Bouncing back from stress

Day-to-day demands and pressures sometimes get the best of us.  Whether reacting to new assignments, unplanned issues at work, or juggling after school activities for the kids, sometimes it feels these demands accumulate to a point that exceeds our ability to handle them.  If we begin to worry at this stage, stress sets in, making it more difficult to regain the focus to move forward in the best way possible.

In every waking hour we are being triggered by demands, in the form of people, events, and circumstances that have the potential to change us.[2] Sometimes the demands accumulate towards a tipping point, other times it takes just one to set the ‘worry’ chain in action.  Although we cannot control the influx of these demands in our lives, we can improve how to respond to them.

Over the past three years, I have been tracking occasional periods of stress in my life.  I am learning more and more about what triggers them and how best to cope.

My goal is to strengthen resilience and minimize or completely eliminate this occasional stress.   This n-of-1 experiment tests the effectiveness of my resilience-boosting activities in reaching this goal.

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Figure 1: Days with stress 2016 – 2018

Keywords
stress, resilience,  n-of-1, quantified-self

Glossary
Pressure –  a “demand to perform.” The demand might be intense, but there is no stress inherent in it, and as we’ll see, the key to resilience is not to turn pressure into stress.[1]

Resilience – the ability to negotiate the rapids of life without becoming stressed.[1]

Reflection – the process of thinking over a problem to arrive at a solution.  What is missing from reflection is catastrophizing.[1]

Rumination – worry or the constant churning over what-ifs and if-onlys. Its what causes stress.[1]

Stress – pressure + rumination.[1]

How did I do it?
My self-tracking experiments are powered by ostlog – an open-source Personal Well-being Library. Since 2013, I have been using ostlog to track a broad set of variables covering spiritual, social, physical, emotional, intellectual, financial and environmental aspects of my family’s well-being. I use this data to conduct casual n-of-1 experiments such as this one.

The first step is to quantify just how much stress (see glossary) I was experiencing over the past couple of years. Figure 2 shows the number of days (per month since 2016) where I experienced stress. The chart confirms a downward trend I suspected, with peaks of six days in March and October 2016 and down to a total of three days during the first four months of 2018.

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Figure 2: Stress days 2016 – 2018

The chart also confirms a general improvement in navigating the planned and unplanned demands of day-to-day life without becoming stressed by them.

What did I learn?
A few years ago I read Marshal Goldsmith‘s “Triggers: Sparking Positive Change and Making it Last”.[2] The book gave me a better understanding of positive change, motivation and difference between active and passive improvement practices.

Throughout my adult life, i’ve known and preached the mind and body benefits of regular exercise. With the arrival of our first daughter in 2010/2011, my exercise routine went dormant until the following year (see figure 3.) This general pattern repeated itself in the subsequent years, as we welcomed new additions and responsibilities in the growing family.

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Figure 3: Yearly exercises

I exercise in order to stay balanced, healthy and strong.  These benefits are hard to come by when when inconsistency creeps into my exercise routine. As Goldsmith points out, “inconsistency is fatal for change.” In my case, my exercising remained pretty inconsistent until mid 2017.

The same can be said for learning opportunities.  Here I am referring to reading and writing I do during leisure time (see figure 4.)   Whether reading a great book or writing a blog post like this one,  learning provides some benefits similar to those associated with consistent exercise.   Curiously, figure 4 shows an increase in learning opportunities that is similar to my exercises during the same time period.

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Figure 4: Yearly learning opportunities

In their book, “Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset”,  Derek Roger and Nick Petrie emphasize the concept of resilience, and its role in helping individuals avoid stress.   Resilience, they say, is a skill that can be acquired by training and practice.[1]

In my case, I believe consistent learning and exercise are two ways that build and strengthen my resilience.  This experiment is really about using data to prove this.

Just to recap what I have shown thus far.  Figure 1 and 2 show a decrease in stress since 2016.   Figure 3 and 4 instead show an increase in exercise and learning during the same period.   Are the two linked?  Can the combination of consistent learning and exercise make me more resilient to stress? Will more of both help me reach my goal?

Results
So now I need data to support the belief that exercise and learning help me become more resilient.  The data in figure 5 shows a correlation between stress (y axis) and resilience building activities (i.e. exercise + learning) aggregated monthly during the period of interest.    The results are not conclusive (p-value was quite large), and more data points are needed to definitively prove this.  I am also not accounting for the many other other factors, including nutrition, family time, sleep quality, social activities and more, that help strengthen our resilience and avoid stress.

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Figure 5: Correlating stress (y-axis) with resilience building activities (exercise and learning on x-axis)

Check back for future updates as I collect more data points to test whether exercise + learning strengthen my resilience enough to help minimize or eliminate occasional stress.

[1] Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset (link)
[2] Triggers: Sparking Positive Change and Making it Last (link)

Author: Sergio

Since 2013, I have been experimenting with family data science – or the process of drawing deeper understanding and insights to help my wife and daughters grow, stay healthy and be happy. I am just a curious dad who is convinced that a little 21st century IT along with a stream of the right data and analytics can help reinstate a healthy dose of household conscientiousness in between the joy, pressures and chaos of everyday family life.

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