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The Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) is dedicated to improving the physical and mental health of Canadians by empowering individuals with scientifically grounded information on the effects of stress on the brain and body.
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You just got off the phone after a conversation with your friend, who now calls you every Wednesday night after dinner.  Throughout the conversation with her, you felt your hand squeezing your cell phone and your heart beating faster. Anger is brewing inside you. As soon as you place your cell phone on the dining room table, you say, “She’s stressing me out too much, it’s crazy. Every time she calls me, I’m super stressed after our conversation.  I don’t like this.”


Good job! You have just taken the first step towards controlling your stress response! In fact, as I noted in a previous blog post, recognizing the physical (feeling hot, clenched hands) and mental (brewing anger) signs of stress is essential if we want to try to control our stress responses.


Now that you’ve recognized your stress response, it’s time to move on to the next step of deconstructing the stressful situation into its NUTS ingredients. This method is described in detail in this blog post.


“Is my friend stressing me out because she’s novel? Answer: no”.

“Is she stressing me out because she’s unpredictable? Answer: no.”

“Does she stress me out because she’s taking away my sense of control?  Answer: yes”

“Does she stress me out because she threatens my ego? Answer: no.”


Now you know why your friend is stressing you out. You suddenly realize that every time she calls you and tells you about the hundreds of things that could go wrong with the upcoming deconfinement, it increases your feeling of not being in control and generates a stress response.


Wow! By deconstructing your stress as you have learned here, you have just taken the second step towards regaining control of your stress: you have understood why this situation is stressful for you.


By recognizing your physical and mental stress response and your deconstruction of the situation into its NUTS ingredients, you have already cut the weight of that stress on your body and brain in half.


But at this point, you’ve only done half the work to prevent that stress from hurting you in the days to come.


Indeed, your brain has detected a threat (the friend that makes you feel like you don’t have control over a situation) and you need to help your brain to stop seeing that situation as a threat.   To do this, you will reconstruct that stress, in your own way.


As I often say, the opposite of stress is not ‘relaxation’. Just because you go to the spa after the pandemic doesn’t mean that you will feel more in control of what your friend says when she calls you on Wednesday nights.


Scientific research shows that in fact, the opposite of stress is ‘resilience’. And resilience is the ability to have a plan B, C and D until you feel that you are in complete control of the situation.


Let’s go back to the example with that friend who stresses you out on the phone because she constantly gives you the impression that you have no control over the situation at hand.  Once you have deconstructed this stressor and understood that your friend is stressing you out because she makes you feel like you have no control over the situation, you must now reconstruct this stressor by finding plans B, C and D. Here’s how it works.


“My friend is stressing me out because she makes me feel like I have no control over the current situation. What can I do to feel more in control of the situation?


Plan B: I can stop talking to my friend.

-Do I feel like this is a good plan?  Answer: No.  I like her and I want to keep her as a friend. So, I need a plan C.


Plan C: I can ask her to stop talking to me about anything and everything that could go wrong with COVID-19.

-Do I feel like that’s a good plan? Answer: No. I know her well and I feel that she can’t help but be afraid of the future. So, I need a plan D.


Plan D: I can suggest that we do a group call every Wednesday night with our other friends, instead of just her and I being alone on the phone.

-Do I think that sounds like a good plan? Answer: Yes.  I’ve noticed that when we are in a group and not one-on-one, she talks less about what makes her anxious and is very good company.”


Once you’ve found a plan that could work for you, you can stop searching for other plans.


When your friend calls you back next Wednesday and you feel a small stress response when the phone rings, you can do one of two things.  First, you can choose to put your Plan D into action by suggesting a group call for the following Wednesday and see if this will help reduce your stress. If that doesn’t work, you can start searching for a plan E that might work in the future.


The other option is to fool your brain a little!  In fact, research shows that a very high percentage of people never actually put their plans B, C and D into action.  However, simply bringing your plan B, C, or D back into consciousness when you are facing the stressful situation sends a message to your brain that you are in control of the situation. And that’s all it needs to stop producing stress hormones!


As I often say, never go into a stressful situation without a plan B, because this would be the equivalent of going out to hunt a mammoth … without a spear!


If you hunt a mammoth with a spear in your hand, you may end up losing the battle against the beast. However, you’ll be less afraid to face it than if you went to confront it unarmed.


It’s exactly the same with stress. If you help your brain a little to fight the threat, you’ll give it a chance to feel in control and thus, to calm your stress!


Text from Sonia Lupien, director of the Centre for studies on human stress