Stress Less: Why that great advice about coping with stress just isn’t working for you

When it comes to stress, we live in a paradoxical age. We’ve all seen the research that talks about the prevalence – and dangers – of stress, and the tools and techniques that we can use to cope with it are such common knowledge they hardly bear repeating. So why we are more stressed than we’ve ever been? What we’re doing isn’t working, so what are we going to do about it?

Lifestyle coach and author, Sarah Laurie, says she’s found the missing link, and she’s written a book about it. Stress Less looks at the issues around stress, why we’re not combating it effectively and offers advice about how we can make changes to our behaviour that actually provide relief. It turns out that for people suffering from stress, exhortations to ‘take a walk’ or ‘breathe deeply’ are little more than wasted breath. Stressed people, Laurie says, are simply not capable of putting those practices into action.

“We have all of this great information,” says Laurie, “but we're not doing any of it”.

“Every article you read talks about breathing, walking, meditating, but all of these solutions just seem too lightweight during times of real stress. These tools – breathing, taking a moment – they do have a really big effect on our ability to function, but for some reason, everything we know so far isn’t working”.

Image: Stress Less author, Sarah Laurie

The problem, says Laurie, is that we often only employ tools to reduce stress as a last resort, and in those situations, the standard techniques aren't effective.  

“We only decide we’re going to draw on these tools in moments of great pressure, but at that moment, they don’t work because they go against our biological mechanisms. Having a lie down when your body thinks you’re in danger? That’s not going to happen. That will make you feel more agitated if anything. That’s where the idea of reprogramming your brain to feel better more of the time comes in.”

To research the book, Laurie travelled to the University of California, Berkeley, where she met with associate professor of integrative biology, Daniela Kaufer.

“I learned that stress feels different than it functions,” says Laurie. “It feels emotional and overwhelming, however it functions in a way that is physical and precise. When we fully understand the mechanics of stress and how it functions we become well prepared to prevent it and reduce it.”

“Because the way we’re living right now isn’t really living,” she continues. “We feel tired, we feel rushed, we can’t wait for the weekend, we chastise ourselves for everything, especially parents. We’re feeling as though were stretched all the time. But the fact is we can’t be all guns blazing, operating at 100% all the time.”

“We shouldn’t have to endure life. We should be feeling good now. I know that sounds idealistic, but I don’t think it's unreasonable.”

The secret, says Laurie, is in realising that it’s not about circumstance, it’s our reaction to that circumstance that causes stress.

“You will struggle to reduce your stress by trying to solve your work problems, or by working harder, or by managing your time more effectively. If you are chronically stressed you won't be inclined to reduce it by meditating, or focusing on your breathing, or by getting more sleep, or taking more holidays or positively visualising. A person experiencing ongoing stress will not successfully implement any of those things because their brain has been instructed otherwise, and it has formed a pattern to keep doing what it’s doing.”  

“From a neurological standpoint, we actually create this circuitry that creates a predisposition in our brain. For a relentlessly stressed person, they have created a pattern that’s very hard to disestablish.”

Laurie’s book proposes a simple four week plan involving pausing, breathing, writing exercises, meditation and reflection that works to disengage the 'fight-or-flight' response and put us in a state where we’re less likely to feel stressed in the first place.

“These strategies are simple, but they’re significant. They're simple tools that are biologically sound. The key is consistency – once a day isn’t enough. Once a week isn’t enough. One hour out of twenty is never going to result in real change. But if you can work on how you feel consistently, that’s when results happen, because what you do in the moment becomes your circuitry.

“When people have undertaken the practices in the back of the book for a few weeks, that resistance to stopping and taking a break – wanting to do the right thing but not being able to – is much less.”

For stressed out readers looking for short-term fixes, Laurie says there are things that can be done immediately, all of them simple, to improve your ability to cope. 

Daily hacks to manage stress better

  1. Turn off your digital devices

“When we consume things digitally, were consuming information much faster than we can process it. When we turn to our devices at any single second of downtime – waiting for a friend, at the traffic lights, in a queue – those were the moments that our brains would usually process the events of our day. Now were not giving our brains that opportunity; we’re just flooding our brains with yet more information.

“We think that 'contentment' is a subjective feeling that is related to us 'getting things right', like our jobs, or our families, or our lives, but it's really our subconscious processing the information of the day and telling ourselves everything’s alright.”

  1. Write by hand

“Our brains have a very unique relationship with the patterns our hands make. When we think about a creative idea, that's often an action of the right side of our brains. When you’re writing something, that’s on the other side of the brain. When we write something by hand, that can bring a lot of order to our thoughts that we wouldn't have tapping away on a keyboard.

“When we write down a problem, we’re more likely to bring a structure to it than if we just let it percolate in our brain, so write down what you’re grateful for. You will feel a greater connection to it and it enhances your retention by writing it. There’s also research that says when you start writing a problem, your brains starts putting forward solutions immediately, so if you actually sit down and write it, rather than just thinking about it, you’re more likely to come up with good ideas around it.”

  1. Realise it’s not about circumstance

“We constantly think the stress is due to our circumstances. That’s where the shift is required. We’ve got to stop this constant evaluation of ourselves compared to other people. We need to stop looking to our circumstances for a solution and address the actual stress response. You’ll only deal with your actual problems if your stress response is out of the way first.”

“And that is harder than it sounds. It’s a real stretch for people to say ‘oh, it’s not my life, it’s my stress response’.”

Stress Less by Sarah Laurie

$24.99 (Print)