Igniting Your Human Potential With Science
Stop The Stress That Sneaks Up On You With These 5 Tips

stop the stressTo stop the stress that surrounds you on a daily basis, you have to watch your diet. No, I’m not talking about calories. Although, it really is quite similar: if you want to lose weight, you know you have to pay attention to what you eat. Mindless calories—those free samples, preparation nibbles, and little “cheats”—have an annoying way of sneaking onto your scale.

But what if you want to lower your stress level? In order to stop the stress from building up little by little, you have to pay more attention to your mind’s diet. According to British psychologist, Dr. Graham Davey, your media intake may well affect your stress and anxiety levels and the way you interpret your world.

Even post-election season, there is no way to tune into today’s news without ingesting heaping helpings of senseless tragedies. Everywhere you turn the media is full of virulent violence and pandemic health scares. Our news is full of back-to-back natural disasters, unresolvable bloody conflicts, and enough political diatribe to challenge the stress coping mechanisms of anyone who cares about humanity. The content is alarming. The delivery is purposely designed to engage your emotions. The goal is to get you hooked into reader/listener/follower.

Even tiny bits of media exposure can trigger a whole host of emotional reactions. These might range from low-grade anxiety or feelings of being out of control to guilt, full-on depression, outrage, or PTSD. You might be fully conscious of this added emotional charge. But quite often, this stress simmers just below awareness, layered on top of the mountain of other pressures of daily life. You would have to be as senseless you-know-what to be immune.

Your Brain on Media:

Your brain (the organ digesting this media meal) has a very big job. Every single second of every single day and night, it is sifting through billions of bits of information. It must attend to everything coming in from your internal and external world and lookout for anything that might pose a threat to your safety. If any tidbit even remotely smells of “danger” to your mental or physical self, your stress reaction system is off and running, pumping out adrenaline and cortisol to help you handle the threat.

This is your brain’s primary job, the one that upstages all other functions. This is perfect if you need to respond to a tiger chasing you down the road! That’s not the time to digest your food, repair damaged cells, or ponder your most complex, creative ideas and feelings. If there is indeed a tiger chasing you, you are supposed to run!

The problem is your brain is “not-so-smart” sometimes. It has a hard time putting the supposed “threat” in perspective to assess the real risk of immediate danger. And it has a really hard time putting the brakes on your stress reaction when your energy would be better-spent staying calm and carrying on. In fact, because you are an empathetic human being with mirror neurons, your physiology starts to react even when you see someone else’s safety threatened. From an evolutionary standpoint, this works well—priming the pump to help you survive if your cave-buddy is in danger. This does not work, however, if the “threat” is a newscast and you need all your energy for a big project today.

In its aim to keep you safe, your mind is also programmed to want your world to make sense, to be fair and just. You are intrinsically motivated to seek a sense of personal control, to matter, and to connect. But this world of your TV or browser screen or newspaper is definitely NOT sensible or fair, much less safe. Events such as the Orlando massacre or the Louisiana floods make everyone feel vulnerable. They challenge any moral sensibility and dump fear into an already stressed-out, anxiety prone world. So…

The questions:

  • How can you tell your brain to chill when every single day, wherever you turn, you are exposed to news of multiple forms of danger occurring in the world of humans?
  • How can you be an informed, contributing citizen, and keep your own mind and body healthy, positive, and resilient?

The answers:

  • Become aware and understand the impact of the news on yourself and others.
  • Then proactively choose what you ingest.
  • Balance the negative news with a deliberate focus on what IS working in your world.

Of course, there are definite upsides to keeping informed, outside of civic duty. There are merits in being reminded the world is much bigger than your day-to-day life, and yours is but one of many perspectives. The annoyance of a scratched bumper or hard drive crash loses power in the face of a Zika-deformed baby, the grief-stricken parent of a child lost to senseless crime, or the starving victims of disaster ravaged Haitians.

Tuning in can help you expand your breadth and depth of thinking, get curious about your role and purpose in the bigger picture. And you can even find stories of hope, progress, and inspiration sprinkled into the mayhem. With the right lenses on, you can appreciate the common bonds of humanity—the search for love, acceptance, and a life that matters.

But the downsides must be monitored and proactively addressed. If you want to stop the stress from taking over you have to pay attention to your feelings and behaviors. 

5 Ways To Stop The Stress That Sneaks Up On You

  1. Negativity overload.

    The negativity of the news naturally hooks your danger-monitoring, negatively-biased brain. In fact, thanks to evolution, negative events actually register a stronger, longer-lasting signal than happy news, so much so that it takes 3 positive thoughts to balance a negative one! To protect your mental balance, you must commit to and practice using your “positive mental muscles.”

    • Choose your news intake. Proactively decide how you want to get to your news, from what source, and for how long each day. You’d be amazed how much else you can do if you monitor less.
    • Practice the positive. Give more attention to what is working in the world and proactively decide how—it’s not only fun, it expands your mind in ways that will help you succeed. This does not mean learning to be Pollyanna or denying the validity of your feelings, but it does mean actively practicing paying attention to positive occurrences, thoughts, and learning to generate more positive feelings.Subscribe to a positive news source, like Positive News or Huffington Post Good News, or use any number of apps, like Happify, designed to reinforce positive thinking. Listen to guided visualizations. Create gratitude habits, or develop a “mantra” or saying that helps you refocus your attention.
  2. Addiction.

    Add in the emotional charge of news topics, the sensationalism in most media delivery, and the drama of the pundits, and you may actually get a dopamine “hit” or addiction to tuning in. (Just walk out of accurate hearing range and listen to the vocal tones used to draw you back.) Social media platforms can definitely hook your brain’s reward center though intermittent gratification—you want more! But you can also just suffer FOMO– fear of missing out, afraid of what you’ll miss if you turn off the constant flow.

    • Unplug! You can do this! But it’s easier if you replace the news feed with another activity at first, rather than feel the void. (Try that positive news, music, or spend more time outside = win/win for your brain!)
    • Change your sources. If you are truly seeking accurate information more than FOMO, you can find more succinct, less biased ways to be in the know than broadcast TV or social media feeds.
  3. Narrowed perspective.

    I do not mean to diminish anyone’s suffering—there is way too much of that already, but you know and the media knows, fear sells. You wouldn’t tune in regularly to watch a real reality show—one where malaise is the bigger threat.

    The daily dose of catastrophes and injustices makes it easy to forget there are millions of people exercising creativity and humanity to find new ways to not only survive, but to thrive.

    Too often opinions are handed to you without time for your own critical thinking. The steady dose of disaster skews your perspective subconsciously, making it harder to hold on to optimism.

    • Again, proactively focus your precious time and attention on a broad range of topics and perspectives—seek other viewpoints, read seemingly unrelated content and fiction to spark creativity.
    • Make perspective checks a habit. Use cues, mantras, rituals, readings, and practices to remind yourself of your bigger picture. What grounds you and gives you stability and courage? Make habits and rituals of what matters and feeds you.
    • Play brainstorming games. With co-workers, family members, etc, practice coming up with 25 different solutions for any situation, no matter how silly. These activities support mental flexibility.
  4. Eroded sense of control.

    In the face of politics, escalating violence and horrific natural disasters, it is easy to feel powerless, or that your day-to-day efforts do not matter that much. But confidence in your self-efficacy is critical for handling stress, staying motivated, or summoning up the courage it takes to be fully human in this life.

    • Again, perspective checks matter. You may not be able to get Congress to be reasonable, but you have huge control of your everyday experience of life, whether your thoughts, words, and behaviors align with your values.
    • Focus on what you do control. Keep track of your progress with your goals, in your day-to-day choices. Replay your wins—this sets you up for more success. Try out iDoneThis.
    • Ask the “be” question. When you can’t control the world, you can control who you want to be in that world. In a culture focused on what you do, there is huge in power in focusing on who you want to be—that’s leadership.
    • Grow your courage! What makes you feel strong? When have you shown courage before? How can you be vulnerable and still strong? (Read Rising Strong by Brene Brown!)
  5. Emotional fatigue.

    To stop the stress you have to monitor your fatigue. The sheer volume of emotionally loaded images and stories is enough to wear out anyone’s coping powers. Add in your instincts to right the moral dissonance, and you are drained before you even walk out the door to work. Too big an emotional load and you may feel physically tired or numb and disconnected.

    Caring is human nature, so even when you are not completely focused on the screen, views of devastation/loss/injustice ramp up your emotional wiring. Your frontal lobe is then charged with regulating this emotional soup so you can function as your adult self, not that adolescent version lurking in your mind’s closet. This task drains enormous energy and can compromise the other executive functions of your brain—like judgment, critical thinking, putting the brakes on.

    • Name it. Instead of trying to numb yourself with “busy-ness” or your anesthesia of choice, take a moment to tune into what emotions do come up.* Appreciate all you feel, no matter how messy, and put those emotions in the bigger perspective of your life, your values and strengths. Self-compassion will make you strong. Embrace your empathy with compassion. Numb and disconnected are the antithesis of true health.
      I feel fearful, vulnerable, guilty and ineffective when I see pictures from the floods or earthquakes. I am immediately triggered into wondering if I am living my best life of service or if I am callous because I am fretting over my broken cell phone.” Sometimes it takes courage to be this human.
    • Limit exposure. Really. Recognize what energy you spend on empathy, fear, compassion, or even the hook of fascination.
    • Balance with positive. You must practice positive feelings if you want emotional resilience. Humor and gratitude work wonders to restore your energy.
    • Get quiet. The research on the power of meditation practices on emotional regulation is impressive. If meditation is not your thing, just getting quiet, reducing the signal input for even a few minutes, allows your brain to reboot. This is the secret access to the creativity and critical thinking necessary to solve the problems around you.

You truly can stop the stress that is lurking all around. Get smarter and more proactive about how to ingest and process news and this will definitely help lower your stress level. When you learn to better recognize your own energy and emotional states, you can make wiser media decisions. And you can take steps to build your emotional well-being and resilience in this challenging and yes, beautiful world.

Don’t let more stress sneak into your mind’s diet—there is already more than enough available! If you would like help creating more strategies to lower your stress, please reach out by emailing me (cindi@cynthiaackrill.com) or join a class to really kick your stress in the butt. We are all in this together!

*And if PTSD is part of your reaction, you have a lot of company! Please seek counseling and treatment—there really are better understandings and options than ever before to help you get power in the face of this neurologically based reaction.