How Stress Works

May 16, 2013

9:00 am

This post is part of Tech Cocktail’s “Healthy Entrepreneur” series, bringing you insights on food, exercise, and sleep throughout May. The series is presented by Coromega (more info and a giveaway below).

In 2009, Pew reported that 36 percent of people were frequently stressed. The highest-stress group was 30- to 49-year-olds, of which 45 percent were frequently stressed.

Stress is a psychological state that occurs when the demands of life seem greater than our ability to cope with them. It’s commonplace in our culture, but it wasn’t always this way. In fact, the term “stress” as we know it wasn’t really used until the early 1900s.

When we’re stressed, a whole series of events and reactions are going on in our bodies. The adrenal gland secretes cortisol, a hormone intended to distribute energy to our muscles during a fight-or-flight situation. In turn, cortisol suppresses our immune system and hence our ability to fight off disease. Stress can raise blood pressure, and make us more vulnerable to heart attack and stroke. Studies have shown that people who are stressed heal slower, and experience more severe allergies. Stress also disrupts mood-regulating serotonin levels, which can contribute to anxiety and depression.

All in all, it’s a very distressing picture. And in fact, stress begets more stress. Instead of providing a random list of coping tips, I’d like to investigate how you can intervene at various stages of this process to change the results.

1. Avoid Stressful Stimuli 

Stress is a physiological response to a stimulus, so the first, obvious, and simplest way to avoid stress is to avoid stressful stimuli. To do that, you’ll need to identify specific sources of your stress: is it constantly being late on deadlines or to meetings? Is it your ever-growing pile of to-do’s? Is it the suspicion that your girlfriend just can’t put up with your startup lifestyle anymore?

These day-to-day stresses can be reduced, even if it’s harder to escape the more lingering fear of failure. For example, say no to certain commitments when your plate is full. Get your to-do list organized and prioritized, and realize that you will never finish it all. Lori Cheek spends her time at the gym mentally preparing for the rest of the day.

“I actually spend hours each week on the elliptical trainer and double task by catching up on texts, Twitter, and sifting through emails. That time alone gives me the opportunity to wrap my head around the priorities ahead of me each day (600 calories lighter),” says Cheek, founder and CEO of Cheek’d.

2. Change Your Response

If you fail to avoid a stressor, the next step is to change your reaction to it. A “B” is only stressful if you’re expecting all “A’s.” To that end, many entrepreneurs cope with stress by putting things in perspective.

“I always tell myself, ‘THIS is NOT the end of the world,’ and any arising problem is in fact temporary,” says Carrie Turrubiartes, owner of Panticakes.

Volunteer work can also put your problems in perspective. And so can the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, a ranking of stressful life events from 1-100. Take a glance at the top few, and you’ll realize that even a failed startup isn’t the worst situation in the world.

To see the bigger picture, you might need to take a break. Go for a walk, call a friend, or otherwise remind yourself that life is going on outside your office. “Give yourself permission to step back from a situation if you need to. . . . If it is not life and death – and in most cases it isn’t – then give yourself the latitude to take a 15-minute time out,” says marketing strategist and startup coach Andrea Sullenger.

Finally, be mentally prepared for stressful events. That means recognizing that you can’t control everything, and that things will be messed up, late, and frustratingly inconvenient. Investors won’t call back, star candidates will take a job with your competitor, and customers won’t pay. That’s all part of the bargain.

In some cases, therapy can also help you learn to cope with stress if it gets overwhelming.

3. Create Positive Experiences 

Stress has a negative effect on your body, but you can easily do things that have a positive effect. Exercise, laughing, exciting hobbies, and even (or especially) sex can produce endorphins that boost the mood.

“Get laid! One way of releasing nitric oxide, which is relaxing, is by having sex. Nitric oxide has tremendous health benefits in terms of blood flow and protection from strokes and heart attacks,” explain Dr. Ida Santana and Dr. Jay Parkinson, CEO of Sherpaa.

The doctors also recommend being social. “Humans are hardwired for belonging and connection. A medical study found social isolation is as bad for you as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day,” they say. Other relaxation techniques among entrepreneurs include meditation, deep breathing, and daily gratitude exercises.

One Wikipedia contributor raised a telling point about stress: we use it as a way to admit negative feelings without revealing too much: “I’m stressed out.” But that statement says so little, about a problem that can be so big. It doesn’t explain what is stressing us out, or whether our response to it makes any sense. To combat stress, we first need to unpack that statement – to ourselves and to others – rather than simply treating the symptoms.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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