Professional development expert Lindsay Troxell explains how recognizing and managing our short-term reactions to stress can help prevent its harmful long-term impacts on our health and well-being.
It happens to the best of us: that moment when you realize you’re not handling your stress in a productive way.
For me, it can be when Netflix shows the “are you still watching?” screen after I’ve been on the couch a bit too long, or when I find myself stress-eating when I’m not even hungry. Sometimes I’ll even skip my workouts that normally keep me feeling balanced.
These behaviors, also known as negative stress behaviors, are a direct result of poor stress management – and they are notoriously difficult to identify in the moment. Here’s why:
- They look different for everyone, because stress can trigger a variety of behaviors.
- They are often mistaken for a lack of willpower or a sign of weakness.
- People tend to justify some of them (e.g., TV show binging) by telling themselves they’re simply relaxing after a long day.
That said, if whatever you’re doing to avoid stress is only going to make it worse, you are engaging in negative stress behaviors. And while these behaviors may allow you to avoid short-term stressors, you are ultimately only adding to your overall level of negative stress and perpetuating the cycle.
If you read my previous article, you know that managing your stress as a financial professional isn’t just relevant on National Stress Awareness Day, which falls on the first Wednesday of every November. Managing your stress requires ongoing attention and effort – a critical aspect of which is to identify your own negative stress behaviors and learn how to curb them.
With that in mind, I’d like to share some of the techniques I cover in my consulting sessions with financial professionals to help them with this specific aspect of stress management.
Know YOUR negative stress behaviors
As I mentioned, negative stress behaviors can vary from person to person. To begin managing your own behaviors, you’ll need to do some learning about yourself first.
Start by making a conscious effort to notice when you’re disappointed by your own behavior. It might seem silly, but being more mindful can simply be the difference between eating that cookie and regretting it later, and realizing why you’re tempted to reach for a cookie you didn’t even want in the first place. The reason could very well be your stress level.
The behaviors that happen as a result of stress are basically your body’s form of a smoke alarm for fatigue and distraction, warning you that if you don’t take action, you’re going to end up in a really bad place. By paying attention to these behaviors and treating them as alarms, we can take the first step to better stress management.
Build your stress tool kit
Once you gain a better understanding of your negative stress behaviors, you’ll be able to recognize the signs that tell you to make a change. It helps to have a “stress tool kit” of tactics you can turn to help you make those changes. Regardless of what’s in your tool kit, you can use it to break the cycle of stress and help avoid burnout and other health consequences.
Here are some of the tools in my own personal tool kit:
One advisor I work with told me a story recently that is an excellent example of how practicing gratitude can help us control our response to stressful situations. After conditioning his brain to remember to focus on what he is grateful for, the first thing that came to this advisor’s mind when a sewer line burst in his home was that he was grateful to have running water, a public sewer and someone to come fix it quickly. Quite the unexpected reaction to an objectively stressful situation!
I want to be clear, practicing gratitude is not toxic positivity, which is the idea that we should always be happy because it could be worse. It is perfectly normal and acceptable to have negative emotions and reactions when faced with adversity or hardship. After all, negative emotions are part of the human experience. Gratitude is simply the act of intentionally appreciating all that we can, and it can be a powerful tool for coping with stress.
Experiment with breathwork
Breathwork is “taking a deep breath” on another level. It is a great tool to help manage stress, especially when you’re in the moment of feeling frustrated, angry or overwhelmed. At its most basic level, all you have to do to practice breathwork is breathe in for a count of five and then breathe out for a count of six, and repeat. There are a few other variations of this that you can find online.
This type of structured breathing moves us out of our sympathetic nervous system – which drives our “fight or flight” response to stress – and into our parasympathetic nervous system, which controls bodily functions while we’re at rest Thus through the simple act of breathing, we can shift out of the stress response and feel safe and calm again.
It’s also worth noting that cortisol is the hormone responsible for producing those fight or flight responses to stress. The problem is, while this can be useful in truly dangerous or life-threatening situation, our cortisol levels often rise in response to situations that our brain interprets as being far more threatening than they actually are. So if we receive an email written in a tone we perceive as negative, for example, or the stock market takes a dive, we may end up with excess cortisol in our system, which has been shown to have a host of negative effects on our physical health. That’s why it is so important to find techniques that can help us control our reactions to these stressful (but far from life-threatening) situations – breathwork being just one of those techniques.
Shift the story – and tell your story
The story we tell ourselves is important – especially because we sometimes believe stories about our lives that aren’t necessarily true. If you’re always thinking, “I’m a mess,” that will manifest behaviors that make you, well, a mess. So when you find yourself believing these stories, stop and ask yourself, “Is this story serving me?” If the answer is no, focus on changing your internal narrative. Over time, I promise you’ll notice a difference.
It’s also important to share your stress story. Talk to the people in your life about your stressors and what you’re doing to overcome them. This helps take the shame out of your situation by normalizing it, which will make yourself and others feel less alone in what is a highly shared experience. You may also learn new ideas from others about how to manage your stress.
I’ll leave you with one simple but often overlooked piece of advice: Be kind to yourself and others. Whether it’s for yourself, your colleagues, your family members or your clients, a bit of kindness and compassion when it comes to managing negative stress behaviors goes a long way.
It’s also important to remember that the tools I’ve described here can help you make changes, but those changes may be slow to happen. It is not easy to break patterns of behavior that many of us have spent decades developing and reinforcing in our lives.
Nevertheless, in the long run, the effort will be worth it for your overall health and well-being.
If you and your team could use more support managing stress, be sure to explore the resources available in our Managing Stress for Success and Energize for Purpose programs.