Anyone Can Beat Stress: Five Keys to Stress Reduction
We know that stress makes us crazy, hurts our health, and can get in the way of successful relationships—yet somehow, we wind up letting stress run the show.
But stress is not the boss. You are. The trick is discovering how to reduce stress even when life is throwing you sticks and stones—even when you wind up owing taxes.
Stress Is Not What Happens; It’s How You Respond
It helps to know that stress is not caused by what happens to you. Stress is caused by how you respond to what happens. You can’t control all the circumstances of your life, but you can control how you choose to respond to those circumstances.
Figure 1: Our thoughts, emotions, and external experiences are tightly coupled to our heart rhythm, respiration, blood pressure and nervous system. Source: SweetWater Health, LLC, 2011
When something happens that we perceive as threatening, we get stressed. (Something happening need not be external. We can also be stressed by our own negative thoughts or fears.) When we are threatened, heart rate and breathing increase, blood rushes out of the brain and organs and into the muscles as the body slams into “fight or flight” mode to deal with the danger. This is an ancient survival mechanism that allowed the human race to evolve from massacring mammoths to picking up steak at the local supermarket. But in today’s developed world, we no longer have to fight or flee to deal with things like taxes, crayon scribbles on the living room wall, or a call from your boss.
1. You can choose to respond differently to things that cause you stress.
Making the effort to overcome unnecessary stress is worth it. Clinical studies have shown time and again that stress is a major cause of a range of diseases from cardiovascular disease to depression to substance abuse. About 50% of Americans say that stress negatively impacts their personal and professional lives. Stress causes 54% of Americans to fight with people close to them. Workplace stress in the United States costs more than $300 billion each year in health care, missed work, employee turnover, legal costs, workers’ compensation, and insurance.
Workers who report they are stressed incur health care costs 46% higher than other employees. Seven out of 10 deaths each year among Americans are from chronic diseases such as heart disease—in which stress is a contributing factor.
The statistics are endless. There can be little doubt that stress is a leading health issue and costs the economy many billions of dollars every year.
2. It is well worth the effort to achieve mastery over stress.
You Can Control Only What You Know
Many people are stressed and unaware of it because it feels like “same old, same old.” Being unaware of stress is not the same as being unstressed. Most of us, during the press of the day’s work and obligations, may not be aware when stress is particularly high—but stress does its damage whether you are aware of it or not. Learning how to control stress starts with being aware of stressors (things that make you stressed) and being able to recognize when your stress is high.
3. Begin managing stress by becoming aware of your stressors and recognizing when stress is high.
Stress Can Be Monitored and Controlled
About 25 years of clinical research have shown that one of the most reliable indicators of stress is heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is the variation in the time interval between one heartbeat and the next.
When we think of our heart rate, we generally think of a number between 60 and 90 beats per minute. This number represents the range for the average heart rate. In fact, your heart rate changes from beat to beat. When you inhale your heart rate speeds up and when you exhale it slows down. So rather than referring to a fixed pulse of, say, 60, the heart rate will actually vary between, say, 55 and 65. HRV is a measure of this naturally occurring irregularity in the heart rate. A quarter-century of clinical research has shown that when HRV levels are high, a person experiences low levels of stress and greater resiliency. When HRV levels are low, this is an indication of greater stress and lower resiliency (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. The higher the HRV, the greater your resilience and the lower your stress. Source: SweetWater Health, LLC
The heart continually oscillates between acceleration and deceleration in a tug-of-war within the autonomic nervous system. One branch of the nervous system speeds the heart up and the other branch slows it down. It is this tug-of-war between the two branches that create the heart’s rhythms.
Our thoughts, emotions, and experiences of the external world are tightly connected to the functioning of our nervous system, heart rhythm and breathing (see Figure 2). The more flexible we are, the more capable we are of dealing with life’s inevitable stressors. This flexibility is reflected in our nervous system and can be measured, using HRV as an indicator.
4. When you can observe your HRV levels, you can control them. When you control your HRV, you control stress.
You Can Control Stress by Controlling HRV
You don’t have to go to a clinic or a hospital to monitor your HRV. HRV can be monitored using a heart rate monitor and software that can translate input from the monitor into HRV levels. A range of inexpensive monitors is available for the consumer in the form of chest straps, ear clips, finger clips, and even “smart” clothing. Monitoring can be done on a personal computer—but even better, monitoring can be done using a smartphone with an HRV monitoring app such as SweetBeat™ from SweetWater Health™. A wireless mobile monitoring system provides real-time data on your HRV everywhere you go.
Do What Works for You
Once you have information about your stress levels—when you’re stressed, how much you are stressed, etc.—you can learn tools to control it. A number of stress-reduction resources are available. Many of them are free or inexpensive, and don’t require prescriptions or psychotherapy. Simple deep breathing exercises will show an immediate drop in HRV, and you can do them almost anywhere.
Some people prefer physical relaxation or working out. Some practice yoga, qi gong or other mental and physical exercises to control stress. There is no “right” way to manage stress; it depends on what you feel comfortable doing, and what is convenient for you. (Obviously, you can’t interrupt a heated discussion with an uncooperative neighbor to assume the downward-facing-dog yoga position. But you can take a couple of deep breaths.)
A number of stress-reduction resources are available. Many of them are free or inexpensive, and don’t require prescriptions or psychotherapy. You can even affect HRV levels with good nutrition and regular exercise.
By monitoring your HRV on a regular basis, you will see what activities lower your HRV levels. This gives you options. For example, if your HRV goes down significantly during the weekday morning rush to get ready, you can change your behavior. Get up a little earlier to give yourself more time, make lunches for the kids the night before so that you have time to eat breakfast and glance at the paper, and make sure that everything you need for the day is sitting by the front door.
5. Do what works for your own life and situation. No one approach works for everyone, and trying to do something that doesn’t fit your life and style will only result in—more stress!
 American Psychological Association, 2007.
 Steven L. Sauter, chief of the Organizational Science and Human Factors Branch of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
 Center for Disease Control, 2011