We can’t eliminate the stress caused by challenging events in our lives, but we can learn to manage it so it doesn’t overwhelm us. Research from Stanford’s Precision Mental Health and Wellness Center shows that when we ignore our signs of overstress and allow stress to become cumulative, it can lead to mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety. But when we learn to identify our individual responses to stress, and small steps that help us recharge, we’re far better able to take meaningful action.
This guide will help you develop healthy habits to manage stress and anxiety in the moment, and build the resilience you need to navigate challenging and uncertain times.
Your Brain as a Battery
Our brains are like a battery, and this battery needs recharging throughout the day. We only have a certain amount of battery power every day. And the state of our battery is determined by a range of factors, from sleep, nutrition, and exercise to how we manage our time and the decisions we make.
When your brain is fully charged, you are at your best; you are your most energetic, productive and creative self. You’re resilient in the face of setbacks and challenges and fully present to experience the positives in your life.
But when your battery is drained, you’re more irritable and reactive; less patient with others and with yourself; more likely to make errors in judgment or lose sight of the bigger picture; and less able to connect with others in meaningful ways. When it becomes cumulative and unmanaged, negative stress can leave our battery chronically drained, which can lead to mental health challenges such as depression or anxiety.
We all have beliefs that influence how we approach our mental well-being, and some of these could be holding us back from optimizing our mental resilience in the long term. The first step we can take is shifting our mindset to one of self-compassion and curiosity.
Let’s say you are experiencing stress or anxiety right now.
You might try to ignore the stress and power through it because you don’t want to show signs of vulnerability, or feel you don’t have time to address it.
Alternatively, a mindset shift allows you to view the situation through a different lens — and trade your limiting belief for a positive one.
For example: “I need to take the time to recharge, even in tough times, so I can be at my best.”
Or consider another limiting belief and how you can transform it into a positive one:
I DON’T HAVE TIME TO THINK ABOUT MY MENTAL WELL-BEING → Becoming attuned to my own stress signals will help me recharge and build the resilience I need to navigate this time.
Mindset shifts like these set us up for the next meaningful step: taking action.
Microsteps are small, science-backed actions you can start taking immediately to build habits that significantly improve your life. Each Microstep takes less than five minutes, so you can fit them into your schedule no matter how busy you are.
Let’s explore three key areas where you can take immediate action through Microsteps to manage your stress and anxiety and develop mental resilience: being aware of your battery, recharging in the moment, and going upstream to recharge.
1) Be aware of your battery
Everyone has their own way of responding to negative stress. That’s why learning to build self-awareness is so important. When we know ourselves — the sources of our stress, how we respond, and what actions help us recharge — we’re far better able to minimize the damage. As we return to work, it is essential to acquire the tools to spot and address your unique signs of overstress before they become overwhelming.
Here is a Microstep to get you started.
Take a few minutes to identify your top “stress signals” that tell you your mental battery is running low. Common signals include rapid heart rate, rumination, difficulty thinking clearly, and social conflicts. Noticing when you’re overstressed will help you determine when you need a “microbreak” throughout your day.
2) Adopt strategies for managing stress in the moment
We can actually retrain our thought patterns to make them more positive, in ways that help us to better manage our mental well-being. One of the simplest and most effective ways we can recharge during a stressful moment is by harnessing the power of our breath. It’s amazing how bringing attention to the rising and falling of your breath can move you from feeling stressed or overwhelmed to feeling relaxed and present. We now know that conscious breathing can reduce anxiety, improve focus, and improve your ability to manage stress.
Here are some Microsteps to help you recharge and lower stress in the moment when you’re going through a challenging time.
When you feel overwhelmed by a negative event, identify the smallest possible step you can take to address it. Breaking challenges down into small, manageable steps increases your sense of control.
Right now, write down your top worry about the challenging event you’re facing. One way to take the reins back is to simply name our worries. Researchers call this the “name it to tame it” strategy. Once you’ve named it, you can make a plan to address it.
Focus on one thing you can control. Whether it’s cooking dinner for your family or cleaning just one area of your house, taking the reins on an action or situation you have control of can help manage your stress.
Choose a mantra or saying that helps you find your place of peace. It can be an inspiring quotation, even a song lyric — anything that helps you find your center.
Take a moment to recharge and reset before talking to your kids. Don’t talk to them about the event while you’re stressed or panicked. Conveying a sense of calm will offer comfort and help manage their anxiety.
3) Go upstream to build long-term resilience
You can charge your battery in two ways: by “quick charging” it in the moment, or by going “upstream” and building habits that help you recharge your battery for sustained power.
The following Microsteps will help you go upstream to insert healthy habits into your daily life to improve mental well-being, reduce the impact of negative stress, and help prevent mental health issues before they occur.
When you feel overwhelmed, focus on your breathing instead of reaching for your phone. We often use our phones to distract us from challenging moments, but doing that can leave us more stressed. Allow yourself a moment to turn inward instead and focus on your breathing.
Set aside even just five minutes a day for a mindful activity, like deep breathing or journaling. Activities that bring on mindfulness — whether it’s meditation, journaling, or movement — can help your brain better manage stress and anxiety that can trigger depression.
Allow yourself to grieve a loss of money, property, or work. The act of identifying your experience as grief can help you be more compassionate with yourself, and more quickly move towards acceptance and taking action.
Once a day, take a moment to reflect on what you are grateful for. In times of challenge or uncertainty, our brain defaults to focusing on the negative. Gratitude helps us manage stress by drawing our attention to what is still good in our lives.
Plan one check-in with someone who means a lot to you. It can be a socially distanced meet-up or a phone call, but in uncertain times, it’s more important than ever to connect with others. Not only does connecting raise our spirits, it also supports immune functioning and helps us manage anxiety.
If a fellow co-worker shares that they are suffering, show your concern by simply listening. Research on “invisible support” shows that people benefit more from emotional support when they don’t realize they’re receiving it. Instead of asking “how can I solve this person’s problem?”, focus on “How can I be there for them in this moment?”
Each day, reassure your kids that they are not in danger. Let them know “you are safe.” This will increase their sense of trust and help lower their anxiety.
Be real with your kids when talking to them about a challenge. Kids can sense if you’re pretending that everything is OK, and that can increase their stress. You could say, “This is a scary and hard time, but we’ve gotten through hard times before as a family,” This way, you’re being real with them while also giving them a sense of hope.
Before you get into bed, escort your devices out of your bedroom. Our phones are repositories of our anxieties and fears, especially in times of crisis and constant news updates. Disconnecting will help you sleep better, recharge, and reconnect to your most resilient self.
Write down a list of what you’re grateful for before bed. Writing down what you’re grateful for at the end of the day will lower your stress levels, take your mind off the news of the day, and give you a greater sense of calm at night.
Take a minute to stretch after a meeting or stressful call. A quick stretch helps alleviate any tension that might have built up and promotes relaxation.
Swap one sugary beverage a day with water. Sugar is proven to increase inflammation in our bodies, which limits our immune response. If you’re able, you might want to add a slice of lemon to make it more flavorful.
Make the time for a restorative lunch each day, ideally away from your desk, valuing yourself enough to put the right nutrition in your body. When you work through lunch and load up on snacks, it’s impossible to operate at peak levels.