How To Handle Stress with Skill



“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” — William James

I took some good notes during a presentation by Dr. Mike Gervaison how to handle stress with skill and I want to share what I learned.

Sharing is more than caring.  It might even be life-saving.

Dr. Mike is a sports psychologist who works with the Seattle Seahawks and is a founder of Compete to Create, along with Coach Pete Carroll.  Dr. Mike spends his time working with elite athletes and finding ways to maximize their performance, and he’s learned a lot about how to manage and reduce stress through psychological and physical skills.

If we can learn to handle stress better, then we can perform better in work and life, no matter the challenge before us.  And we manage chronic stress better when we’re aware of our thoughts and we’re able to active the rest and digest part of our brain, through the day.

Even if it’s just thin slices of rest and recovery and little micro-moments where we reground ourselves in our experience.

Why Learn from Elite Athletes

Elite athletes have to manage uncertainty all the time.  They manage stress and pressure on a regular basis and they are skilled at it.

As Dr. Mike put it, elite athletes are a very powerful experiment on how the mind, body, and craft can all work together.

There is good science we can borrow from what’s been tested in the environment of elite sports.

Accordingly, we can learn how the mind works, how it impacts the body, and how we can use good science to ground ourselves in the experience.

The Gift of Uncertainty

According to Dr. Mike, uncertainty is a gift.  While uncertainty creates stress, it also creates a chance to come fully alive.

Uncertainty activates us.  It wakes us up and challenges us to respond.

Humans feel the most alive during uncertainty.

Dr. Mike says that as humans, we need to be tested.

And as humans, we are strong.  History teaches us that we survive and outlast the toughest situations imaginable.

According to Dr. Mike, every moment that we live is a moment of uncertainty:

“You and I have never been in this moment before and we don’t know how it’s going to unfold.

But when we’re scared, uncertainty becomes dangerous.

When we are calm and grounded we love uncertainty.  We call it spontaneity.

… So I want to remind you that the most alive humans feel is when they are not quite sure what’s coming down the pipe.”

Flow is the Most Optimal State You Can Be In

Not only do humans feel the most alive during uncertainty, but flow is the most optimal state you can be in.

According to Dr. Mike, uncertainty creates an opportunity to experience a deep sense of flow.

It’s your chance to practice your ability to manage and reframe uncertainty into a gift.

Here’s how Dr. Mike put it:

“…and when people are in mundane and boring and grindy kind of states, there are very little gamma waves.

But when we’re in an uncertain state, and novelty is high, challenge is high, and we believe we have the skills to match the challenge, then we get this beautiful bursting of gamma waves, which is thought to be the signature of flow state.

And flow state, which you’ll recognize from the science is what athletes call being in the zone, but it’s one of the most optimal states a human can be in.

So it’s one of the gifts I want to reframe.  Is this level of uncertainty that can actually be one of the most beautiful experiences internally that you can feel…

The love and the crave of what’s unfolding next.

But only if you know how to manage and frame uncertainty.”

How To Frame the Challenge with a Quote

According to Dr. Mike, the key is to learn how to manage and reframe uncertainty.

And a great way to frame uncertainty is with a quote of your choice.

Dr. Mike shares an example:

“Life’s roughest storms, prove the greatest anchors.”

This simple quote reminds us that we don’t pray for calm waters.  The greatest sailors, the greatest captains in the world want to be tested, and, as humans, we need to be tested.

Dr. Mike wants to be tested and he wants to be strong.  That means he has to manage chronic stress better.

Awareness First, Then Skills (A Simple Framework for Stress)

Dr. Mike shares a framework that has two axes:

  1. Your awareness of your inner life
  2. Your psychological skills

According to Dr. Mike, you can manage stress when you are aware of your thoughts, and you are able to activate the rest and digest parts of your brain throughout the day, in thin slices or micro-moments of recovery.

How To Practice the Skill of Awareness

According to Dr. Mike, awareness is a skill, and you need awareness so you can practice the psychological skills.  You need to build your awareness of four things:

  1. Your thoughts
  2. Your emotions
  3. Your body sensations
  4. Your unfolding environment around you

You need the skill of awareness, so that you can adjust your strategies to deal with chronic stress appropriately.

Become aware of your thoughts, how you feel, how your body feels, and what’s going on around you.

This waking up and paying attention to you, all of you, and your environment will help you sharpen your skills for stress.

Awareness Helps You Choose Between Mental and Physical Strategies

The skill of awareness if really being able to adjust the chronic stress that you are feeling.

Chronic stress is really the problem and you want to learn how to manage chronic stress by choosing better strategies.

When your mind is racing use a psychological strategy.

When your body is tense and tight, use a physiological strategy.

Dr. Mike says:

“So when you notice that your mind is distracted, or you’re getting a pang of intense information, then you bring your awareness back to your state and how you feel, if you like it cool.

If you don’t like it…if you feel like your body is tight, you use a body strategy which is breathing.

If you notice that your mind is starting to race, then you use a psychological strategy which is to focus on the one thing that you want to refocus on.  So it might be typing up a letter, it might be a phone call that you’re waiting on, whatever.

So psychological strategies are to come back to the present moment, and the physical strategies are to use your breathing.”

Take Care of Yourself

We need you to be great for each other.  If you can’t manage chronic stress, it creates a challenge all around.

Dr. Mike says:

“Take care of yourself.  Remind yourself. Go upstream.  Remind yourself that it’s because you care. You care about doing a great job. You care about taking care of others.

And you care about yourself… we want to be great for each other. We need each other.

I need you at home… for my parents that have an underlying condition.  I need you.  Your teammates need you.

And if you can’t manage chronic stress, then you’re going to run into a real challenge, not only for our extended family, but for your immediate family.”

How To Practice Your Motivation

It’s hard to be your best if your motivation is low.  The beauty is that you can use science to improve your motivation.

There is a theory of motivation called self-determination theory.

According to the theory, there are 3 basic needs that fuel intrinsic motivation:

  1. Competence
  2. Autonomy
  3. Relatedness

You can remember them as CAR.

Dr. Mike:

“…It has to do with internal motivation, and how to do we create environments that anchor internal motivation.

So there’s internal and there’s external, and the reason we value internal so much in the world of humans flourishing and human performance, both of those, is because we don’t need some external stimulus to get us going, and so internally we are self-driven.

And there are 3 components that help support internally driven people.”

How To Practice Competency, Autonomy, and Relatedness

To practice competency, you need to remind yourself what your core competencies and skills are.

Write them down.  Writing them down is important because under times of high stress, we can struggle with clarity.

Treat them like your crown jewels.

According to Dr. Mike, you should ask yourself two things:

  1. What are your crown jewels, competencies, that you own and possess?
  2. And what are the ones that you’d like to get better at?

To practice autonomy, Dr. Mike recommends that you remind yourself that you have autonomy:

“Inside the structure of your job, you have the autonomy, the freedom if you will, to create an optimized way of living and way of working “

To practice relatedness, you can deepen your relationship with yourself.  First practice your own inner-related relationship with your own psychology.

And you can practice relationships with the environment around you by asking questions around meaning and purpose.

And you can deepen your relationships with others.  To do so, slow down, engage, and connect where it counts.

As Covey might say, listen until others feel heard.

Dr. Mike:

“So if you’re struggling with stress, you can go back to your competency, you can go back to a sense of autonomy that you had, and we can make sure that you snap into relatedness. 

So that’s a beautiful little theory. 

It’s timely for us right now.”

What the Study of Fulfillment Over 75 Years Taught Us

Dr. Mike recapped a study of fulfillment.  It was a 75 year, longitudinal study of flourishing, of fulfillment of life.

What they learned is that those who had the greatest reported fulfillment in life had two things in common:

  1. they wrestled with the deep questions in life
  2. those that had deep relationships, had great fulfillment

They wrestled with the tough questions in life, such as:

What am I doing here?

What is my purpose?

Who am I?

Who am I becoming?

What happens after physical death?

What am I going to do with my money?

How do I want to live if I don’t have enough money?

The other thing to keep in mind about that 75 year study is that those that had deep relationships, those that had people they could share their love with, they had great fulfillment.

Here’s the surprise, according to Dr. Mike, “it’s not about people loving you, it’s about you loving others.”

The real key to remember here is that in this epic study, people did not report lower stress.

They had plenty to stress about in their life.

But they reported deeper fulfillment.

The message is that stress is an opportunity for fulfillment.

Thin Slice Your Purpose

Dr. Mike reminded us that purpose doesn’t have to be a big thing, and that we do have time to struggle with difficult and important questions.

You can chunk your purpose down to fit what you have time or ability for.

Dr. Mike:

“… Those that grokked with the difficult, important questions in life reported more fulfillment.

And you might say—I don’t have time to do that right now.

You do have time.  You do have time.

I promise you have time to think about, even right now, what is my purpose?  And if you’re not sure, it’s OK.  And I’ll also say it’s OK to make it up, right now.

What is my thin-slice purpose?  What is my purpose today?

Isn’t that an awesome opportunity, and if you still aren’t quite sure what your purpose is today, why am I doing this like I’m a mess… hold on—what is your purpose today?

Your purpose can be as beautiful and simple as helping other people.  Your purpose can be to take care of others.  But to do that, you gotta take care of yourself.”

The Big Skill of Mindfulness

According to Dr. Mike, the big skill is mindfulness.

Mindfulness it he art of being here now.

Mindfulness is being here now without judgment.

Dr. Mike suggests we think about mindfulness in 3 frames:

  1. Mindfulness is a skill
  2. Mindfulness is a state of being—you can be mindful in the moment
  3. Mindfulness eventually becomes a trait

Take 500 Nice Breaths a Day

Dr. Mike recommends taking 500-1,000 nice, deep breaths a day.

When your “cup is full” or you feel stressed out, you can take a nice breath to empty your cup and de-stress.

To take a nice breath, Dr. Mike suggests a simple formula:

  1. Breathe in about 4 or 5 seconds
  2. Pause for about 5 seconds
  3. Exhale for about 10 seconds

That’s one full breath.

When you breathe in the big breathe, feel the tension at the top, and then enjoy the exhale.

The long exhale sends a signal to the brain to rest and to turn on the digestive system.

The more you do it, the better you become at that skill.

Dr. Mike:

“As a reminder when you breathe, breathe on down in the space below your ribcage and above your hips.

So it’s not in your belly.  It’s the whole band across your low lungs.  That whole band.

And so what I want you to do is just take a nice deep breath down in your lungs.  And then all the way up int your upper back, feel that tension at the top.  It’s about 4 or 5 seconds usually, and I’m going to ask you to hold it for another 5 seconds.  Now enjoy the exhale.”

Note that Dr. Mike tries to set aside time for breath work.  The science says a minimum of 8 minutes is where you start to get really good effects, but the optimal does is 20 minutes a day.

But if you don’t have that 8 or 20 minute timebox, then chunk it down into 1 minute chances here and there.

How To Practice Mindfulness When You Breathe

According to Dr. Mike, a simple way to practice mindfulness is to focus all of your essence on the inhale and then all of your focus, all of your essence on the exhale.

Your mind will wander, but no worries.

When your mind wanders, it’s a chance to practice refocusing.

So taking nice, deep breaths is a dual-benefit:

  1. You get the long exhale which is a trigger to your primal brain to rest and digest.  It’s a thin slice of recovery.
  2. You get to practice the mental practice of coming back to now.

When You Feel Anxiety Coming On,  Come Back to Right Now

When, through your awareness, you start to notice yourself feeling anxious or fearful, work on your breathing and catch your thoughts.

Bring your thoughts back to right now.

Dr. Mike:

“Remember that fear is the excessive anxiety, the excessive worry of later.

And if you can’t manage that, and most people cannot, the excessive worry becomes anxiety.

If you notice that your mind is way out there, trying to solve things that are filling your cup, and it feels overwhelming, then the action is the inoculation here.

Come back to what you can do now—what can I do today?

If that feels too much to bit off, then what can I do this hour?

Write things down.”

Breathing and Catching Your Thoughts

If you focus on your breathing and catching your thoughts, you will be building the skills that help you mange and reduce stress so you can perform better in all aspects of your life.

Dr. Mike:

“What can I do right now, what is my action now to adjust my state?


A breath and a thought.

I’m making sure that I’m breathing and the other skill that I’m working on is catching my thoughts, and reminding my thoughts to come back to right now.”

A Framework for Calmness

Dr. Mike shared a simple framework for calmness.

Imagine two dimensions:

  1. Performance
  2. Activation

Now imagine that each dimension is a scale of 1-10, where 1 is low and 10 is high.

For example, if you think about your internal Activation on a scale of 1-10, where 1 is low activation, like a 0, 1 or 2.  There’s not much going on.   On the other end of the spectrum, a 10 for Activation, is you are overloaded and overwhelmed.  Your cup is flowing over.

Now think of your performance.  Again, a 0, 1, or 2 is really low performance.

A 10 would be extreme performance.

How To Practice the Ability to Be Calm

Your ability to be calm is a skill you can practice.  To practice the ability to be calm, you need to practice getting your internal Activation to the 4, 5, and 6 range.

4, 5, or 6 is the sweet spot for your Activation because it’s where you can sustain your optimal performance.

It’s a simple frame, but the challenge is practicing it.

When you are aware that you’re Activation is at a 7 or 8, and your body is tense or tight, and you feel the pressure too much, and you feel jittery, bring your Activation back to a 7.

How do you do that?

You dial your Activation back down by using your breathing—take your nice breaths.

How many breaths?

It depends on how skilled you are at them.  If you are really skilled at breathing, Dr. Mike suggests it might only take you 1, 2, 4 breaths to get you down to a 7.  If not, you might need more time, but no problem.  It takes time, but you are building your skill and working to bring your Activation back into an optimal range.

The Morning Mindfulness Routine

Dr. Mike share a simple Morning Mindfulness routine to start your day, to help get your Activation to optimal levels.

It’s 4 parts:

  1. Take a breath (one breath, one full breath, or maybe 4, 5, 6, if you want to add to it)
  2. Have one thought of gratitude
  3. Set an intention for today
  4. Put your feet on the ground

The idea is to do this when you wake up in the morning, before you go check in to the world.  Before you check your phone, turn on the TV, check your emails or whatever it might be.

Take a moment to finish the job of waking up and to open up parts of your brain to be calm.

So 1 is a breath.

2 is gratitude.  It’s not a “check the box” thing.  Actually, “feel” what you are grateful for.

Dr. Mike:

“Right now, I’ve got two hands.  Not everybody has two hands.  I’m super grateful for having hands.”

3 is an intention, and intention is a word.  A word for how am I going to be today, not what, but how, and you use your imagination to experience the how.

Dr. Mike:

“So for me, I want to be grounded.  I want to be connected.  I want to be precise with my language. “

And 4 is to take your sheets off, put your feet on the ground, and just be where your feet are, for a beat or two beats, or 10 beats, whatever that might mean for you.

You can use these 4 steps to start your day with the right level of Activation and to practice being calm and ready for your anything.

3 Good Things

You can use 3 Good Things as a way to add bookends to your day.  If the Morning Mindfulness routine is the first bookend, then 3 Good Things is the other bookend.

3 Good Things comes from the science of optimism.

And optimism is in essence the belief that something good is about to take place.

In uncertain times, I can’t think of a better strategy.

You could think about all the things that could go wrong, and there is a reason to do that because it will help you prepare, but the excess of that is problematic.  It fills your cup with worry and anxiety and raises your Activation to unhealthy levels.

But if you practice optimism, it will pay dividends for your health, for your immune system and that’s one of the best things you can do to be your best.

To practice  3 Good Things, at the beginning of the day make a commitment to find 3 things that are amazing that you experience.

Dr. Mike says it could be “as small as an ant, or it could be as large as a smile.”

Make it a goal to find 3 things that are amazing that you experience in your day and write them down at the end of the day.

It’s a sentence and a word–an emotion that’s attached to this sentence about this thing.  One sentence, one word.

And if you want to also practice relatedness, then you could share it with other people.  Find somebody you want to practice this with.

The Science of Recovery

Dr. Mike outlined a simple set of practices based on the science of recovery.

To keep it simple, he shared a short set of the big bets:

  1. Sleep well
  2. Get your nutrition right
  3. Exercise

To sleep well, the science says, get 7-9 hours of sleep, mimic sundown, create a cave-like room, and create a pre-sleep routine.  Make the room cold if you can, get it as dark as you can, and give yourself 45 minutes or so to shutter down so when your head hits the pillow you fall asleep.

To get your nutrition right, eat colorful foods, clean protein, healthy fats, and drink 5 glasses of water before 4 PM.

Dr. Mike:

“Eat a salad a day, can you do it?  Can you get some vegetables on your plate that are green and leafy and dark in color and then do you have some clean proteins that you’re going to put in place to get your brain-food in, get your avocados to get your healthy fats, your olive oil, unless you are allergic to them or something.

If the only thin you have is in a bag, hopefully what’s in the bag, Mother Nature made.”

For exercise, Dr. Mike recommends keeping it simple and avoid over-training, while you are building your immunity.

Dr. Mike:

“So get your hydration right, get your food right, and the next one is to get your exercise rolling.

I know that some people are contained in their place, right now.  The exercise I want to talk about is to get you heart rate up, for like 10, 15, 20 minutes, somewhere in that range.

And there are lots of ways to do it, depending on your abilities.  So get your heart rate up to where you can have a conversation, but it’s kind of a challenge to do so.”

Lastly, as part of the science of recovery, think well, which is all the stuff we’ve covered.

You Hold the Power Within Yourself

All of these practices outlined help your immunity.  When your alarms go off, or you cup is full, you can recover so that you are not holding on to this chronic stress.

And you can recover in thin slices.

Recover by catching your thoughts, taking your breaths, and coming back to right now.

Add bookends to your day by starting your day with the Morning Mindfulness routine and ending with writing your 3 Good Things down.

Be aware of your inner experience, your thoughts, your emotions and your body sensations.

You hold the power within yourself to be ware of your thoughts and decompress, so you can empty your cup whenever you feel it overflowing.

Know your purpose, to anchor against your strengths, your core principles and to use thin slices of recovery throughout the day, to help you immunity to be strong, and to practice your ability to be calm, no matter what comes your way.

Be well.  Stay strong.

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