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Want to stress less in 2024? A new book offers '5 resets' to tame toxic stress

A poll from the American Psychological Association found that nearly half of respondents wished they had someone to help them manage stress.
Meredith Rizzo for NPR
A poll from the American Psychological Association found that nearly half of respondents wished they had someone to help them manage stress.

Stress has long been a chronic problem for Americans, and new data suggests it's only worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent poll by the American Psychological Association found that nearly a quarter of adults across the country said they were experiencing high levels of stress, up from 19% in 2019. And nearly half of all respondents said they wished they had someone to help them manage their stress.

Well, now there's a new book to help people with that. The 5 Resets by Dr. Aditi Nerurkar, a physician and researcher at Harvard University, offers a range of science-backed tools and strategies to help people recover from chronic stress and cope better in the long run.

Stress and burnout — a syndrome of chronic workplace stress — are both at "unprecedented levels," says Nerurkar, who for many years counseled patients in her clinical practice for stress-related health issues.

"But our brains and bodies were not designed to sustain this high level of stress and burnout with no respite or recovery," she adds. "Rest and recovery are not just nice-to-have luxuries. They are essential for our brains and bodies to thrive."

Her book is intended to be a "road map" for anyone struggling with chronic stress and burnout, she says. The tools she offers are ways to incorporate rest and recovery into people's daily routines.

Here are her five resets:

1. Find what matters most to you

When someone is already stressed and overwhelmed, change can feel impossible and hopeless, says Nerurkar. But that is a normal stress response, she explains.

During periods of stress, our brains rely on the amygdala, a tiny, almond-shaped structure deep inside the brain. "Its sole purpose is survival and self-preservation."

This part of the brain puts the body into flight or fight mode. "Your heart starts racing, your lungs start bringing oxygen into your body. The blood is shunted away from your vital organs to your muscles."

It's a short-term physiological reaction that's very effective when you're trying to run from a predator, or fight it, and even when you're trying to meet a deadline at work.

But most modern-day stressors are chronic, explains Nerurkar. "So that fight-or-flight response is always on, at a low hum in the background," she explains, keeping the amygdala in overdrive.

Nerurkar's first reset aims to get the person "out of the amygdala, cave person, fight-or-flight survival mode," and into a more resilient mode.

Goals should be small, achievable and aimed at something that matters a lot to you, says author Dr. Aditi Nerurkar.
/ Meredith Rizzo for NPR
/
Meredith Rizzo for NPR
Goals should be small, achievable and aimed at something that matters a lot to you, says author Dr. Aditi Nerurkar.

That's why she says it's important for each individual to first figure out what their goal is and why it's important to them. "What you want to do is ask yourself the question, 'What matters most to me?'" she says. "When people focus on what matters most to them, it increases their feelings of 'Hey, I can do that!'"

For those who may be too overwhelmed to answer that, she offers an acronym, MOST, to guide your goal setting.

  • M — for a motivating, exciting goal.
  • O — for a goal that's objective and measurable.
  • S — for a goal "that's small enough to virtually guarantee your success," writes Nerurkar.
  • T — for a timely goal that you can reach in a few months.

2. Stop scrolling and carve out some quiet time

This second reset is mostly about creating boundaries for our digital lives.

Nerurkar cites research that people touch their phones — taps, swipes and clicks — an average of 2,617 times a day.

Surveys also show that over 50% of people grab their phones within five minutes of waking up, and some even before their second eye is open, she says.

"They are scrolling through the headlines or social media or their email. Think about what that is doing to your brain and your body. Think about what that's doing to your stress."

She also writes about a phenomenon that a psychologist studying the impact of our digital lives on our brain has termed as "popcorn brain."

"Our brain circuitry starts to pop from that extended time spent online," says Nerurkar. "Our brains aren't popping, but it feels like a sensation of popping."

It happens because our brains are overstimulated by the constant barrage of information coming at us online, which then makes it hard for people to disconnect from their devices and settle into the slower pace of life offline.

So, Nerurkar emphasizes the importance of setting stricter boundaries for digital devices.

She suggests setting time limits for daily scrolling. "Aim to spend no more than 20 minutes a day scrolling on your phone," she writes.

At night, she suggests keeping the phone, not on the nightstand, but somewhere out of reach, to avoid looking at it just before falling asleep or first thing in the morning.

"When you open your eye, give your body and brain the ability to open the other eye and just rest in the moment, acclimate to the morning, the light," says Nerurkar. "Giving yourself that little moment of pause, of grounding at the start of your day can be a game changer."

3. Harness the mind-body connection to lower stress

"This reset specifically focuses on first understanding and tapping into your mind-body connection," explains Nerurkar.

Nerurkar offers several kinds of deep breathing exercises to do that, including one called "Stop-Breathe-Be" that she has been using for many years.

"When I had a busy clinical practice and I was a medical resident in training, I would see 30 patients a day," she says. "I would knock on the patient door, and before entering, I would stop, breathe and center myself. And I would say this to myself under my breath, 'Stop, breathe and be.'"

It takes a few seconds to do this one time, she says, but repeated many times over the course of a day, it can significantly lower one's daily experience of stress.

The same with daily movement.

"Daily movement is a really important piece of managing stress," says Nerurkar. "Not only is movement good for the brain and the body, but in fact not enough movement — or rather no movement, being sedentary — is bad for the brain and body."

Adding movement to one's daily life needn't involve paying for a gym membership, she says. It can be as simple as a 20-minute walk once a day or shorter walks several times a day.

4. Take breaks between tasks

For many people today, "constantly working and not taking breaks" has become the norm, says Nerurkar.

"The Slack channel, the emails, everything going at once, multitasking — it is something that all of us do because it's part of modern working life," she says.

Multitasking has also become the norm, she says, even though research shows that only 2% of us can truly multitask.

"Multitasking is a scientific misnomer. There's no such thing when we are multitasking. What we are actually doing is task switching, doing two separate tasks in rapid succession."

That keeps the brain on a high stress level, she explains.

Nerurkar offers two antidotes to this — monotasking and taking regular breaks between tasks.

"It essentially means doing one task for five or 10 minutes and then you take a short break," she explains. "Then you do another task for five, 10, 20 minutes and take a short break and then do that next task. And so at the end of an hour, you have completed all four of your tasks, but you are not doing them all at once."

Monotasking protects our brains from stress and burnout, she says, and so do regular breaks.

And studies show that breaks improve cognition and performance at work.

"When we take a break, we are allowing new information and ideas and things that we're processing during the workday to consolidate and form and cement in our brains. It gives our brains pause, rest and respite."

5. Quiet the nagging, negative voice of a stressed-out brain

Nerurkar's fifth and final reset has ways to counter one of the most common impacts of stress on people's psyches — awakening the inner critic and making people more negative.

"When there is a negative experience it becomes sticky in your brain like Velcro and Teflon for positive ones," she explains. "The same amount of good and bad may be happening to you at the same time, but when you're feeling a sense of stress, you hold on to those negative experiences and there's a heightened sense of negativity, because your amygdala is trying to keep you safe."

Curse the prickly spines or celebrate the low-maintenance loveliness? One approach builds resilience.
/ Meredith Rizzo for NPR
/
Meredith Rizzo for NPR
Curse the prickly spines or celebrate the low-maintenance loveliness? One approach builds resilience.

A proven way to make the brain less sticky for negative experiences, she says, is a daily practice of gratitude journaling. She suggests writing down five things each day that you're grateful for.

"There will be days that you might want to think of 20 things to write down," she says.

But there will be days, especially when you're stressed, you might have fewer things, or very basic ones, like "I have two arms and two legs, I can breathe without a machine. I have a roof over my head. I have food in my fridge and my pantry," suggests Nerurkar.

Studies have shown that a regular practice of gratitude journaling lowers stress and boosts mood.

"Gratitude shifts your brain away from Velcro to Teflon," explains Nerurkar. "And it does that through the scientific principle of cognitive reframing. Essentially, what that means is what you focus on, grows."

Bonus: The Resilience Rule of Two

Regardless of which of these resets you might pick for yourself, Nerurkar cautions to pick only two at a time. She calls it the Resilience Rule of Two.

"The Resilience Rule of Two is how your brain responds to change," she says. "Change is a stressor for your brain. Even positive changes in your life can be a stress."

So picking two of her tools at a time will make it more likely for you to succeed and for those changes to become daily habits. "That is how we work with our biology rather than against it."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 5, 2024 at 12:00 AM EST
This story has been updated to clarify the statistic about how much people interact with their phones. The 2,617 number includes each time a person touches their phone in a day, including swipes, clicks and taps.
Rhitu Chatterjee
Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.