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The sweet spot of stress

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Kandi Wiens

March 2023

If you think all stress is bad and we should avoid it at all costs, think again.

I’m here to tell you that a stress-free existence is impossible. And, btw, it’s not the gold we should be going for!

What we actually want is to find and keep ourselves in the “sweet spot” of stress, a place where we experience just enough stress to feel challenged and motivated but not so much that we feel overwhelmed and ineffective (a foolproof recipe for burnout). 

We all know that repeatedly high doses of acute stress and chronic stress are harmful to our physical and psychological health. But what most of us forget is that we need, and should strive for, moderate stress. Think about it for a sec – when was the last time you felt engaged, motivated and challenged? Maybe you were learning a new skill, working in a stretch role, or did something outside your comfort zone. Those are all good kinds of stress that can help you develop and grow – personally and professionally. And added bonus that it also helps increase your resilience to future stress!

And that’s backed by a recent University of Georgia study that found low to moderate levels of stress actually enhance working memory and mental performance. The effects were strongest in those who had access to “psychosocial assets” as well, like self-efficacy, social networks and friendships, and a sense of purpose. These are all burnout prevention assets, too!

One of the most helpful ways I’ve found to think about — and get to — that sweet spot of stress is through a concept known as the “window of tolerance”. The term was coined years ago by Dr. Dan Siegel, an expert in neuropsychology and mindfulness, and expanded on by author and psychotherapist Linda Graham (her book Bouncing Back is one of my faves, btw!).

According to Graham, the window of tolerance is our “baseline state of physiological functioning when we’re not frightened, stressed, overtired, or overstimulated.” When we’re operating from within this state, we’re calm, relaxed, engaged, and alert. We’re not feeling the “mehs”, disengaged or bored. And we’re definitely not flying off the handle or storming out of meetings either.

We’re in the Goldilocks spot – engaged and connected but not too stressed. Not too frazzled or too revved up, but also not shut down. The perfect state of emotional and psychological regulation. 

Sure, stress knocks us out of our window of tolerance from time to time. But when our stress response is regulated and healthy, when we’re responding in an appropriate manner (not ruminating over past events or worrying about the next big thing), we can get back to that window pretty quickly. 

So, how do you get back to your sweet spot of stress when you feel edged (or shoved) out of your window of tolerance? Try on a couple of these six rescue remedies to calm your stress response and regain that Goldilocks feel. 

1. Activate oxytocin through touch.

Oxytocin is the fastest way to regulate the body’s stress response. Hugs, holding hands, a head rub, massage, cuddles with a pet, and massaging your temples or placing your hand on your heart all trigger it. Want to supercharge the effect? Gently massage the place where your neck meets the base of your skull. That’s where your vagus nerve is located — and it’s loaded with oxytocin receptors.

2. Connect with people who get you.  

Reach out to a friend or loved one who understands and appreciates you for you. Being in their presence is the best, but a phone call or text message will do in a pinch. Feeling supported and connected releases all four of the feel-good hormones (serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin).

3. Treat yourself to a big ol’ physiological sigh. 

Trust me – this powerful breathing technique can do the trick. Complete two inhalations through the nose, followed by one long exhalation through the mouth. According to neurobiologist Dr. Andrew Huberman, the double inhalation “pops” open all the little air sacs in the lungs, maximizing your oxygen intake, and the long exhalation offloads the carbon dioxide that’s accumulated during the stress response. 

4. Exercise.

I know, I know, but the link between exercise and stress prevention, as well as stress relief, has been firmly established. Find an exercise you like (or that you can at least tolerate!) that gets your heart rate up (for me, that’s a Peloton ride or some time on my Pilates Reformer). Group exercise classes have the extra benefit of social connection, and outdoor exercise gives you the added boost of the next remedy.

5. Spend time in nature.

Just like with exercise, there’s abundant evidence demonstrating that spending time outdoors in green spaces lowers stress, promotes self-regulation, increases attention, and is a significant predictor of happiness and general well-being. And the stress-reducing effects occur in as little as 10 minutes!

6. Let yourself cry it out.

Crying is just as good for grownups as it is for babies. That’s because it releases oxytocin and endorphins. It’s a powerful way to self-soothe, regulate your mood, and reduce stress. So next time you feel yourself tearing up, go ahead and cry it out!

Sure, the world is far from perfect, but I find it deeply comforting to know that — no matter the circumstances — my sweet spot of stress is always there, just waiting for my return. And these six remedies are the best way to help me get there.

I’d love to hear from you: Do you practice any of these remedies? Which one is your favorite? Or maybe you have another go-to strategy to keep yourself in the sweet spot of stress? Hit reply and let me know!

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