Increasing Stress Tolerance: 3 Tips From a Special Agent

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Becoming Bulletproof" by Evy Poumpouras. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Want to know how to increase your stress tolerance? How can you better cope with daily stressors and high-stress situations alike?

As a former special agent in the U.S. Secret Service, Evy Poumpouras has extensive knowledge of controlling fear and dealing with stressful situations. In Becoming Bulletproof, she explains three ways she recommends you can increase stress tolerance in your daily life.

Read on to learn three ways to increase your stress tolerance, according to Poumpouras.

Increasing Stress Tolerance

In her book Becoming Bulletproof, Evy Poumpouras explains how to conquer fear and mitigate your responses to danger, but she also provides strategies to help you increase stress tolerance in your daily life. Increasing your stress tolerance can help you find solutions to problems, cope better with stressors, and take control of your life. Her three strategies to build everyday resilience include facing reality, taking responsibility for your actions, and practicing stress exposure.

#1: Face Reality

Although maintaining a certain degree of optimism is a helpful mental attribute, Poumpouras argues that accepting the reality of a situation is even more important for increasing stress tolerance.

Finding this balance between optimism and realism can be tricky. The best approach is to hope for a positive outcome while still being aware of potential negative outcomes. This way, when you encounter a setback, you’ll be prepared, and you can focus on finding a solution to the problem. On the other hand, being overly optimistic can cause you to overlook potential problems or issues that may arise. Subsequently, when an issue or setback occurs, it will be more difficult to cope with it. 

Another important aspect of facing reality is making sure you’re addressing the correct root cause of a problem. One way to do this is to get an outside perspective. Try asking a friend or family member for advice. In some situations, even asking an acquaintance or stranger can be helpful, as they may be able to provide an unbiased and honest perspective. Sometimes you can be so emotionally involved in your own problems that you fail to see the reality of the situation, but an outsider may be able to see the root of your problem more clearly. 

Remove Emotion and Ego From Your Worldview

In The Discipline of Perception, Ryan Holiday explains how our perception of reality can affect our ability to identify problems and overcome obstacles: When you let your emotions or ego control the way you see the world, you give more power to them and let them control your life. 

Here are a few ways you can develop a neutral perception of reality

Turn bad situations into learning opportunities: If you don’t become overwhelmed with fear, anger, or other emotions during a mishap or crisis, you’ll be able to learn from it.

Avoid helplessness: In some situations, you may feel like there is nothing you can do to change the outcome. This feeling of helplessness can be demoralizing, but you can avoid it if you remember that your actions do have an impact, no matter how small or insignificant they seem.

Keep the goal in mind: Sometimes we get too caught up with how difficult a task is and lose sight of why we’re doing it. Keep the goal in mind, limit distracting thoughts, and you’ll stay motivated.

#2: Take Responsibility 

According to Poumpouras, another way to increase your stress tolerance is to take responsibility for the decisions you make. When you take personal responsibility for your choices, you develop an attitude of control over your decisions and your life

People often like to take responsibility for their successes and avoid responsibility for their failures, and Poumpouras argues that this is bad for your mental strength: If you’re constantly looking to place blame, you’ll become passive in difficult situations. Instead of blaming others for a problem, look for a solution. This lets you take ownership of your life again. For instance, instead of blaming your boss or coworker for a failed work project, focus on what you can do to fix it or get it right the next time.

(Shortform note: In The Oz Principle, Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman argue that you can only achieve your goals if you hold yourself accountable and refuse to see yourself as a victim. Many people see themselves as victims and hold others accountable for their problems. Though sometimes you will be the victim of unfortunate circumstances or injustice, it’s when you habitually play the victim that it becomes a problem. If you do this, you’ll fail to learn from your mistakes, grow as a person, and realize your true potential.)

#3: Practice Stress Exposure

Poumpouras recommends increasing your stress tolerance by exposing yourself to low levels of it. By developing a tolerance, you can alleviate some of this stress, overcome fears, and improve your ability to perform difficult tasks.

Poumpouras provides a five-step process to build your mental stress tolerance:

Introduce a stressor: Identify and introduce a stressor into your life. Start small so you don’t become overwhelmed. For instance, if you want to get over your claustrophobia, start by putting yourself in a space that is small enough to make you uncomfortable but large enough for you to handle.

Study your reaction: Take note of the way you feel and think and the way your body reacts when you introduce yourself to stress. For instance, when you entered the enclosed space, did you panic? Did your breathing intensify? 

Make small changes: Identify small changes you can make to help you react more calmly and see what works. Try to control your breathing, or close your eyes and think about something that calms you.

Focus your effort: Once you know what works best for you, focus your efforts on one change that you think will help you the most. Perhaps you noticed that most of the panic comes from negative thoughts. Make positive thinking a priority.

Repeat: Repeat the first four steps, slowly adding more intensity to the stressors. Once you’ve mastered one change, focus on another. Over time, you should be able to turn a mental weakness into a strength.

Stress Inoculation and Understanding the Dangers of Stress

The steps in Poumpouras’s technique of building stress tolerance are similar to steps in a therapy method called stress inoculation training (SIT), first introduced in 1985 by psychologist Donald Meichenbaum. SIT is a more clinical approach used by psychotherapists to prepare patients to handle stressful events, but it’s based on the same philosophy as Poumpouras’s: By analyzing and becoming consciously aware of your reactions, you can gain control over them.

The SIT technique adds one key element that Poumpouras leaves out: understanding the nature of stress and its effect on the brain and body

In the first stage of SIT, a therapist teaches a patient key concepts relating to stress and how people react to it. This helps the patient clearly understand where their stress is coming from, what they can do to cope with it, and what bad coping mechanisms they need to avoid. Also, patients should learn which aspects of their stress response they can and can’t change and adjust their actions accordingly. The key is to accept what you can’t change and work on what you can.
Increasing Stress Tolerance: 3 Tips From a Special Agent

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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