“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Everyone has ‘stuff’ they need to get done and ‘problems’ that they need to solve. There are small things and minor problems, (like doing the ironing, or getting the kids off to school); bigger things (like completing a major work project, or taking care of an elderly relative.) Then there are things that are fun; things that are not so much fun; things we initiate and things that are thrust upon us by others or by circumstances. At one level these demands on us to get things done can be motivational. For example, athletes tend to break records in front of a large crowd and great satisfaction can be gained from striving to complete a worthwhile task. However, if the pressure to make things happen increases beyond a certain point, and we’ve more on our plate that we feel we can handle, then a stress reaction can occur. In this situation a person can start to feel anxious (rather then energised), sometimes to the point of feeling completely overwhelmed.
So how does positive pressure to get things done, or handle life’s problems and challenges turn into negative stress? The answer is found in evolutionary biology and the fight/flight survival mechanism. Approached by a lion in the African savannah our ancestors would not survive long if they sat down and debated what action to take, so the brain triggers an instantaneous reaction to either (a) attack the lion or (b) run away.
This ‘fight/flight’ process involves hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol being released to facilitate immediate physical action. The hormones generate a series of physical changes aimed at helping to react to a threat e.g. a heightened awareness, a reduction in sensitivity to pain, a quickening heart rate, etc.
The response is triggered both by real threats (e.g. an actual lion) and the possibility of a threat (e.g. a noise in the bushes that might, or might not, be a lion). The way the system was intended to work is that the response ‘switches on’ and ‘switches off’ very quickly in answer to the physical events that unfold. So we run away from the lion, and once safe again we calm down, or, the noise in the bushes turns out to just be the wind blowing through the branches, and we relax.
Problems arise when the physical threat is replaced by the ‘psychological threat’ such as: worry about tight deadlines; criticism from your boss; an argument with your partner; money troubles; or the long term, low level tension created by the daily grind of commuting etc. If the fight/flight mechanism is triggered for these ‘psychological threats’ the adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol causes the body to go into overdrive, but the hormones are not naturally dissipated by action, so the blood pressure stays raised or the mind remains agitated. When this happens fighting or running often translates into unhelpful effects like irritable bowel, dry mouth, stomach ache, eczema, insomnia, angry outburst etc.
The type, number and intensity of ‘events’ that it takes to create a ‘stressful’ situation where the fight/flight response goes into over-drive varies enormously from individual to individual e.g. some people would be horrified at the thought of giving a presentation to three hundred people at a conference, while others would be excited by the prospect.
The Canadian psychologist, Hans Seyle, famously identified four ‘zones’ of arousal or stress:
- Calm – a relaxed, peaceful state of mind
- Euphoric stress (Eustress) – the natural high that comes from striving to meet a challenge
- Distress – the sense of ‘worry’, ‘tension’ and (maybe) anxiety that comes from feeling out of control
- Extreme distress – a sense of panic, helplessness and fear that comes from seeing no way out of a difficulty or problem situation, this can result in a range of symptoms such as fatigue, palpitations, irritability, headaches etc.
The issue for Seyle was to (i) know yourself and what you personally can – and can’t – take in your stride, and (ii) have strategies for recovering quickly from ‘distress’ and ‘extreme distress’ when you get too far outside your comfort zone.
Research indicates that there are four, interconnected, strategies for learning to defuse the fight/flight response and so manage stress effectively:
- Manage your state of mind; it may be easier said than done, but the idea is to let your problems ‘bounce off you’, like water off a duck’s back (i.e. eliminate ‘worry’ or ‘annoyance’ or ‘panic’ in the face of work overload, or disappointments, or ‘bad’ situations.) Be proactive; be optimistic.
- Manage your personal energy levels; stay physically strong and well rested, be active and ‘burn off’ stress inducing hormones through exercise (get a good night’s sleep, exercise, consciously take ‘time out’ for fun activities, have a balanced diet, don’t drink or smoke too much etc.)
- Manage your relationships; no one can thrive without some help from other people (a problem shared is a problem halved, actively stay ‘connected’ to family and friends.)
- Manage your task list; the chances are that it’s impossible to do everything you might like to do, or that your boss might like you to do! (So prioritise your efforts, say ‘no’ (respectfully) to unreasonable requests, and negotiate workloads/responsibilities.)
Let’s look at the first of these strategies (Manage your state of mind) in more detail.
Albert Ellis argued that experiencing psychological stress involves a three-step, ABC process… Adverse Events; Beliefs; Consequences:
Adverse Event: Something bad happens (e.g. you are stuck in a traffic jam, you hear a sudden loud noise, you are late for a meeting, you argue with a colleague.)
Beliefs: You think about the event to assess if it presents a threat (this happens very quickly and usually at a subconscious level.)
Consequences: You experience feelings and sensations that will vary in type and intensity, depending on how you think about the event (i.e. is the fight/flight response (a) triggered and (b) if triggered, how quickly is it switched ‘off’.)
His observation is that we cannot (usually) control events, but we can (at least to some extent) control our thinking, and therefore we can manage our emotions and thereby take charge of the fight/flight response. So for Ellis you can think about a situation using either ‘junk logic’ (negative, pessimistic, disempowering thoughts), or ‘rational thinking’ (logical, positive, optimistic – but realistic thoughts.) Unsurprisingly, he recommends using rational thinking.
So imagine an Adverse Event (say) someone comes back home after a long day at work to find they’ve been burgled. Not a nice experience. At this point they could use, what Ellis would call ‘junk logic’, and think; “this is the most awful thing ever, I can never feel safe in my home again, this is just terrible, I’ve lost some precious belongings and that’s a dreadful, heart wrenching loss and I am helpless to do anything about it.” And as result they’d probably feel anxious and distraught.
But are those thoughts, in this example, helpful or even really true? Can the home really not be made safe – ever again? What would adding a stronger door, or more robust locks or a remote camera do for security? It’s horrible to have had your home broken into but that doesn’t mean steps can’t be taken to stop it happening again. And when all is said and done, no one was hurt or injured. Furthermore, while the loss of personal items (especially those with sentimental value) is no laughing matter, is it really the end of the world? No doubt some things can be replaced with insurance money and for the others you still have your memories, and no one can take those away.
Harvard Medical School, (exercising to relax, 2011) notes that exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the “runner’s high” and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts. So regular exercise helps to manage stress. They also note that while rapid, shallow breathing is a common response to stress: slow, deep, regular breathing is a sign of relaxation. And it’s possible to control your respirations so they mimic relaxation i.e. deliberately engaging in deep, slow breathing helps to dissipate stress.
Rick Hanson (the well regarded neuroscientist) notes that in terms of evolutionary biology the brain development occurred in three stages:
- Stage one was the development of structures in the brainstem that were highly focused on avoiding danger (i.e. the fight/flight response). This is still the most basic and most sensitive/powerful level of the brain’s functions.
- Stage two, was the development of structures in the sub cortex to help seek out pleasure and ‘rewards’.
- Stage three was focusing on the need for belonging and love (located in the neo cortex.)
These three aspects of brain function: avoiding harm, approaching rewards and attaching to others need to be integrated and balanced in order to achieve a positive, happy life. Hanson humorously refers to this as the need to: pet the lizard; feed the mouse and hug the monkey.
As for ‘attaching to others’ he notes that in ancient times, membership in a band was critical to survival: exile was a death sentence in the Serengeti. And that today feeling understood, valued, and cherished, directly affects a person’s happiness and effectiveness. So an important part of stress management (or more accurately ‘stress avoidance’) is to seek ‘connections’ to others. Or as Hanson would say, to “hug the monkey, (an admittedly goofy phrase) inside yourself and thus absorb in one form or another that most fundamental human sustenance: love.” So prioritise spending time with people who wish you well and have your best interests at heart. Make sure that your work commitments don’t stop you from seeing friends, spending time with family and catching up with colleagues.
It’s a very rare person who can do everything they want to do during the course of a day. Most of us have to negotiate with (i) ourselves, about competing demands on our time and (ii) with the people who will have priorities that differ from ours. This involves saying “no” to being overloaded, but also agreeing how to flex and adapt your schedule in the face of reasonable requests and demands from your family, boss and peers.
Many people don’t fully appreciate that saying, “yes” to one thing effectively means saying “no” to something else. And that ‘something else’ we are saying ‘no’ to may well be a priority work task for us, or may eat away at time we want to dedicate to our home or personal lives. So if we are too accommodating then it may well be that the things we are saying ‘no’ to by default are the very things that we need to do to take better care of ourselves and/or hit our personal work targets.
Of course the irony is that if we agree to do more than we can handle, we probably don’t do it very well, and we may also end up exhausted (or angry) for having to do something that intrudes into our personal time. This is why finding out exactly why people are asking for things, and then negotiating a way forward that makes sense to you and to them is so important to managing stress. So mastering the delicate art of saying no, is a key life skill.
If you are a leader, or a people manager, then, in many countries, you will have a legal responsibility to proactively ensure the welfare of people reporting to you, and that includes monitoring their stress levels. In the UK, for example, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, make employers responsible for ensuring the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees. Legally, Board Members must ensure that a Health & Safety policy is in place and monitor factors that might suggest there is a problem with stress-related illness in the business, e.g. high rates of absenteeism.
Managers should be on the lookout for common signs of stress in employees, including (but not limited to)…
- Taking more time off than usual
- Not taking normal breaks (e.g. lunch), working long hours
- Increased irritability, poor concentration, reduced productivity (e.g. making mistakes)
- Becoming withdrawn, ‘moody’ or over-reacting to what others say
- Showing physical signs of fatigue e.g. yawning, rubbing eyes, sweating, or sallow complexion
- Reflect on which of Seyles “stress zones” you are in and what that might tell you about how you might try to adjust your behaviour to spend more time in zones one and two.
- Consider just how optimistic you are. Do you need to adjust your thoughts to be more of a “glass half full” type of person? This doesn’t mean pretending that things are Ok when they aren’t, but it does mean looking at what’s good about a situation and taking the initiative to improve things where possible.
- Try reading, The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook
by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning
- Learn more about Breathing Excercises, a three minute video – Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique
If you think that you or your work team could benefit from our help then take a look at our half-day master class on stress management.
Or maybe our ‘one to one’ executive coaching services.
Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or +44 1788 475 877 (international) or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.
And to end with a quote from the well known US physician Dr. Chris Feudtner,