05/09/2013 08:09 am ET Updated Jan 11, 2016

Learning to De-Stress in the Wake of Bad News, National Tragedy and Terror

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In this ever-connected world, it only takes a glance at the Internet, a scan of TV news or a few minutes listening to the radio to get a full barrage of gloom and doom. While the bad has always been there right alongside the good, never has it been so up close and personal as it is today -- when a headline's shock value is directly connected to its viral speed.

The result is a generation wracked with stress and fear... heart rates through the roof due to unnecessary worry, raising the toll on our mental and physical health. So, how do we de-stress in such an environment?

Stress, inherently, is not the problem. In fact, most world-class athletes that I spend time with have taught me the value of looking for opportunities to stress their minds and bodies. They have a clear understanding that stress is required to become more resilient, stronger and ultimately to grow in life.

Chronic stress is a massive problem, however. More precisely, the inability to let go of the initial (and healthy) response to stress is often closely linked to many health issues that we may face.

Before we go further, let's develop a deeper understanding of the two primary types of stress, known as: 1) eustress (good stress) and 2) distress (bad stress). The key difference between the two depends on the interpretation of the event by experiencer, meaning that each of us has the ability to determine the type of stress that we are experiencing.

In respect to de-stressing, eustress and distress have very different effects on the body. Distress requires much more energy, and -- hence -- much more recovery needed to regain balance.

The management of stress is the challenge. Most of us make the assumption that the environment around us creates stress (e.g., an unexpected event that involves loss), which is unfortunately only a small part of the equation. The way we think about the event(s) is what triggers our response to stress.

The most powerful way to engage with stress is for people to notice when they are (dis)stressed -- which can then become an opportunity to quickly understand the thinking that has created the toxic (chronic or overly anxious) response. Developing this type of insight offers the opportunity to upgrade or change the thinking that, at one time, led to a chronic, prolonged or toxic response to stress.

Alongside of becoming aware of the experience of stress, there is one very powerful skill that has a dramatic impact on "reversing" the immediate impact of stress. It's likely more simple than you'd imagine. It's as simple as taking a breath, or two, or three, or 33, or 133.

A deep breath is a signal to the body that "we are safe." This response is rooted deep in our DNA. Quite literally, a deep breath was a luxury only afforded to ancestors who survived being chased by a saber-toothed tiger. While today we are not literally being chased, our response to a stressful event (or even an intense stressful thought) is nearly exactly the same.

Breathing training (and other forms of meditation) can be an extremely powerful tool to increase the awareness of thoughts that promote chronic stress (or promote calm). Breathing training also increases the effectiveness for us to relax (or shed the stress response) on command.

A great way to begin a breathing training program is to take 10 consecutive breaths once a day for 10 days. If your mind wanders so far away from the breath that you can't remember what number you're on, start over. Next, do the same process for 20 breaths for 20 days.

Preparation is one of the cornerstones for prolonged success in life. Preparing to effectively work with stress will certainly pay dividends in the days, months, years to come.

Enjoy the simple joys, one breath at a time.

For more by Michael Gervais, Ph.D., click here.

For more on stress, click here.

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