From Gamification to Grunge Bands: Four Practical Steps to Reducing Stress

WOW, life is stressful sometimes. I don’t just mean like, “Gosh, I am so busy this week” kind of stressful. I mean like, “Runaway-train, it’s 3:30 in the morning and I can’t sleep, everything is out of control” kind of stressful. The summer Cathy and I went through our IVF process was one of those times. Through that summer, and in a couple of rough patches since, I’ve figured out an easy series of tips for dealing with that kind of stress, for realizing I have more control than I thought.

And just in case you think I’m about to go all woo-woo, new-agey on you, Cathy will tell you I am about the most data-driven, analytical person you’ll ever meet. I’m about to talk science here people, not crystals and incense. In fact, I’m so sure this will help you, I’m gonna put money on it. Ready? Here we go…

1. Take a tip from a grunge band: There’s a British band from the ‘90s called Bush, who’s biggest single was a song called “Machine Head.” The opening riff is the repetitive admonition to “Breathe In, Breathe Out, Breathe In, Breathe Out.” I listen to it in times of stress quite a lot because it is shockingly good advice. Now I thoroughly realize that “relax, take a deep breath” is about as cliché a bit of advice one can imagine, but hear me out for a second. Deep, slow breathing raises oxygen levels, lowers heart rate, and a has a host of other beneficial effects that are free of charge, entirely without side effects and instantaneous. Best of all, I can prove it will help you. Which brings me to point #2…

2. Act like a tech startup: For many years now, tech companies have been embracing a notion of continuous measurement and fast feedback. The power in this fast feedback loop is that it allows you to course-correct frequently and see beneficial results quickly, which in turn builds momentum. What in the world does software development have to do with managing stress? This will take a second so stick with me here.

Stress results in the release of cortisol, a chemical that does all kinds of incredible things. It makes us hyper alert to danger, it turbocharges our muscles, it heightens our senses. It’s pretty amazing, and incredibly useful… if your goal is to escape a sabre-toothed tiger lurking outside your cave. Unfortunately, Cortisol also impedes our immune system, burns through energy reserves and takes an incredible toll on our bodies. It’s meant to be used in tiny bursts, like for minutes at a time, but we don’t live in caves anymore, and our stress is not usually caused by man-eating cats.

When our minds are dealing with modern stresses, our bodies react the only way they know how – with caveman responses. The result is fear-the-tiger levels of stress that go on for days, weeks or months, not minutes, and it basically burns us out. This is easily seen in physiological signs like increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, trouble sleeping and a long list of other signs you don’t need to be a neurosurgeon to understand. So, act like a tech startup… MEASURE, AND GET FEEDBACK.

The minute you can see what stress is doing to you, you can take control of it. Got a fitbit? Smartwatch? How about an iPhone? Any number of tools (or your fingers and a stopwatch) will allow you to take your pulse. What good does that do you? When you see where you’re at, you get instant data on where you are vs. where you want to be. And the more frequently you do it, the faster you begin to understand the data, link circumstances and surroundings to your heart rate over the course of a day, and realize just how much, and how obviously, stress is playing havoc with your body and your well-being. There’s a reason heart rate is one of what doctors call your “vital signs”. They are unambiguous and powerful insights into your state of health at a given moment. And once you have the data, here’s what you can do with it… (Point #3)

3. Gamify your health: Unleash your inner competitor and turn improving your physiological (not psychological, physiological) state into a game. There’s an old axiom from management guru Peter Drucker that “what gets measured gets managed.” With instant measurement, constant data and fast, frequent feedback, you can begin to take control over your state and control, manage and change that state through the power of your will, your awareness and your focus. Turn it into a game. Got a heart rate sitting at your desk of 110 beats per minute? Sit still. Clear your head. Take five long, slow, deep breaths. Watch what happens to your heart rate. You’ll be amazed not only at how much it may come down, but how much watching it come down will empower you to understand that you can control your body and reduce your stress levels simply by deciding to do so.

Cathy bought me a smartwatch (and a blood pressure monitor) recently, and the result of seeing data regularly and easily? I became completely fascinated and began (happily) modifying my behavior within 48 hours. In 10 weeks, I dropped my resting heart rate from 78 to 61 and dropped my morning blood pressure from 134/90 to 110/70. I didn’t quit my job, stop commuting in horrible DC traffic or otherwise remove any major stressors from my life. But I radically reduced their impact on my physical state.

I checked the numbers again and again, and decided I would breathe and think and be still, and began a competition with myself to change what was within my control. It’s not only possible, it rapidly becomes fun if not an out-and-out obsession, like the obsession to keep playing until you get to that next level on Halo 4. So, putting my money where my mouth is, if watching your heart, breathing and deciding to bring it down doesn’t show you a measurable and repeatable change within 3 minutes, I’ll mail you a dollar. By the way, if you can get your spouse or a friend to do it with you, this kind of competition becomes even more fierce and the impacts more positive, so find a fitness buddy and let the games begin!

4. Hug. No seriously. Hug, a lot. You’ve probably heard of oxytocin. It’s the “cuddle hormone”, it’s responsible for that wonderful feeling we have when we hold someone we love, or kiss our pooch on the nose or sit doing nothing with our best friend. It’s the warm-fuzzy hormone that squirts through our bodies when we feel safe and secure among people we love. It also lowers our heart rate and blood pressure, counteracts cortisol and, side benefit, makes us more generous, less self-absorbed and more empathetic. And one of the easiest ways to get a nice big shot of oxytocin is to hug.

I don’t mean a “throw one arm across the shoulder, air kisses on the cheek” hug, I mean look your spouse, or parent, or best friend right in the eye and say “Boy am I glad to see you. It’s been a rough week.” Then hold them in your arms for at least 15 seconds, take a deep breath, then step back and look at them again and smile. This isn’t patchouli-scented hippy stuff people, this is science. Physical touch, the presence of loved ones, even the smell and feel of someone familiar all raise oxytocin levels, and that reduces the physical signs and impacts of stress. Try it with a fitbit on. If a 30 second hug from someone you love doesn’t noticeably lower your heart rate, blood pressure or feelings of stress, I’ll mail you a dollar.

Would I be even better off if I could work less, spend less time in traffic and meditate daily? I’m sure I would. But it doesn’t take quitting your job or a Buddhist retreat to reduce your feelings of stress. Stress is often caused by external factors but in the end, it is the result of physical processes inside our bodies, and we can control some of those processes. You can’t change what is happening to you, but you have the power to control what is happening inside you. Start with measurement, something as simple and accessible as your pulse. Take deep breaths, and watch what happens. Hug someone you love, and watch what happens. Make a decision to change your physical state, and watch what happens. Life may feel like it’s completely out of control, but when you can see the empirical measures of stress, and see how much you have the power to change them, you’ll realize you have a lot more control than you thought.

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