THE BLOG
07/11/2014 05:10 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2014

7 Ways Stress Ruins Your Life and 5 Steps That Start to Turn It Around

We think our problems produce the stress we experience, but it's actually the reverse. Stress causes most of our troubles -- from money, family, and work problems, to physical and mental health issues. In working with private and corporate clients, I've found that most people realize that stress is harmful, but few understand it as causal... at least until I review the following research findings with them:

Stress and money: When our mind is preoccupied with fears of financial scarcity, it activates stress reactions, releasing stress hormones that dampen the brain's executive functions. This leads to a decline in fluid intelligence, which is the "smarts" the higher brain generates to solve money problems. [1]

Stress and bad decisions: The greater the stress, the greater the likelihood you'll make bad decisions at home and at work. Knee-jerk reactions can cause you to make risky or premature decisions. You'll drop long-range goals for immediate survival needs, and every day you'll wonder why you keep falling behind instead of getting ahead. [2]

Stress and declining performance: Stress hormones shrink higher brain networks and break the connections between them. This inhibits you from maximizing your full measure of talent and sustaining peak performance. [3] You'll have a good day now and then, but your brain won't be able to generate your best day every day.

Stress and dampened creativity: Your capacity for creative insight and innovation is thwarted by stress. [4] Those sudden "aha" moments of insight, inspiration, and comprehension will be few and far between.

Stress and emotional negativity: Stress locks you into fight, flight, or freeze reactions. Your emotional set point switches to negative, predisposing you to anxiety, anger, aggression, paranoia, and depression. [5]

Stress and family: The greater the stress, the more reactive you'll be to the normal ups and downs at home. You and your partner will argue, criticize, blame, and withhold affection, not realizing that stress is distorting how you see the relationship. Stress hormones also lower sex drive, adding to the estrangement. [6]

Stress and health: Chronic stress impairs the immune system. It wreaks havoc on the cardiovascular system. It damages chromosomes prematurely aging your body and causing the production of cancer. It kills brain cells, and if left unchecked, can eventually kill you. [7] If you add up all the deaths from stress-related illnesses, you have our No. 1 killer.

Obviously, if you want a healthy, happy and successful life, ending stress belongs at the top of your to-do list. Yet 83 percent of us are doing nothing about it. [8] Too often, the wake-up call comes on the gurney in the emergency room. Make no mistake, stress is life-threatening serious. "It is not something that maybe someday you should do something about," says Carol Shively of Stanford. "You need to attend to it today." [9]

There is a solution

If you have a problem with stress, it's because genetics and hard knocks have wired you for a hyperactive stress response system. There is a solution to stress that is based on the capacity of the human brain to: a) rewire primitive neural circuits that habituate stress reactions, and b) stimulate the growth of higher brain networks that enable you to succeed fully. The process of rewiring, called neuroplasticity, is surprisingly simple. It's achieved through a specific shift in mindset. Norman Doige of Columbia University calls neuroplasticity "the single most important change in our understanding of the human brain in 400 years." [10]

Neuroplasticity works in real life situations, where stress abounds. It's been studied in high pressure corporations and found to achieve impressive results in increasing morale and productivity in previously unproductive groups. [11] In an independent evaluation of a training my firm conducted at Wells Fargo, more than 300 managers making a similar shift experienced a significant improvement in their level of stress, job performance, creativity, and personal relationships... all in three weeks. [12] Who doesn't want those outcomes? It starts with making stress a priority.

5 steps that start to turn it around

If you're one of the 83 percent who are procrastinating, here are five simple neuroplastic steps that can get your mindset moving in the right direction:

1: Bust Stressful-Provoking Thoughts: Be aware all day of stress-provoking thoughts as they occur. Tell yourself: These thoughts are in me, not in reality. Then refuse to believe the stressful thought and see what happens to your experience. An anxious thought not believed doesn't turn into stress.

2: Stop Worrying (The Clear Button): Imagine there is a button at the center of your palm that, when pushed, signals the brain to stop worrying. Keep pressing the button while you slowly count to three, thinking of each number as a color. As you exhale on the final breath, let your mind go completely and relax into the present moment. Repeat the process until your worries are gone.

3: Start Each Day in Quiet: Set aside five minutes first thing each morning to frame a positive mindset. Feel appreciation for the gift of another day of life. Set your intention to have a rewarding day. Commit yourself to being at peace on the inside, regardless of what happens on the outside.

4: Take Regular Breaks: A 15-20 minute break every two hours allows your brain to rebound. So, every two hours step away from your work and go outside or to a window. Watch the clouds pass, the wind blow, or the sun shine, allowing your mind to grow quiet and to connect with life.

5: Count Your Blessings: Once a week, at bedtime, recall three things that happened during the previous week for which you are grateful. Then acknowledge three things in your life for which you feel blessed.

For a print-out of the five steps plus one more, go to http://tinyurl.com/end-of-stress-six-steps

References:

[1] Sendhil Mullainathan, Ph.D. and Eldar Shafir, Ph.D., Freeing Up Intelligence, Scientific American Mind, January/February 2014, p.58-61

[2] Wesley E. Sime, MPH, PhD, Stress Management: A Review of Principles, an online series of lectures on stress management, Lecture 1, University of Nebraska, Dept. of Health and Human Performance

[3] Eduardo Dias-Ferreira et al., "Chronic Stress Causes Frontostriatal Reorganization and Affects Decision-Making," Science 325, no. 5940 (31 July 2009): 621-25.

[4] Amabile TM, Hadley CN, Kramer SJ , Creativity under the Gun, Harvard Business Review, 2002, 80(8):52-61, 147

[5] S. T. Charles, J. R. Piazza, J. Mogle, M. J. Sliwinski, D. M. Almeida. The Wear and Tear of Daily Stressors on Mental Health. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612462222

[6] L. A. Neff and B. R. Karney, "Stress and reactivity to daily relationship experiences: How stress hinders adaptive processes in marriage," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97 (2009): 435-50.

[7] Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress Related Diseases, and Coping, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1998), 144-153.

[8] American Psychological Association, "Stress in America, Missing the Health Care Connection," February 7, 2013, pg. 5

[9] Killer Stress, A National Geographic Special, PBS, 2008, produced by Stanford University and Nation Geographic

[10] Nancy Churnin, Brain has ability to adapt and change through life, March 22, 2010, The Dallas Morning News

[11] R. J. Davidson, J. Kabat-Zinn, et al., "Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation," Psychosomatic Medicine 65 (2003): 564

[12] Don Joseph Goewey, The Solution to Stress that Not Only Works in the Lab; It Works in High Pressure Corporations, April 6, 2013, http://donjosephgoewey.com/the-stress-solution-works-high-pressure-places/

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