How to improve your response to stress: A four step process based on scuba diving and neuroscience.
As a scuba Divemaster I learned an approach to assess and manage unexpected or stressful situations (seeing a shark!) – I find that it is valuable to apply it to other areas of my life. What I found very interesting is that there is a strong neuroscience basis for the techniques that I learned.
Its important to realise that being triggered by events (and sharks!) is a totally normal human reaction – in fact its one of the reasons that you are here today – your prehistoric ancestors ran away or fought successfully and contributed to the gene pool, and here you are. Unfortunately in the 21st century society wanting to attack your boss is not exactly a desirable response.
The following process helps you to recover from the stressor and allows you to create intentionality in your response to a situation, rather than responding based on our innate fight/flight response. From a neuroscience point of view when you are in fight /flight response you don’t have access to your higher reasoning or creativity – without this you can do a lot of damage. We all know the moment where our boss, partner etc said something that triggered us, and we responded and made the situation worse.
Pause for a moment. Slow it down.
Don’t react immediately.
If you are in a high stress situation, sometimes it is best to remove yourself from that situation to recover and to avoid reacting with a fight/flight based response. (If you do this then have a practised stock phrase that allows you to leave the situation without making it worse e.g. “Could you please give me a moment/some time to consider what you have said? I’ll be back as soon as I can.”)
An approach we often take is to shut down and close ourselves off from the situation emotionally, while remaining present. While sometimes this form of self protection can be effective, it can actually escalate the situation as the other party tries to get us to re-engage. It also can be hard to recover from this, and re-open ourselves. In the longer term stonewalling is one of the factors that can have a significant negative impact on relationships.
Take a deep breath. Take another one.
This is all about calming yourself.
If you really are strongly triggered, try the 4-7-8 method of breathing. This breathing technique activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which slows your heart rate and causes your body to relax and your mind to slow down. It also increases intra-abdominal pressure, stimulating your vagus nerve. This sends signals to your brain and your body that reduces the “fight or flight” part of your autonomic nervous system.
Once you are calmer and feel able, then proceed to the next step.
Assess the situation.
- What is actually happening - check in with what is actually real.
Years ago, in Jerusalem, I ran into a situation where I was on the wrong end of 3 automatic weapons! For me it was a key moment. I learned what REAL stress was – where a wrong move could have fatal consequences – this helped me in my day to day stressful situations – after all if no one was trying to kill me, how bad could it possibly be?
We also tend to have a hardwired response to rejection based on the impact of being excluded from our tribe (starvation, lack of protection => death). Unfortunately this can occur when we are confronted with office politics and we over-react. The antidote is to remind yourself that there are people who care about you (reconnect with your tribe).
- What are possible responses to this situation? What would be the impact of those responses?
- How do I want to be in this situation? What response serves me best? Is it aligned to my values and who I want to be? What do I choose?
Take the action that you have chosen above.
Of course in life, as in scuba diving there are times where you can’t got through the whole process – for example if you are diving and have a problem with your air delivery system then you have to act immediately, and this is also where training yourself has its benefits. As a scuba diver we train various scenarios of dealing with problems with your air supply – use of a redundant air regulator, use your buddy’s secondary air source, buddy breathing etc. By practising these regularly we are prepared to act quickly when necessary.
So find techniques that help you to de-stress and practice them. Things that I find useful are: meditation, yoga, creating a de-stressing anchor (NLP), going for a walk or training session at the gymn, etc. Find what works for you and make a point of doing it regularly, not just when you are under stress. Practising regularly helps you build up your resilience, so that are less likely to be triggered and in stressful situations you are more able to recover faster and choose an effective response.
Wishing you health and happiness, and successful dealings with sharks...
PS if you’d like to talk to me about managing your stress more effectively then please contact me at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org