A method for stress management

Right after the holidays I felt drained. Not only physically but mentally depleted. I smiled less, laughed even less. My wife had a less enjoyable time around me. It slowly dawned on me that it was time to do something about my stress levels. But how? Eventually my search lead me to implement a schedule for my stress. But getting to that point was not intuitive.

I started like I always do: researching what others have come up with. This quickly lead me to a Huberman Labs podcast episode. I had heard ir before, but this time it was time to do something.

I sat down on my couch with a notebook and tried to find the hack that would solve it. I ordered some damn holistic supplement pills. I’m not proud of it. But I did.

As usual looking for the hack was a distraction. The real work was to understand how this thing called stress works, and do something about it.

Stress is a bad term

Or maybe the term has been watered down through all the self help books and women’s magazines. Huberman suggested activation energy instead. After thinking about it for a few days, I think this is a much better term.

I used to believe stress is a bad thing. Something that happens when you are overwhelmed. Or a bad response you’ve learned from your genes still adapted to chasing mammoths.

That is a bad explanation of stress.

Everything that activates you is caused by stress. Stress is the fuel that powers your action, and your level of activity. Even at a biological scale as it turns out stress is what activates your immune system.

The bad side of stress

Like most exhilarating things, stress is addictive. Like me, you will come to love the feeling of aliveness, of taking action. Stress feels great, it’s excitement, and joy, and exhilaration. But the dosage makes the poison.

The problem is that stress should not be constant. Like the frat boy discovering drinking, if it feels great, why not continue? When you live with elevated stress over time, your body adapts and starts to assume this is the normal level of stress. Which means everything below “stressed out” will feel like depression. No activation energy, no action.

Even worse your adapted body will only have a binary, 0 or 1, level of stress. No gradual differences from awakening lazily, to dancing while cooking, to running from the tiger. You will fear the tiger as soon as you start any task.

Creating a healthy balance

Now that we think of stress as activation energy we can start to think about how we can use it productively. We should get some stress going when we need to get things done. Doing some pushups and playing fast music is not a bad idea.

When you have done the work, it’s time to remove stress. Detach from what you’re doing, take a walk, stop trying to be productive. Turn the lights low, change your outfit, put on some soft music, and do things slowly. Yes you can play video games, but take a breath first, and don’t get into a competition. Yes you can enjoy movement, but no you can’t work out, because that’s also activating you.

Think of this as an activation curve: ramping up in the morning, ramping down in the evening. You should have an activation curve for the day (and maybe another for weeks or months? I’m still implementing my days).

This is already difficult for many of us, addicted as we are to activation energy. But we should be ramping up and down in short bursts during the day as well.

It’s highly likely that humans are made for short bursts of activation energy, and long intervals of rest. Which means an ideal schedule would be to work 30min and rest 90. Unfortunately that’s not likely to happen any time soon, there’s too much work to do. But when was the last time you took a 15min break to rest? That should be possible.

The pomodoro technique recommends working 25min and resting 5min, and having a longer break every 4-5 sprints.

The Huberman labs podcast suggests working hard for 90min before taking a 20min break.

Both of these models might work. Try them and see which one makes sense for you.


  • Every day has an activation curve: stress up in the morning, and down at night.
  • Work in bursts and then step away from work regularly.
  • Choose an intervall (25-5, 90-20, 45-15) that works best for you but take the breaks.

If you’ve read this far you are probably thinking “that’s easy for you to say” at this point. You are right. I’ve been avoiding the elefant in the room, so let’s grab it by the trunk.

Why it’s hard to not stress

I’ve already mentioned, counterintuitive as it might sound, that being stressed feels great. I suspect this is the main reason we’re all revving up constantly, but it’s not the only reason.

Activation energy also means focus. When you are chased by the tiger you can’t stop and smell the roses, so your brain filters them out. To you, there are no roses. This increase in focus is a double edged sword.

Having focus means it’s easier to get work done. Because you are less distracted. It also means that you are less open to new ideas, i.e. less creative. And that you get stuck easier.

You have probably had the experience of talking to a drunk friend who is unable to get off a topic? This is because alcohol makes it very easy to get stuck on ideas. Activation energy gives the same result, albeit less strong.

The trick here is to realise that you don’t want to stop being stressed. You are focused on exciting things, and you feel activated. Why would you stop?

Coming down from that high requires letting go of productivity, and being uncomfortably tired. That’s why it’s difficult. That’s why stress articles often bring up mindfulness.

Noticing you are stressed

Unless you already are practicing mindfulness, you are probably only aware of being stressed when you’re close to your limit. This is normal. And I’m not suggesting you need to become a yogi to solve this.

Instead of trying to notice you are stressed, just set a schedule for breaks. When you succeed with that, start asking yourself a question during those breaks: what am I focusing on? Does that mean I’m stressed?

You will likely notice that you are in fact stressed each time you take a break. That’s normal. But it isn’t good for you.

You have practiced activating yourself to do things your entire life. It’s time to start practicing deactivation.

Practice sitting still

We have to practice calming down because everything is a practice. You can learn this, and surprisingly fast. But the first time you will suck at it. This is normal.

Calming down feels great when you do it over time. But when you are used to high energy it can feel awfully empty and dreary. It’s very easy to reach for distraction at that time. Any input will do. TikTok, instagram, video games, alcohol. Anything that stimulates you, that increases your sense of activation. Which is exactly what we’re learning to avoid.

There are tons of ways of doing this. The most well studied is forrest bathing, i.e. taking a walk in a forrest without any devices. But for me just sitting down for a few minutes really helps. I put my phone out of reach, and sit on the floor or the couch, and then struggle to sit there for more than 5min. This is normal.

Every time you struggle with this is like lifting the weight at the gym. It’s uncomfortable, feels unusual at first, but with each repetition you get better at it. The gym metaphor is great, because just like with lifting a weight, you can’t go from never lifting weights to doing 100 reps. You have to start slow, and being ok with that.

A bonus is that sitting still, or forrest bathing, will starting feeling wonderful very quickly. It feels like living on easy mode.


What I learned about stress is to set a schedule for your activation energy and be deliberate about it.

  • Set a work intervall during the day.
  • Take the breaks.
  • Choose when you should start activating yourself in the mornings.
  • Do something uncomfortably boring to calm down at night.

Thinking like this helped me step back from what felt like a wall of depression. I hope it helps you. I’m still learning, so if you have any other ideas or suggestions, please tell me about them.