Major FBI investigations are intense and usually slow-moving because of the case’s complexity. For example, I was among many agents assigned to interview witnesses after the terrorist attack of 9/11; supervisors told us to show up seven days a week and work 12-hour shifts.
Our new schedule didn’t go on for a few weeks — it continued for several months. The stress was so acute that I could feel and smell the tension as soon as I stepped into the Emergency Operations Center. My prolonged work schedule didn’t allow me to explore the de-stressing techniques thrown out by self-help gurus. Advice such as sticking to regular workouts, adhering to everyday routines, eating healthily and finding humor was shelved as nice to have but useless when you’re in the middle of chaos.
It didn’t take long to discover that most of the people who wrote about how to bounce back after periods of stress and got rich from it were just that — writers. They had never been in the trenches themselves and could offer nothing more than anecdotes and weak platitudes that I could find in a magazine.
We need mental toughness in the face of COVID-19, economic upheaval and adversity.
As an FBI agent, I learned that while theories are nice, evidence is better. Neuroscience and psychology can help us understand how our brain and body can hijack us when we’re under pressure, face short deadlines and feel overwhelmed.
Let’s take a closer look at four powerful ways to bounce back after periods of stress:
1. Beware of the let-down effect
Research has shown that, when we’re in high-stress situations, our body produces large amounts of chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol to prepare our immune system for the challenges before us. These chemicals help the body get ready for a fight-or-flight response from the danger of our challenges. As a result, they can help you reach safety in a dangerous situation without being hindered by pain.
However, as soon as those challenges disappear, our immune system gets suppressed, making us more susceptible to infection. Finally, the body returns to normalcy, and many of the activated systems calm down.
For example, let’s say that you’re in the middle of tax season, balancing work and home, and trying to wrap your mind around the economic upheaval all around you. Your adrenal glands ramp up chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline that temporarily suppress the immune system to ensure that everything ticks along without problems.
It’s only after the long period of stress that we experience the let-down effect and find ourselves more susceptible to colds, depression, anxiety, stomach pain, etc.
Psychologists explain that it’s essential for your mind and body to de-stress slowly. Like a cool-down period after exercise, try to taper your level of stress. In addition, they suggest keeping your body slightly revved up to prevent it from downshifting too abruptly.
How to make it work for you: Experts suggest powerful ways to bounce back after periods of stress:
- Mental activity. Problem-solving with time constraints has been found to activate the immune response. Examples include crossword puzzles and math questions that are challenging enough to create vigorous mental activity.
- Mild exercise. Take a brisk walk or easy jog for 5 minutes. Exaggerate arm and hand movements as you walk. These movements can boost the immune response.
Both techniques energize or activate your body, which prevents you from making the transition too quickly and causing the suppression of your immune system. Psychologist Marc Schoen suggests that you do these activities for three days after a stressful period — the critical window. If you do, you’ll improve your odds of emerging from the period of stress feeling good.
2. Remain flexible in your thinking
Mentally tough people learn to take charge of their thinking and emotions to become resilient. They become focused thinkers and remain flexible in forming opinions about the obstacles ahead.
Mental toughness: Change the mindset, change the behavior, change the outcome.
The role of mindset becomes essential when we take a closer look at powerful ways to bounce back after long periods of stress. The way we think plays a significant role in determining our response to anxiety and tension.
Our attitude toward the stress and hardships in our life matters. For example, we often portray anxiety as universally bad for our health, but a study questioned whether it is truly harmful or whether we stress about stress.
Those who understand that stress has positive aspects and who learn effective ways to manage it tend to see it as a positive challenge. The power of choice of attitude strengthens their ability to take action and make decisions.
How to make it work for you: Too much stress can suck the soul from you, so the key is to get ahead of it before it pulls you down into Dante’s version of hell. Look at your stressors as challenges. You can choose how to respond in the face of stress to maintain perspective and manage your emotions.
3. Manage your stress
Stress often boils down to this: too much to do in too little time. With staff shortages and cuts in spending, many of us feel overwhelmed by all that’s thrown at us. Stress can come from work or conflicts in your personal life. If you’re really unlucky, you’ll experience a double whammy from both.
How to make it work for you: These easy but powerful tips from researchers can help you manage your stress when you’re in the moment.
- Walking in natural surroundings can reduce anxiety and worry more than walking on a busy street and has cognitive benefits as well. Time spent in nature is less likely to spark deep thoughts that could lead to depression or anxiety. Instead, walks in nature can lead to a more profound sense of wellbeing. Meanwhile, spending time in an urban setting often doesn’t elicit a change in mental activity.
- A smile, even a fake smile, can help your body resist stress. Even under pressure, people who smile have been shown to have a lower heart rate than those who don’t smile. Those with genuine smiles (which involves moving both eye and mouth muscles) have the lowest heart rates. Moving your facial muscles may be sending a message to your brain that positively influences your mood.
- People who stand upright while performing a stressful activity perform better and have a more positive attitude than slouchers.
4. Develop self-awareness
It’s fair to say that most FBI agents feed on the stress that comes with high-stakes investigations. Not every day brings the unknown, nor does every case represent a crisis. But after I retired from the FBI, I felt as though I’d been untethered and left without a clear purpose for my day. I got up and dressed for work every day for the next two months, even though I had nowhere to go.
The decompression took more than a few days. How to fill the emptiness that came after years of high-level stress and deadlines? Why did I feel I needed to continue to ride the constant merry-go-round that defined my life? Did I miss the crack of a whip over my head?
I discovered that one of the secrets of mental toughness is self-awareness. Without self-awareness, I never would have understood what made me tick, why I made the decisions I’ve made and how my values influenced how I lived my life.
A powerful way to bounce back after a period of stress is to use that time to discover more about yourself. Excavate the significance of your stories and experiences. When you do, you’ll find out who and what pushes your buttons in times of stress so you can choose your response rather than react to your situation.
How to make it work for you: Ask yourself these questions.
- What are your first symptoms of stress?
- How does it manifest in your body?
- What circumstances evoke more of a stress reaction than others?
- Which people evoke more of a stress reaction than others?
- Do you surround yourself with friends and people who are positive thinkers?
- How do you focus your thinking on what is important to you?
- Can you clearly articulate your values and purpose in life?
- Is your challenge aligned with your beliefs and values?
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years, where she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty and deception. Quy has authored Secrets of a Strong Mind (second edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles as well as Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.