Understanding Stress and What to Do About It

May 2, 2023
Jessica Grande

Ask any techie and they will tell you they are no stranger to the topic of stress. As rewarding as tech careers are, they can also come with new challenges and obstacles that you have to navigate and overcome every day. To help combat these stressors, our Data Program Manager, Ryan O’Connell spoke to a group of Seekers at NSS to help them not only understand stress, but also ways to manage it!

Ryan O’Connell has spent the past 13 years learning different techniques to manage his own stress and now helps others understand stress and use mindfulness and meditation to help combat it. “I had meditated in the past and found it useful. And so I thought, ‘I'll try to make a habit out of this’,” he shares. “As that habit formed, I found it to be very useful for me and started attending meditation retreats.” Since then, Ryan has trained in and taught meditation from Port au Prince, Haiti, to the Nashville Public Library and other meditation centers. 

What is Stress?

Everyone experiences stress to some degree, however, the way we respond to stress makes a big difference to our overall well-being. Stress affects both the mind and the body. While a little bit of stress is good and can help us perform daily activities, too much stress can cause physical and mental health problems. Let’s start by breaking down what stress actually is so that we can begin to understand how to combat it in our daily lives. 

According to the World Health Organization’s definition, “stress is a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. It's a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives.” But Ryan presents some different perspectives derived from ancient teachings about stress to give us a better, holistic understanding of stress. 

Stress is inextricable from life

Similar to the more modern perspective, everybody experiences stress. 

Stress is typically caused by wanting conditions in our life to be different than they are

It is helpful to understand that stress is often caused by wanting circumstances in our life to be different than they are in the present moment. For example, being caught in traffic is often stressful, but much of the distress of being caught in traffic comes from the subtle but persistent notion that one should not be caught in traffic.

Ryan suggests that when you begin to see stress in your field of experience, try asking yourself “is there some kind of wanting in my mind?” Is the idea “if your experience was somehow different, it would somehow be better,” present right now? 

Then examine if that thought or “want” is true. If you find there's no value in the tension you’re experiencing from this “want”, and yet its presence persists, you can begin to ask the question “is there something I can do to start to let go of that idea of wanting?”

Stress can be subdued

Stress is subdued through ethical actions, wise perspectives, and meditation. Actions such as lying, cheating and stealing, are probably going to be creating conditions that are stress inducing. Whereas wise perspectives that allow us to recognize what can be controlled and what needs to be let go of can help to subdue stressful situations, especially through meditation and other mindful practices. 

What Can We Do About Stress?

Ryan believes what separates general advice on coping with stress from ideas that promote well-being and human flourishing, are our abilities to build habits around these ideas and practices. Here are some ways to cope with stress that you can build habits around.

Physical Antidotes

  • Exercise
  • Eat well
  • Stay hydrated
  • Take a walk
  • Get enough sleep
  • Take several slow, deep breaths
  • Avoid using alcohol and drugs to cope with stress
  • Yoga
  • Get outside
  • Intentionally relax your body

Mental Antidotes

  • Meditate
  • Accept circumstances that you cannot control
  • Understand your needs
  • Give yourself a break
  • Engage in positive self-talk
  • Pray
  • Count to 10 before you speak or react
  • Recognize and refrain from negative self-talk

Relational Antidotes

  • Manage social media time
  • Meet a friend for coffee or a meal
  • Take time to break down big problems into smaller parts
  • Do something to help someone else
  • Play with your kids or pets
  • Call a friend or loved one
  • Take a break - early and often
  • Make time for hobbies
  • Talk about your problems
  • Proactively manage your time
  • Set aside time for yourself

While there’s no way to do everything perfectly across all three of the lists above, find something that resonates with you and begin to cultivate a habit. 

“In my experience, well-being is akin to a bank account,” Ryan describes. “If I'm making regular deposits in the bank, then I've got some resources available to me when stressful situations arise. And if I'm not making those regular deposits, then I'm not going to have as much of a bank of well-being to pull from when something comes up that's difficult.” 


"All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time."  -James Clear, Atomic Habits

Knowing what habit to start that builds up your reservoir of well-being, coupled with knowing the best approach to cultivating habits has helped Ryan enhance his own human flourishing over a longer period of time. Here’s some tips to forming healthy habits: 

Identify the habit you want to form

The first step is to identify the habit you want to form. Be specific and clear about what the habit is and how it will benefit you.

Start small

Start with a small habit that you can easily achieve. This will help you build momentum and create a sense of accomplishment, which will motivate you to continue with other healthy habits! 

Be patient and persistent

Remember that forming a habit takes time and effort. Be patient with yourself while you stay committed to building the habit and celebrate small milestones and accomplishments. 

Get support

Surround yourself with people who support your habit-forming goals. This could be a friend, family member, or a community of like-minded individuals! 

Want to build a habit of mindfulness?

Try it! Movement, Breathing and Sound

Throughout the session, Ryan led the group in various meditation exercises connecting movement, breathing, and sound in order to calm nerves. 

“These are practices that are useful when we're more overwhelmed with stress,” he explains. “Connecting breath and movement activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which sort of allows us to calm down and rest. We're going to daisy chain all these exercises together as we go along so that at the end of this, we will have a full practice.” 

Practice 1: Movement with “Ah”

General Instructions:

  1. Let your arms rest by your side.
  2. On your next “in” breath, raise your arms out from your side to about shoulder level.

Please only raise your arms as high as is comfortable.

  1. After you have completed your “in” breath, breathe out while gently lowering your arms back to your side and making the sound "ah" from your mouth.
  2. Repeat 10-12x


  1. After a few rounds of breath, see if you can let your arms "ride" the breath up and down.
  2. After practicing this several times, see if you can contain the movement of the arms up and down within the breath, e.g., start inhaling, then begin raising your arms, and then stop raising your arms before you finish inhaling.
  3. Only implement these refinements to the extent that they are comfortable

Now sit here for a moment and see if anything has changed in your experience. Take this moment to examine if that breathing, movement and sound exercise caused any shift in your state of being. Do you feel a little more calm? (Hopefully it feels less cluttered, especially in your head and chest.)

“Connecting breath and movement gives us the opportunity to focus not just the mind but the body and activity in it. It sort of brings us down to a more steady state.” Ryan O’Connell  

Practice 2: Body Scan

Ryan then led the group in a body scan exercise. Below is an a Meditation guide for a quick Body Scan exercise by Tara Brach


Practice 3: Paying attention to the breath

The point of this meditation is not to fully concentrate on the breath, but to use your breath as a “device” to notice when we become distracted. This is an opportunity to look directly at what we are thinking about, and sort of the nature of thought itself.

“In my experience of the collective experience of folks who do this, that in witnessing the nature of thought, it transforms our relationship to it and it breaks the enchantment with the kind of habitual thinking that tends to drive stress and difficulty,” Ryan shares. 

General Instructions:

  • Start by finding a comfortable place to sit. Close your eyes. Allow your hands to rest in your lap.
  • Scan through the body, from top to bottom, and just take a moment to recognize and release any tension.
  • Now bring your attention to your breath. We can do this in a few different places.
    • It can be helpful for some folks to notice breath as it enters the nostrils.The really subtle, gentle experience where we can place our attention on breathing at the nose. 
    • We can also notice the breath as our chest expands and contracts.
    • Or notice the breath as your abdomen rises and falls. 
  • Find a spot in your breath to allow your attention to stick with for the next few minutes.
    • Remember, we're not trying to focus on the breath to the exclusion of other experiences. We really want to just rest in a natural state of being with awareness of the breath. It might be useful to even make a note.
  • What inevitably happens at this part of the exercise is that most people start to become distracted and entangled with thoughts as they are breathing in and out. But this is good when you can recognize it and  direct your attention back to your breathing. 
  • The next time you find yourself entangled in thought, try to look directly at the thought and see what happens to it. Thoughts will often just dissolve right on the spot, revealing their inner substantiality and then go back to breathing and focusing on the breath as it enters the body and exits the body just loosely hanging with the breath till the next thought comes on.
  • When you’re ready, move the shoulders a little bit and open the eyes and come back into space.


We hope that building healthy habits and practicing mindfulness can help you the next time your code returns the same error for the 50th time! And remember to lean on your team and NSS community. We’re all in this together!  

Topics: Learning, Analytics + Data Science, Web Development, Software Engineering