How to Not Make Stress Worse
No one likes stress, but according to numerous scientific studies, many of the things that people do to reduce it are actually ineffective, or worse, counterproductive.
First, you can’t talk yourself out of stress. Try to talk yourself into sleeping when you are anxious the night before a big interview or exam or performance. Or think about how helpful it is when a friend or manager tells you to “just relax” before you have to deal with a difficult client. That’s not only usually unhelpful, it’s often downright irritating.
Daniel Wegner, psychology professor at Harvard University, has shown in several studies that the intention to control a particular thought often breaks down under stress and actually ends up triggering the unwanted thought, undermining our best intentions. Wegner describes this as an “ironic process.” When we attempt to resist a certain thought or action—trying not to eat junk food when on a diet, or trying not to think of someone you just broke up with—our efforts can easily backfire.
Nor can you just “tough it out.”
Research by Stanford Psychologist James Gross demonstrates that suppressing our emotions (e.g., by not showing the emotion on our face) actually leads to the opposite of what we want. By attempting to hide the emotions, we actually experience them more strongly physiologically. For example, anger or stress make your heart rate increase and your palms sweat. Suppressing these emotions actually will increase those effects, and will even impact the physiology of whoever you are talking with by raising their heart level! Suppressing negative emotions on a regular basis actually makes people experience more negative emotions and less positive emotions in general.
Is there a better way? Yes. And the answer lies in our bodies.
Instead of trying to address the supposed cause of stress directly, if you can bring greater relaxation and ease into your body, you will find that your mind starts to ease up. Your perspective changes. You are more capable of handling the challenges coming your way.
This can be as simple as engaging in your favorite physical activity, like yoga, swimming, taking a walk, or even cuddling with your child. Being in nature is doubly effective. In addition to the physical activity, research on awe – a state often inspired by beautiful natural sceneries such as a starlit sky or a vast horizon – suggests that it slows our perception of time (which is the opposite of what happens with stress) by bringing us into the present moment.
The most effective way to do this, though, is to work with breath.
Even if you have an intuitive understanding that our breath can regulate our mind and emotions—everyone’s heard “take a deep breath”— you might not be fully aware of its power. What makes breathing so unique is that it can happen either automatically or through our own volition. It is the one autonomic function you have a say over. By changing your breathing, you can calm yourself down in minutes. When you inhale, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, and when you breathe out, they decrease. Just by lengthening your exhales, you can start to tap into the rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) nervous system—the opposite of fight-or-flight. You start to relax.
According to studies by Stephen Porges, one reason slow breathing has an immediate effect is that, by activating the vagus nerve—the 10th cranial nerve that is linked to our heart, lungs and digestive system—it decreases the activity of fight-or-flight adrenal systems. Abdominal breathing—using the diaphragm—is particularly beneficial, as are lengthened exhales. Exhales slow our heart rates down so the longer we spend on the outbreath, the more our nervous system relaxes.
Here, then, are some strategies to put this research into practice.
The most basic way to develop a relationship with your breath is to bring your awareness to it at different times in the day. Notice if it is fast or slow, if it is deep or shallow. Gradually, you will notice that it shifts throughout the day with your feelings and emotions. For example, you will naturally want to take a deep breath during challenging times or find that your breath quickens with anxiety or anger.
As you develop that awareness, you can use it to gain some control of your breath, and thus of your emotional state. When you feel fear coming on, for example, you may notice your breath speeding up and your breath becoming shallower. Then you can consciously slow it down and breathe into your abdomen to relax. With practice, you will know to take deep and slow belly breaths every time you encounter a challenging situation.
You can also try focused breathing techniques; I teach one on the Ten Percent Happier app called Alternate Nostril Breathing. Our research with Yale students as well as veterans with trauma shows that using long breathing protocols (SKY Breath meditation) can be as effective or more effective than traditional psychological approaches. (I’ll be discussing this in detail with Dan Harris in an upcoming episode of the Ten Percent Happier podcast.)
Whether you opt for breathing classes or other soothing activities that help calm your nervous system, these practices all build upon themselves. Just like going to the gym, it takes repetition and daily commitment to start to see a shift in your nervous system. The key is that they are focused on supporting the body and its natural ability to come back from stress, rather than attempting to banish or suppress stress when it arises. By tapping into your natural resilience, you can learn to reduce stress… even right now.
Dr. Emma Seppälä is the Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and the author of The Happiness Track.