Stress Triggers and Strategies

What do you do when you’re feeling so stressed that you can hardly get out of bed? How do you keep stress from undermining your productivity? How can you figure out where your stress is really coming from? Today our speaker is Louisa Jewell, author of the fabulous book, Wire Your Brain for Confidence. She has some specific tools for identifying stressors and reducing their impact.

You can watch the entire conversation here or play the video below.

All the words below are Louisa’s except where otherwise indicated.

When we’re working at home, stress can really affect our productivity levels, which ultimately affects our performance. It can be hard to get work done at home. Maybe you are now confined with little kids, or God forbid, teenagers. That adds a lot more stressors, especially if you’ve added homeschooling to your workload.

The SCARF Model of Stress Triggers

Neuroscientist David Rock proposed the SCARF model identifying the five main threats that trigger high levels of stress, especially at work.

S=Social status. In a meta-analysis of 208 studies on stress, the authors found that threats to our social status, where we sit on the pecking order, released the largest amount of cortisol. We get peaks in stress when our social status is threatened.

C=Certainty. The second stress trigger involves threats to certainty. Guess what? In this time, we are dealing with complete uncertainty. It’s no wonder that we’re under stress.

A=Autonomy: We feel stress when we are not free to choose the things we want to do. Coronavirus is preventing us from doing the things we want to do, another stress trigger.

R=Relatedness: Stress also is triggered by threats to our relationships and our ability to socialize. Once again, coronavirus is affecting our ability to relate to other.

F=Fairness: Stress arises when we feel that there’s been injustice to us or to others. There is unfairness around who is exposed as the virus.

The SCARF Model in Action

Think about what triggers the most stress in your brain. When I went through this with a colleague, she said, “I realize now that I am out of control.” For her, uncertainty and lack of autonomy were two big triggers. Once she realized it, she was able to do something about it.

Concerning relatedness, let’s replace the term “social distancing” with “physical distancing.” We can create physical distance but still stay socially close by doing Zoom calls, by making more phone calls, by walking together from 10 feet away.

What do you think your real triggers here? Once you can name your triggers, it’s easier to tame them. I always say, “You can’t tame it until you name it.” For example, if you are feeling threats to your relationships, make those phone calls, get on the Zoom calls. Seeing people face to face and looking them in the eye actually changes your physiology. Positive interactions spark positive emotions.

Concerning uncertainty, I use a tool called the Personal Power Grid. When something is in my control, the best stress strategy is to solve it. When something is out of my control, the best strategy is to let it go because doing anything at all is useless worry. When you fill your head with worry over something that is completely out of your control, it eats away at your productivity. The emotional part of your brain keeps you from fully engaging the more logical part of your brain. Ask yourself, “In this time, what is in my control and what is out of my control?”

I’m a speaker, and my speaking engagements have all been postponed, maybe canceled. What’s in my control? I have to pivot quickly. I can still be a speaker and do what I need to do online with my clients.

Survival of the Adaptable

Everybody misconstrues Darwin’s work as survival of the fittest. What he really found was survival of the most adaptable. Can you turn on a dime and say, “This is gone. How do I take control again?” I’ve taken something that was out of my control and put it back into my control by saying, “I’m going to speak more online and charge my clients because I still need to feed my children.”

I can control, to some extent, whether I get the coronavirus by staying in my home, washing my hands 50 times a day, wearing a mask when I go out. I walk the dog every day, so I wear a mask stay far away from other people. I schedule food delivery weeks in advance so that I don’t even have to go into a store. I have more Zoom meetings. I talk with a friend if I need comfort. These are all things that are in my control.

How we react is also in our control. I attended a webinar run by wife and husband. They are isolating with their four-year-old. The woman was doing her presentation and her four-year-old was lying across the table and kicking her in the face. The woman didn’t even flinch. She just kept going. I thought it was hilarious. Instead of it being a stressor and saying, “Oh my gosh, my four-year-old is ruining my webinar. This is embarrassing.” She didn’t go there at all. Instead, by continuing to speak she implied, “Yep, this is my reality. I’m not even going to react. I’m just going to keep going.” We all had a little chuckle about it.

Acceptance and then Gratitude

The first thing that can be very, very helpful when you’re going through any stressor is to accept what is. Acceptance is very powerful. I say, “I accept that the coronavirus is happening. I’m not going to get angry about it. I’m not going to protest it. I’m going to accept that it is what it is and I’m going to do my best.”

I control where I go for news. I watch scheduled news conferences put out by the municipal, federal, and provincial governments here in Canada. I have two websites that I go to for daily statistics to understand how we’re doing as a country. Those are the only news sources I use. I do not watch other news because it would just fill my brain with unnecessary stressors and negativity that are out of my control.

After acceptance, gratitude is another excellent way to reduce your stress. Every day I say, “I’m so grateful I’m healthy. I am so grateful I live in a country where I can get help if I need help. I’m so grateful that I have medicine right now in the house. I am so grateful that I have a house, that I can protect myself. I’m so grateful that I have a backyard where I can get some fresh air.” Practicing compassion for others, I always say, “Could be worse, could be worse, could be worse.” That is really, really helpful to reduce stress. I always ask, “What can I learn from this? What good is coming from this? When things are out of my control, what am I learning?”

Peace at 6

Rethinking your standards is really important. A parent asked me the other day, “I’m so stressed out because I’m having to homeschool my kids and I’m not getting to everything. Meanwhile, I have my own business that I have to take care of. There are 16 pots in the kitchen sink that I have to clean.”

I have a strategy in my book called Peace at 6. When you walk in and the kitchen is a mess, that’s may be a big stress for you. Can you take your standard down from a 10 to a 6? Can you be peaceful for now and say, “You know what? Right now it’s coronavirus, I’ve got three teenagers in the house, they don’t know how to put a put away a pot if their life depended on it. Cleaning the kitchen, I’m going to put at a 6 right now. Doesn’t have to be at a 10.” I think I pulled out my vacuum cleaner for the first time last week, I didn’t even know how to turn it on. If you’re comparing yourself to me, you’re good when it comes to housework.

Johnny doesn’t get his math times table done on Tuesday night because you’re exhausted. It’s okay. Ask yourself, “Can I be at a 6 on this for tonight? Lowering my standard does not mean I’m a bad parent. If it helps me get me through this right now, I can raise my standard when all this is over.” I could remember to think, “Will I care 10 years from now that Johnny didn’t do his time tables tonight?” Probably not.

What about the stress from fearing layoffs?

Senia: Here’s a question from the audience. “How do you deal with stress and anxiety about potential layoffs in the company?”

First, don’t stress about something that hasn’t happened yet. Our minds easily go into catastrophe mode thinking, “I’m in a tech company and probably we’re all going to be laid off.” Worrying about something that hasn’t happened is unnecessary worry.

Remember that uncertainty is a trigger. Can you find out as much information as possible? Talk to your boss or other people in the know. “What do you think this is going to mean for jobs?” You might get the right answer from your boss, “Actually, we’re doing okay. We’re not seeing a dip in the financials, so we don’t think we’re going to have layoffs.”

You might get the wrong answer, “We might have layoffs.” We’ve known that for 20 or 30 years in tech. Nobody’s got a guaranteed job anymore. I used to work at IBM many years ago. IBM had a legend, “We have never laid anybody off in 70 years.” Guess what? The year I was there was the first year that they laid people off. So, get your resume ready.

If it’s out of your control, then get in control. Get your resume ready, start talking to other people about where you might go. The good news about tech is you can do things online. You don’t have to be in Dubai to do a job in Dubai. Remember adaptability. Think about how you can prepare yourself in case the worst happens. That’s all you can do at this point.

Prepare and Then Let Go

Another worry might be, “What if I do get coronavirus?” When I had this worry, I put everything in place. I hope I don’t get coronavirus, but if I do, I have the medicines I need and I have a plan for my daughter. Now I don’t stress about it because it’s wasted energy.

One more thing. Move your body. Just move your body every day. There’s so much research on how that can reduce your stress and reduce inflammation. If you want some ideas, try the Body Full of Joy series of one minute movements.


WHO ARE WE? We are a coaching organization. Our clients include premier technology companies including VMware, Logitech, ServiceNow, Sony PlayStation, and parts of the AirForce.

WHAT? In April 2020, we started offering FREE DAILY 20-minute webinars at 11:00 AM PT with experts on working remotely during this coronavirus time.

WHY? As members of Silicon Valley Change, we have all been asking, “How can we help in this stressful time?” This series is our answer. The sessions are 20 minutes long because we know how strapped you are for time. There are no hidden bells and whistles, and we make zero pitches about any of our services including coaching.

To participate live each week day at 11 am PT, use any of the following links:

Recordings can be found on the MyCoach Work Remote Strategies page.

Originally published at



Senia Maymin is the CEO of Silicon Valley Change Executive coaching and the co-author of Profit from the Positive.

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Senia Maymin

Senia Maymin is the CEO of Silicon Valley Change Executive coaching and the co-author of Profit from the Positive.