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In the first two blogs, I explored how stress can negatively impact our health and wellbeing, together with evidence to suggest that stress isn’t inherently bad. The key take-away from those two blogs was that how we approach a situation is the most important factor. In this final blog, I look at some of the key skills that can be developed to reshape the relationship we have with stress.
Those people who thrive under pressure, are those that see challenges not as insurmountable obstacles but as opportunities to grow – they look for solutions rather than staying stuck ruminating on the problem. There is plenty of evidence to demonstrate how our perception of a situation influences the outcome. Most of us just assume that the thoughts that pop into our head when faced with a situation, are just part of who we are. I wish someone had explained to me, much earlier, that we have the capacity to significantly change our inner narrative. If we experience extreme self-criticism, we can learn to become far more compassionate towards ourselves. There is compelling evidence, albeit counterintuitive perhaps, that practising self-compassion actually helps us to perform better and hold ourselves to a far higher standard, compared to those who are highly critical of themselves.
Learnable skills based in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and positive psychology can permanently rewire how the brain processes information. Situations we perceive as threatening now, do not have to remain so. It is possible to teach an old dog new tricks. Of course, there are fundamental things which can adversely affect how stressed we feel – we have an evolutionary propensity for safety and belonging. Studies, such as the Whitehall studies I and II, have identified that a lack of perceived control and feeling isolated were major contributing factors to poor health and wellbeing amongst participants. More recent studies have been able to quantify such effects. Looking at social isolation, for example, researchers have found that it appears to be as bad for someone’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Re-evaluating our relationship with stress isn’t simply about thinking differently though. The behaviours we adopt have a significant impact on our ability to cope with stressful events. Failing to sleep sufficiently or exercise regularly predisposes us to be more readily susceptible to experiencing negative stress. Sleep deprivation (regularly sleeping less than seven hours per night) triggers our fight or flight response. Many people mistakenly believe that sleep, exercise and good nutrition are optional, yet, we become far less effective, are far more emotionally reactive and increase our risk of mental and physical ill-health when we ignore the basics. One of the quirks of being in a near constant state of fight or flight is that we become far less able to differentiate between what is urgent and what is important. Our impulsivity instinct kicks in and we end up wasting much of our time on things that are of little consequence. It is worth noting that you will perceive a far greater number of sabre-toothed tigers in your environment when you haven’t prioritised self-care.
Of course, irrespective of how much sleep and exercise we get, there will be times when we find ourselves face-to-face with a metaphorical sabre-toothed tiger. I remember well the anxiety I used to experience when asked to speak in front of a room full of partners as a trainee solicitor or, thinking further back, when I was required to present my chemistry thesis at university in front of a room full of my peers. No one had ever explained to me that those feelings of crippling anxiety were in fact optional. That I didn’t have to feel that way forever and that my brain had the capacity to significantly alter its negative response to those situations I found stressful. Of course, I was never in any real danger, but my brain reacted as if I was. It was scared, which made me scared and, in turn, adversely affected my performance.
The best advice I give to people who find themselves in such a situation is two-fold. First and foremost, take a slow, deep, breath (or several in fact). Many of us don’t realise that much of the time we are breathing from a very shallow place in our chest (on the cusp of hyperventilating), whereas we operate at our best when we are taking long deep breathes from our abdominal area. Research conducted by Stanford University, found that army veterans who had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder for several years were able to reduce their symptoms by as much as 40%, after attending a one-week intensive breathing exercise programme. Conversely, another study found that shallow breathing, without any other adverse stimuli, was able to trigger symptoms of fight or flight. Deep breathing works thanks to the calming effect it has on the brain, by stimulation of the Vagus nerve. The breath is the cornerstone of most meditation and mindfulness practices.
Secondly, I recommend that people practise switching their attention to something which empowers them rather than undermines them. Our present moment experience is heavily influenced by where we focus our attention. If you are focused on terrible things, you will feel terrible. Learn to switch your attention to more positive things and you will feel more positive. In the case of public speaking, simply shifting your focus so that you are thinking about how excited you are to be sharing your knowledge or about how grateful people will be hear your insights, will materially alter the electrochemical and biochemical processes happening inside of you. As with most things, the first step is to become aware that you are having debilitating thoughts. Practising mindfulness cultivates greater moment by moment awareness and enables people to have far greater control over the thoughts they engage with and, consequently, the feelings they experience.
Finally, thinking back to the Stress Paradox, it is important to remember that emotions are only ever your brain’s best guess of how you should be feeling right now, based on your previous experiences. They are there to alert you to what may pose a threat. However, they aren’t a fool proof survival guide and should be taken with a pinch (if not a whole bucket) of salt. They are not something to fear, but merely exist as a guide. Much of the time we create our own fears. Fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, fear of not being accepted, fear of simply not being enough. Whether those fears are warranted or not would probably require an entire book. The short answer, however, is most likely to be that those thoughts are not warranted.
Nick Bloy is a former lawyer and HR Business Partner, who founded Wellbeing Republic in 2016, a consultancy that specialises exclusively in employee wellbeing. Nick is passionate about helping people to unleash their true potential and he believes that the key to peoples’ potential resides in understanding evolutionary biology and the neuroscience of the brain.
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