There are five non-physical threats or stressors that cause illness in primates. They are described by Robert Sapolksy, Ph.D. in his book, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”. These primal threats are the essential ingredients of any horror movie: 1) No control over circumstances; 2) Cannot predict what will happen next; 3) Facing it alone; 4) No escape; and 5) No hope of it getting better.

If you can reduce any one of these factors, especially the one that is threatening you most, your stress and the damage it does to your body is reduced considerably. The following strategies are recognized as best practices because they directly counteract these primal threats, by adding resources that help you to see the threats differently—as challenges. This creates a more confident motivational state and less wear and tear on your body.

  1. CONTROL – Choose more consciously your schedule, work, and lifestyle. Exercise self-governance in the things you can control. Less chaos means less stress.

Get in the driver’s seat

  • Self-Care: Cover the basics that everyone knows: sleep, diet, exercise. Customize your own self-care action items in ways that are realistic, make sense, and put you in the driver’s seat.
  • Work/Life Balance: Improve your work, play, and rest balance. The number of hours per week spent with traumatized people is the primary predictor of vicarious trauma.
  • Commitment: Commit to a one percent change—the one small significant change you will implement. Build the habit of successfully taking small yet pivotal steps. This is not about impressive accomplishments; it’s about your capacity to gradually improve your well-being repeatedly.

2. FORESIGHT – Be better able to predict where stress will come from.

Look ahead

  • Occupational Hazards: Understand what is happening to you. Know the occupational stress hazards, the risk factors, of your profession.
  • Warning Signs: Recognize them early. Know your habits, vulnerabilities, and blind spots. Notice your stressors at home and work.
  • Training: Get more training on the aspects of your job in which you have least training. Build your skills, understanding, and contacts in all your areas of responsibility—you will be most stressed where you know the least.
  • Narrative Medicine: Learn to write and tell your stories; they will help you make sense of your experiences and recognize the themes, patterns, and lessons in your life.

3. CONNECTIONS – Stay in touch with those who bring out the best in you. Don’t face stress alone.

Get together

  • Social support: Create and restore your social supports at home, at work, and in your community (chronic stress will isolate you). Find strategic allies.
  • Empower co-workers, family, and friends; the more disempowered people are, the more they turn on each other.
  • Stay away from toxic people, chronic complainers (the BMW’s who bitch, moan, or whine) and those who bully and commit “horizontal violence” in the workplace.
  • Good Company: Spend time with people who inspire, ennoble, and are role models for you. Belong to a group where you feel a sense of camaraderie and purpose.

4. OUTLETS – Always have a safety valve to let off steam or a way to escape from stress.

Find breathing room

  • Debriefing: Know what to do with all of the traumatic stories you hear. Regularly practice low-impact debriefing (but share your stories without traumatizing others).
  • Contingency Plan: Know who will be your go-to person. Then ask for help before it’s a crisis. Don’t be intimidated by stigma. Seeking help from friends or professionals is not a sign of personal failure—it’s the smart thing to do.
  • Sanctuary: Find a safe place and set aside time regularly where you can be quiet and find peace.

5. HOPE – Always have something to look forward to, something to hold onto, a sense of progress, and the skills to know that you can bounce back.

Look forward

  • Resilience: Build resiliency with regular training in self-awareness, relaxation, and in moderating empathic hyper-arousal. Stay in touch with what is most meaningful, inspiring, and joyful in your life, and have daily exposure to wiser perspectives. Develop the capacity to find peace whenever necessary through daily practice. The ABC’s of resilience are Awareness, Balance, and Connectedness.
  • Inner Work: No matter how much we exercise or eat right, how skillful our stress management, how good our intentions, how educated we are, or what we believe in, there is no substitute for doing our own interior self-care. Happiness is an inside job.
  • Faith: Believe you can choose a brighter future and change your life for the better. Beneficial changes are always possible with good people, perspectives, and practices in your life.

—Simon Fox

Simon Fox is Executive Director of the Adventures in Caring Foundation and author of Oxygen for Caregivers: Our Toolkit to Guard Against Burnout, Build Resilience and Sustain Compassion, an interdisciplinary team-learning program for health care and emergency service professionals.