We all know that living under stressful conditions has serious physical and emotional consequences. So why do we have so much trouble taking action to reduce our stress levels and improve our lives? Researchers at Yale University have the answer. They found that intense stress actually reduces the volume of gray matter in the areas of the brain responsible for self-control.
As you lose self-control, you lose your ability to cope with stress. It becomes harder for you to keep yourself out of stressful situations, and you’re more likely to create them for yourself (such as by overreacting to people). It’s no wonder so many people get sucked into progressive rounds of greater and greater stress until they completely burn out (or worse).
Dwindling self-control is particularly scary when you consider that stress affects physiological functions in the brain, contributing to chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes. And stress doesn’t stop there—it’s linked to depression, obesity, and decreased cognitive performance.
The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure has a direct link to your performance. TalentSmart has conducted research with more than a million people, and we’ve found that 90% of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control.
The tricky thing about stress is that it’s an absolutely necessary emotion. Our brains are wired such that it’s difficult to take action until we feel at least some level of this emotional state.
Research from UC Berkeley, reveals an upside to experiencing moderate levels of stress. But it also reinforces how important it is to keep stress under control. The study found that the onset of stress entices the brain into growing new cells responsible for improved memory. However, this effect is only seen when stress is intermittent. As soon as the stress continues beyond a few moments into a prolonged state, it suppresses the brain’s ability to develop new cells.
Intermittent stressful events actually increase your performance by keeping the brain more alert, and most top performers have well-honed coping strategies that they employ under stressful circumstances to lower their stress levels and ensure that the stress they experience is not prolonged. This keeps their performance up and the negative effects of stress to a minimum.
The complexity of the human brain gives us the ability to worry and perseverate on events, which can create frequent experiences of prolonged stress. Fortunately, though, unless a lion is chasing you, the bulk of your stress is subjective and under your control. The plasticity of your brain allows it to mold and change as you practice new behaviors. So implementing healthy stress-relieving techniques won’t just improve your performance—it can train your brain to handle stress more effectively and decrease the likelihood of ill effects.
While I’ve run across numerous effective strategies that successful people employ when faced with stress, what follows are 11 of the best. As simple as some of these strategies may seem, they are difficult to implement when your mind is clouded with stress. Force yourself to attempt them the next time your head is spinning, and your efforts will pay dividends to your health and performance.