Dr. Cynthia Ackrill on How to Manage Stress and Experience Joy

Did you know that 77% of Americans regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress? That’s according to the American Institute of Stress, which also estimates that stress costs the U.S. $600 billion every year! While each of us feels and manages life’s tensions and traumas differently, Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, a leader in the field of stress management, makes the case that “true joy—that deep, heartfelt feeling that comes from a connection to purpose, people, or the world around us—is the ultimate stress antidote.” Read our conversation below for some great tips to manage the stress in your own life…


Katie Couric: There seems to be this feeling that we’re more stressed than ever before given the pace of the world and technology. Do you think we are actually more stressed in this day and age than previous generations?
Dr. Cynthia Ackrill: That’s really hard to know and complicated to answer ☺. Since one of the key determinants of stress is perception of the demand on our system vs capacity to handle it, the context of culture and the expectations we set greatly affect perceptions of experience. It’s only in recent generations that happiness became more of a talked about goal. Several generations ago, it was more accepted that life is hard and full of challenges. And life had more natural rhythms, more obvious work/life boundaries.

Have we shifted to expect life to be easier and that we deserve happiness? If so, then the gap between our expectations and our perceived reality gets wider. (That’s all theory! We don’t know what previous generations really thought and there were no scientific measures of physiologic stress.) The word stress was not even coined until 1936!

That said…. Some key factors that naturally set us up for resilience are being challenged in recent years. We have a culture that covers up vulnerability (Brene Brown’s work) and teaches us failure is shameful. For many people their definition of success is more financial than the well-rounded metrics of real health and joy.

Social connection is a key determinant in resilience and yet social structures have changed and loneliness is on the rise and one of the key players in burnout. Making matters worse, stress can make us withdraw at the very time we need connection.

Studies show we are less active than our ancestors and movement is critical to healthy brains, emotional regulation, and resilience. As a culture, our diets became less nutritious as did our food sources. We sleep less than ever, work longer hours, take fewer breaks during the day, and Americans take less vacations than other countries. Our work/life integration has less healthy boundaries and technology has not helped.

This all adds up to demands exceeding our capacities… ie, chronic stress with poor systems for recharging our energy stores—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Stress became a badge of honor in the pursuit of success. It’s time to change the focus to health, joy, and productivity/effectiveness, connection.

It’s really important to know that while bragging about stress has not served us, stress is NOT bad. Without it, we would be unmotivated, bored. We need to watch how we talk about it- it is challenge, demand on our systems. We are highly adaptable, and we can use the energy and information of stress to make the adjustments we need to fuel better lives. We must create systems to regularly replenish that energy.

Katie: Do you think sometimes we can develop an addiction to stress? Why would this happen?
Cynthia: YES! Many of us have used stress to activate our brains and bodies to get through school, meet deadlines, push ourselves to goals, and we wind up chasing our tails and running out of energy. The adrenaline rush designed to handle acute stress can feel like a reward to some folks, but repeatedly activating the stress system leads to chronic stress (cortisol) which interferes with health, happiness, and the ability to craft a resilient, effective life.

You know how slow it feels when you get off the highway where you were zooming along at 70 and try to go 45 on a regular road. It’s easy to adjust your perception of an over-stuffed, over-cranked life to be the norm, then any version of slowing down in any way feels foreign, like you might lose your edge. You don’t trust yourself to produce unless you are cranked up.

But if we were to measure health parameters or productivity parameters, we would see that this is not a sustainable way to handle life challenges.

Katie: What differences do you see in the way that men and women handle stress?
Cynthia: Women have more connections across their brains (side to side and front to back), differences in hormonal patterns of their stress responses, and tend to have greater social support. There are multiple reactions to stress “flight/fight” (adrenaline), “freeze/faint” (most primal and responsible for poor health outcomes), and” tend and befriend.” This last one is more prevalent in women who secrete more oxytocin in response to challenge. Thank heavens for my friends who have nurtured me and helped me hold a healthier/longer perspective during some hard times!

This doesn’t necessarily mean women are better at stress- we just tend to handle it differently.

What might be of interest to both genders: 15% of the population is “stress sensitive” –they are naturally less resilient, take the challenges harder, and have to work harder to regularly recharge. You can learn more about this from Dr. Elaine Aron.

Katie: Realistically, certain stressors are unavoidable (the nature of one’s job, illness, the responsibilities of parenthood, etc). What’s your advice for people who must live with their stress? What can they do to make the best of a stressful situation?
Cynthia: So true! And most of us would benefit from adjusting some unrealistic expectations that cause us to “should” on ourselves! “I shouldn’t have to deal with this. I should be better at handling this. Etc, etc!”

Here’s a 3-part answer:
–Build Awareness- create a system to check in on your energy and stress levels. Learn how you brain processes stress. (Hardwiring and your unique relationship with stress) Learn to articulate what you need.

–Learn tools to adjust your stress in the moment- I call it. “Cool Down to Power Up” (your brain!). Practice regularly. Breathwork is probably the fastest, easiest reset. Breathe in to 5 or 6, out to 5 or 6 and bring a positive feeling to mind. You can ask what you know for sure, what you need right now to be at your best, and who you want to be in this situation. This will help you find your best self.

–Create strategies to build resilience and regularly renew energy—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually (including socially). (Exercise, rest, sleep, nutrition, etc)

Sometimes it’s good to do a stress dump- write it all down- everything that is overwhelming you, draining you, demanding your precious energy/time. Then look at the “dump” with your values in mind- get clear about what matters most and set priorities of how to spend your precious time and energy and how to renew it more.

Then be your own nurturer- how can you better nurture yourself during this hard time? Drink more water, call a friend, get outside each lunch, take a walk? Every little contribution adds up!

Katie: Why do you say that stress and joy live on a continuum? Explain that concept for us…
Cynthia: We are these amazingly adaptable organisms, processing billions of bits of information a day with our 80 billion brain cells and sorting out the internal and external signals into “threat or non-threat.” Part of that sorting is hard-wired- our amygdalae take in the signal of heat on our fingers and we withdraw our hand from the hot pot before we can even say hot—this is the acute stress reaction at its finest!

But much of how we sort out signals depends on our perception, and that depends on our genes, our experiences, especially during childhood—the stories we were taught and modeled, and the lifestyle/thought/behavior choices we routinely make. We are naturally negatively biased (seeing signals as threat for survival’s sake), some of us more than others, and we can practice seeing signals as mere challenges or opportunities for creating joy.

This is not a matter of becoming Pollyanna, but of really working to build positivity into our lens on the world. We can watch the words we use, look for opportunities in challenges, practice gratitude, reflect more on what went well and why, connect more to others, as well to purpose and meaning. These practices of filtering our world lead to more joy—that deep-seated inner satisfaction with the world.

And we can take care of ourselves well (energy management) so we have more capacity (frontal lobe power) to respond with positivity, rather than react with negativity. You know when you are overtired or emotionally depleted, it is much harder to find the good in something or to make wiser choices to support your health or joy.

Here’s a video example.

Katie: So often, we’re our own worst enemy and let the stories in our head dictate our emotions. You have some great steps for helping us all conquer those thoughts, so that our stress doesn’t block out our joy.  Take us through some of these thoughts and give us some advice on how to not let them get the best of us…
Cynthia: I cover this in my blog as well:

We don’t deserve it

This is go-to thinking for some folks for so many reasons (childhood “lessons”, poor self-esteem, martyr syndromes, overactive inner critics, etc) And it can be such an automatic or subconscious thought that we don’t even realize we need to challenge it.

Look at yourself, as you would your best friend or child—and answer back to this silly thought with a kind, compassionate heart. This is not self-indulgent, it’s just more rational and effective in the long run.

We shouldn’t indulge in it—it won’t last.
As I stated before we are wired to protect ourselves—our brains are wired for safety first. And that will override all other wiring. But…we need to find a balance between being aware, vigilant, and prepared vs relaxed and reflective enough to savor and trust the positives. This can take practice, for sure!

We can’t have joy until…
We have been rewarded and have “succeeded” by creating goals that we must achieve to feel complete or satisfied. That’s not a bad thing… until we don’t allow ourselves to capture that sense of completion and joy of feeling effective. Or until we miss great opportunities for joy along the way. (Yes… that’s mindfulness in action!)

And we often falsely believe that taking time for the joy would disrupt or decrease our effectiveness or productivity, but research proves this wrong!

So… just as you learn more about your relationship with stress, ask yourself about your “story” or relationship with joy? What gives you joy? What “rules” do you have about it? How do you get in your own way?

Our joy depends on someone/something else. If we are honest, don’t most of us love control ;)? But setting up parameters for our own sense of well-being that depend on the actions or choices of someone else, or specific circumstances is a recipe for stress. Part of feeling able to handle the demands of life (“coping confidence”) depends on our sense of control of our capacity to handle the demands.

It’s natural to want your family, loved ones to be happy, but thanks to mirror neurons and the power of modeling good choices, your ability to take care of yourself and your emotional well-being helps them as well. This doesn’t mean you give up compassion or take real challenges lightly, but that you learn ways to recharge your own energy and find broader perspectives and hold to values that serve you.

Healthy emotional/mental practices together with healthy boundaries can help you learn to create your own happiness and joy.

For boundaries…. Personally, I also love the saying, “Not my circus, not my monkeys!” Much like the serenity prayer… sort out what is in your control and be the best at that.

We can’t focus on joy if we are serious about our competitive edge.
When you look at the real science of peak performance, it is clear that learning to regularly replenish our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy is critical. The study of positive psychology has shown that savoring success (joy) wires you for more success (Barbara Fredrickson’s research)

And Shawn Achor has addressed this eloquently in his work:

Bottom line:
We have learned a lot about how humans thrive, but we have so much more to learn! And there are no one size fits all answers for most of it. We can start to challenge cultural norms that don’t support our best performance, health, or happiness, and sometimes that takes courage! Use curiosity. Learn to actively calm your physiology and mind. Get creative—that feeds brainpower and joy.

The more we take time to learn how our brains and bodies work best, what our unique relationship is with stress and joy, and how we can support each other’s well-being, the better. We can learn to train our brains and physiology to find health and happiness. And we are wired to use social connection for survival—time to make that work for us!

Behavior change is HARD! And best done with clarity, support, and in tiny steps, repeated often. Every time you make a choice that support your resilience and your joy, you are making a better you and a better world. And every time you don’t, try on some compassion.

Try this:
When you hear the word, “Should,” between your ears, take a deep breath, repeat a word or think of a symbol/color that reminds you of a positive feeling/ And if you have time… ask what you want/need and what will serve your best self or who you want to be right now…

Here’s a list of tips for shifting stress to joy at work:

Katie: Thank you so much, Cynthia! I’m feeling less stressed already!