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Stress: It's a mind-body connection that affects us all

No matter what we do in life, we all deal with some level of stress. As an executive leadership coach, medical doctor, neuroscientist, frequent keynote speaker and MIT Sloan Senior lecturer, Tara Swart certainly must know about stress.

Yet Swart, CEO of The Unlimited Mind, understands the connection between brain and body better than most—as well as how stress can affect both and manifest itself in different ways. For example, Swart says stress is "essentially a brain and body chemistry problem" that can affect a variety of different things, such as our ability to make decisions, concentration levels, how we express emotions, and the well being of our physical selves. Common symptoms of stress that manifest physically include back pain, headaches, clenched jaws, or nail biting.

The first step in dealing with stress, says Swart, is recognizing that it exists. The next step is to develop healthy ways to deal with it. Swart recommends some basic strategies and tools we can all employ on a daily basis:

  • Exercise every day, but make sure it's something you enjoy; the aerobic activity will oxygenate the brain and release endorphins and growth factors  
  • Write in a journal to release negative emotions
  • Talk to a friend, coach, or mentor
  • If you commute to work, try to use the time to relax and recharge 
  • Get a good night’s sleep and watch how much caffeine, sugar, or alcohol you ingest
  • Supplement your diet with antioxidants like B complex vitamins, vitamin D, magnesium, coenzyme Q10 and omega oils that keep your brain healthy
  • Make a list of 10 things for which you are grateful
  • Incorporate some form of breathing, yoga, or mindful meditation into your daily routine

It's also important to realize that a certain amount of challenge can be a good thing. Research has shown that challenging situations can increase creativity, productivity, brainpower, immunity, and resiliency. There are ways to turn stressful situations into positive ones depending on how we approach a situation. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Think about how you internalize stress and listen to your inner dialogue
  • Try to understand what you can and can't control
  • Think of a stressful situation as a challenge or opportunity, rather than a problem 
  • Recognize what triggers your stress; this knowledge can provide a sense of control, which will in turn reduce the level of stress

Tara Swart is CEO of The Unlimited Mind and teaches in the new program, Neuroscience for Leadership, and the Advanced Management Program at MIT Sloan Executive Education. You can read more about her research and advice on her blog.

This entry was posted in Faculty Insights on Sat Mar 28, 2015 by MIT Sloan Executive Education