Elevated levels of stress and anxiety have been hallmarks of the last three years.
A whopping 8 4% of American adults report feeling some emotion connected to prolonged stress. Whether it’s challenges brought on by COVID-19, unprecedented political unrest, devastating natural disasters, or a shaky economy, there seems to be no end to the stressors we live with on a daily basis.
While it's normal to experience some level of stress at times, chronic stress can wreak havoc on our mental, physical and emotional health. From increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer to severe depression, stress has the power to both reduce the quality and length of our life. It’s no wonder then that stress management treatments have exploded in the last few years and has even spurred a multibillion dollar industry.
Despite the prevalence of stressors all around us, some people are able to successfully manage their stress levels and even thrive in stressful situations. We were curious to find out why some people are able to cope with stress better than others and what tactics they relied on to mitigate the effects of stress.
Analyzing the onboarding assessments of mindset, behavior, and outcomes of thousands of BetterUp members, we identified the specific personal factors associated with our members’ ability to manage stress.
What the data say
Our data revealed the six important factors for stress management.
- Self-compassion - When things are uncertain or don’t go as planned, it’s easy to magnify the downside. It’s a phenomenon referred to as negativity bias. Things that are more negative (e.g., events, thoughts, emotions) have a bigger impact on us than positive or neutral things do. And when it involves a personal failing, accident, or error, we can easily slide into negative self-talk. This only amplifies our feelings of stress and anxiety.
Even when nothing specific has gone wrong, sometimes people hold themselves to an unreasonable or even impossible internal standard and judge themselves to be lacking. Whether it is about our own performance, the type of parent we want to be, the way we want to present ourselves, or the type of life we want to live, some people feel stress because they haven’t adjusted those self-expectations to align with the challenges of our world today.
The antidote is self-compassion. When we are compassionate with ourselves, we treat ourselves the way we would respond to a friend or loved one. Instead of beating ourselves up for a failure, we view it as an opportunity for growth and reflection. This helps us find positives in any outcome, which in turn, helps us strengthen our resilience in the face of setbacks. The end result is a more manageable stress level.
- Rest - Our level of rest and the amount of stress we feel is closely linked. When we don’t get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night, high levels of cortisol — the stress hormone — are released. Cortisol is one of the primary hormones responsible for our fight or flight response which can leave us feeling on edge and stressed out.Getting more rest can significantly decrease cortisol levels by activating the parasympathetic nervous system and restoring balance to our hormonal systems. The same events can happen, but their effect on you will be less.
- Emotion regulation - Emotion regulation is exactly what it sounds like, the ability to control or change our emotions. Instead of giving into feelings of fear, nervousness, or anger, people who are good with emotion regulation can steady themselves so they can remain calm and collected.
The good news is that controlling our emotions is a skill that can be learned and strengthened over time. People that are good at controlling their emotions tend to be high in emotional intelligence and are aware of both their internal experiences and the feelings of others. They practice mindfulness and coping strategies that allow them to self-regulate difficult emotions. Response modulation can help us stay calm even in the most stressful situations.
- Focus - Focus refers to the ability to maintain focus and block out distraction. Multitasking, though widely practiced, is inherently stressful (and scientifically impossible). While today’s fast pace of life makes us think we need to take on several tasks at once, this rarely results in any kind of gains in productivity. More often than not, we’re left with more work due to mistakes, distractions, and higher levels of stress.
Flow on the other hand, is satisfying and deeply engaging. It’s the state of being completely mentally absorbed in a single thing — being “in the zone” — so that everything feels easy, natural, and effortless. Focus is a key ingredient for getting into the flow state.
- Cognitive agility - This refers to the ability to adapt and shift our thought processes so we can generate more positive outcomes. People who have mastered cognitive agility can pivot when circumstances change and the unexpected occurs. They’re able to quickly improvise and innovate, maintaining feelings of control and calm in even the most trying situations.
In an era marked by uncertainty, cognitive agility enables us to reframe stressful situations into opportunities for growth and exploration. We don’t feel like victims of fate, but empowered to forge new paths and invent new and better solutions.
- Social Connection - In stressful situations, we may feel the urge to withdraw from others and isolate ourselves. But that course of action does nothing to eliminate the cause of stress and often leads to more pronounced feelings of stress and anxiety.
Social connection helps us mitigate the effects of stress both physically and emotionally. On an emotional level, the words of support and encouragement from others can help us reframe our situation and cultivate a more positive mindset. On a physical level, a hug from a friend or the touch of a loved one releases oxytocin, a hormone that reduces cortisol levels, blood pressure, and other effects of stress.
Why this matters
As the world continues to grow more and more uncertain, the number of stressors we will have to live with is bound to only increase over time. It’s critical that we adopt and practice effective stress management techniques as soon as possible. By learning how to manage our stress now, we can prevent more serious mental, emotional and physical issues in the future. In the near-term, because you are feeling less stressed, you won’t respond in the ways that tend to spiral into a chain reaction that creates even more stress — for you and the people around you.
No one is born having mastered all six of these stress-reducing skills. Like our muscles, they can all be strengthened over time with consistent effort. We call the practice of learning how to control the way we think, behave, and feel mental fitness.
Just as physical training can help us grow stronger and prevent injury, mental fitness improves our overall well-being and prevents mental and emotional injury. Mentally fit people are able to thrive in even the most stressful situations, because they are able to regulate their emotions and respond to situations thoughtfully and deliberately. This greatly increases their ability to generate positive outcomes.
Managing stress effectively requires hard work and consistency, but the juice is worth the squeeze. In our stressed out world, the clarity and calm that come from developing these six key skills can help us live longer, healthier and happier lives.
Sr. Insights Manager