Reclaiming Calm: A Science-Based Guide to Stress Management
The world, it seems, has never been more stressed out.
Whether it stems from confusion and conflict arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, the loss of confidence in our social institutions, or the rise of addictive technologies which breed distraction and division, it's becoming increasingly clear that people in our modern world are struggling mightily to manage stress.
Acute vs Chronic Stress
We start by recognizing that a little stress is not such a bad thing. The "fight or flight" branch of the nervous system, which evolved to serve us in circumstances of acute threat (think running from a Sabretooth Tiger on the Savannah) is essential when it operates periodically.
But chronic stress is another matter.
Most of us intuitively grasp the damaging effects of chronic stress, which include immune suppression, cognitive impairment, and accelerated aging. If you want to optimize your life span – and just as importantly, your health span – stress management is critical.
Defining Our Terms
Before exploring stress management practices, let's begin by defining some terms.
In the 1970's, Hans Selye coined the terms eustress and distress to describe opposite ends of one spectrum.
Eustress, which is triggered by positively interpreted stressful events, is motivating and energizing.
Distress, which is triggered by negatively interpreted stressful events, is draining and debilitating.
While each is a form of "stress" from a biological standpoint, each has drastically different effects on our health.
What constitutes good versus bad stress is a matter of context, dose, and interpretation. For example, many of us voluntarily seek the thrilling stress-response that accompanies riding a roller coaster. That same physiological stress response feels very different in the context of getting mugged in a back alley.
What our culture calls "stress" is technically distress.
The rest of this article will focus on concrete practices to help you manage distress.
Practice 1: Learn to Meditate
Do you ever feel like wherever you are, you're not fully there? When you're working, you're stressed about your relationship. When you're with your partner, you're stressed about work. Is your mind stuck in an endless loop of thoughts about the past or the future?
Welcome to the club.
Our tendency to endlessly ruminate and anticipate is the price we humans pay for our large, sophisticated brains. Our ability to plan for the future and to formulate narratives of the past is what defines us as a species.
This wondrous faculty, however, is a double-edged sword: our proclivity to dwell on the past and worry about the future often prevents us from colliding with the present moment. That's a big problem, because life as we know it consists of nothing more than an aggregation of moments.
The question emerges: how can we combat our tendency to be held hostage by stressful thoughts about the past and future?
Mindfulness meditation, a time-tested practice that teaches you how to pay attention to the present moment, is an effective place to start.
A few years ago, researchers used MRI technology to scan the brains of monks while they meditated in real time. What they discovered has major implications for our discussion of stress. While meditating, an area of the brain called the default mode network (DMN) goes offline.
This network typically comes online in three all too familiar, distinctively human scenarios:
Rumination (worrying about the past), anticipation (worrying about the future), and self-referential processing (self-focused thinking).
When your mind wanders to the time in freshman year when somebody cut you off in the cafeteria line, your DMN is online. When you feel a pang of anxiety about going to a big social event, your DMN is online. When you're scrolling through Instagram comparing yourself to the flawless personas on your feed, your DMN is online.
The meditative aim – to simply observe the present moment – is an antidote to this inherently stressful mental time travel.
For brief portions of a meditation session – those from which meditators derive much of the value – they lose their sense of time, and merely experience each moment for what it is. They cease to carry the stress of a "human doing" or a "human thinking" and merely exist as a human being.
Practice 2: Optimize Sleep
When I'm sleep deprived, I'm not great company. I can't think clearly, and ordinarily manageable tasks stress me out.
Can you relate?
Neuroscientist Matthew Walker's research team investigated the neurophysiological basis for this phenomenon by scanning the brains of sleep-deprived people while they viewed emotionally charged images.
In comparison to a group that was given a full night's rest, sleep-deprived individuals responded to stressful stimuli with a 60% increase in activity of a brain region called the amygdala. The amygdala mediates fear, anxiety, and rage.
How does sleep deprivation turn up the dial on the amygdala?
Well, technically, it doesn't. It actually turns the dial down on the logical CEO of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which normally inhibits the amygdala when it overreacts.
When you're well slept, a stressful circumstance proceeds as follows:
The amygdala fires, initiating a frantic stress response, preparing you to fight, flight or freeze.
The PFC then logically appraises the stimulus, and if the amygdala's response was unwarranted, the PFC tells it to quiet down.
If you are under-slept, the cortex abdicates its position as emotional thermostat. Threat detection systems kick into high gear, and you shift into survival mode, incapable of logically appraising the situation. If you want the CEO of your brain to show up for work, make sleep a priority.
Practice 3: Manage Screen Addiction
One feature of our stressed-out world that is completely unique to the 21st century is the pervasive presence of the smartphone. Prior to its invention, long stretches of our day were void of inputs from other minds, allowing us to focus single-mindedly on whatever we were doing or to simply reflect and process the events of our day.
We now live in a world in which we're always "on".
A recent survey of 667 iPhone users showed that on average, people picked up their phones 99 times, spending a total of five hours and 42 minutes on the device, daily. This is the equivalent of a full-time work week spent scrolling through apps like TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram.
Not surprisingly, people had no idea they were doing this.
Is it any wonder that most of us feel like we have no time, and our plate is too full, when – in addition to our real life – we devote a full work week to staring at our cellphones?
This uniquely powerful drain on our time and attention – independent of the COVID-19 pandemic, or anything else – may be amplifying our stress crisis.
Any discussion of managing stress in the 21st Century needs to set out a philosophy for relating to technology, mitigating information overload, and retaining your ability to focus.
Good books on the topic include Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, and Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier.
For now, here are five quick-fire tips that you can introduce today:
- Delete social media apps from your phone, reserving use to your laptop. This will make your social media use more intentional, preventing you from reflexively scrolling while in line at the store, or at dinner with friends.
- Turn off notifications. The iPhone has something called focus mode, which you can even program to only allow calls from specific people in case of emergency.
- Change your phone's color scheme to grayscale. The colors used to represent social media notifications (typically red to mimic the look of ripe fruit, believe it or not) are designed to prey on our primordial instincts to respond emotionally to certain colors.
- Schedule time-blocks for mindless scrolling. Rather than allowing it to enter your life haphazardly, schedule time to scroll, once or twice a week, in an intentional way.
- Commit to a clean break for a full week. Sometimes distance from technology is a helpful way to re-evaluate your relationship with it.
Practice 4: Set Boundaries on Your Time
We each have a finite bandwidth of mental and physical capacity, and it's important to build a life that respects this.
Imagine a productivity funnel, with task selection at the top, organization in the middle, and execution at the bottom.
Regardless of how much you meditate, how well you sleep, or how organized and efficient you attempt to be, if too much is entering the funnel at the top, it will inevitably overflow, and you will burn out.
Much attention in the productivity world is devoted to the topics of organization and efficiency. Surprisingly little, however, is given to the vital but genuinely hard problem of how to select what deserves your attention. When we get overloaded many of us grit our teeth and find a way to cope (until we can't).
Don't get me wrong:
Sometimes gutting it out is the right thing to do. After all, we are usually capable of more than we think. But we have to exercise judgement:
The quest to realize our potential can easily turn into a destructive pride which creates unrealistic expectations and comparisons. In this situation, as chronic stress mounts, we begin to look for various "hacks."
We might employ productivity hacks, attempting to implement complex systems of automation to enhance output. Or we might look for biological hacks like resorting to ever higher doses of stimulants in the morning to turn on, and sedatives in the evening to turn off.
While these strategies work for a period of time, they eventually fail if we don't address the bottleneck:
The all-important question of how to decide what deserves our attention. Optimizing your filter for task selection requires serious reflection on your values and priorities. This can be slow and painful work. Once you've done it, have the hard discussion with your boss about unreasonable productivity standards.
Endure the struggle of carefully dividing household responsibilities with your spouse. Question whether you've unreasonably compromised your health in favor of activities that are causing you stress.
We all, of course, have certain draining responsibilities that are out of our control. But it's worth deeply re-examining how you're spending your time with fresh eyes.
You can meditate every single day, optimize your sleep routine, and remedy your relationship with technology, but if you don't set clear boundaries, your efforts will go nowhere, fast.
If chronic stress is negatively affecting your life, consider conducting a personal experiment. Audit your life through the filter of the practices introduced above.
Address the highest-yield issue first – whether it's setting boundaries, learning to meditate, addressing your sleep, or regaining the upper hand from the distraction economy.
If you can do this successfully, you might just find that you can put stress back in its proper place – as a healthy response to exceptional events, not a chronic condition that has a chokehold on your mental health.
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