everything all at once, we can begin by learning about our personal stress patterns and behaviors. 

  • Understand how you stress: How does stress show up in your life? How are your thoughts and actions different when you feel stressed?
  • Identify your sources of stress: Where is your stress coming from? List them.
  • Develop self-awareness of your stress signals and go-to responses: What does your stress behavior look like? What are your patterns? What does your coping look like?
  • Identify how you would like to respond to your stress: How do you want to express your stress? Who models stress responses well that you can learn from?
  • Try this: SEE IT (notice it). NAME IT (is this stress?). PLACE IT (where it is coming from?). ACTION IT (let it do its job and watch it work). Remember, stress is meant to be noticeable and make you act. 

Once you’ve identified the presence of stress and any triggers in your life, you can then explore a more proactive approach to stressing wisely.

1. Signature Strengths

According to Dr. Ryan Niemiec, a lead researcher in character strengths and well-being, we can use a strengths-based approach to manage stress. We all have signature strengths, or inner capacities that are unique to us, that we can use to navigate daily stressors. For example, if your strength is critical thinking, use that to reframe a negative situation. If prudence is your character strength, create to-do, to-be, and not-to-do lists to manage your days and stress. Use your skills, gifts, and talents to aid in your proactive stress practices. 

2. Boundaries

Boundaries are necessary for protecting our peace and for coping ahead of time. Boundary setting is a life-enhancing system of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ that can bring clarity to how far you can go, how much you can handle, or how much you can hold. When you set and hold boundaries, you are putting yourself first and affirming that your wellness matters. Knowing your non-negotiables helps here too. Where is your line? 

Types of boundaries we can set:

Physical – Honour your body, home, and space.

Time/Energy – Own your time and energy. Schedule in recovery time. 

Mental – Protect your mental state.

Material – Set limits to your giving or lending of material goods.

Emotional – Hold the freedom to think and feel how you like.

3. Feelings Before Behaviors

Think about how you want to feel in the moment and then go for the behavior to make this feeling come to life. This is about matching your energy and mood. Want to feel focused? Try writing a to-do list. Want to feel refreshed? Take a nap. Want to feel energized? Get outside. Remember – mood follows action. Don’t wait to be overwhelmed to then try and manage a full day. Get out ahead of a full day. 

4. Create a Joy Playbook

When we are in a state of distress, it can be hard to bring up positive emotions. Research shows that when we remember things, we re-live those feel-good hormones over again, and it can shift our mood. Can you create a running record of your go-to behaviors or environments that bring you joy and help you feel better for the next time you are experiencing stress?

  • Ask: What works for me? Make a list of common stressors and how you will cope.
    • When angry – Exercise
    • When overwhelmed – Write it out
    • When stagnate – Get outside 
    • When sad – Seek out a release or expression (i.e., music, journaling) 
    • When scared- Seek out community or a trusted friend

All in all, we want to ‘cope ahead’ of time when we can to reduce the likelihood of reacting when stress arises. What are steps you can proactively take to make “later”, whether that is this evening or weeks from now, easier and more manageable? Is it meal-prepping? Creating notes for a presentation? Getting a good night’s sleep? Rehearsing for a difficult conversation? Scheduling a walk after a meeting?

Stress is inherent to life. We cannot out think stress or run far enough away from it, nor should we want to. The biggest takeaway here is that stress is not the enemy. You can make stress your ally and learn how to proactively prepare for it and work with it. This shift in thinking can be transformational for how you live your day-to-day life and even your biology! 

As health psychologist and author of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, Dr. Kelly McGonigal said, “Go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.”

About Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe

Described as one of the most sought-after, engaging, thought-provoking, and truly transformative international speakers and scholars in her field, Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe is a multi-award-winning education and psychology instructor, author, and resiliency expert. She specializes in resiliency, navigating stress and change, personal wellness in the workplace, and optimal performance – both personal and organizational. With over 18 years of university teaching and research experience, and as a two-time TEDx Talk speaker, Dr. Robyne continues to create accessible and relatable materials while offering practical strategies that are realistic and sustainable. 

Dr. Robyne and her team have developed innovative programming and open educational resources that are readily shared across a multitude of industries. While working alongside some of the most influential organizations across the world, since March of 2020, she has delivered over 750 keynotes and workshops. Dr. Robyne expands upon this work in her online community Anchor Labs, where leaders can learn strategies for resilience.

Dr. Robyne recently joined a group of highly esteemed authors from around the globe as a 2022 Nautilus Award recipient with her debut book, Calm Within The Storm: A Pathway to Everyday Resiliency.

Her newest book, Stress Wisely: How to Be Well in an Unwell World will be released June 20, 2023. 

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