Unsurprisingly, stress is something that I come across a lot in my line of work, coaching business leaders, entrepreneurs, and athletes in extreme sport. They tend to be under a lot of pressure, a lot of the time, of course.
However, most of my clients wouldn’t necessarily admit to suffering from stress, even if I suggested it to them. Is this because they’re denying their reality, lacking in awareness, or could it perhaps be more nuanced than this?
What is stress?
Stress is an unhelpful term; it’s vague and non-specific. In many ways it’s meaningless because stress is a fact of life. You’re going to experience stress in your life, and you may even wilfully create it for yourself too.
The common definition of stress is that it’s psychological and it’s a natural response to a perceived threat. When we perceive a threat we seek to protect ourselves, so our body releases a mixture of chemicals to help us to do so. This is our fight-or-flight response mechanisms.
Fight-or-flight is often approached as a bell-curve. The right amount of stress for the right amount of time equates to improved performance but too little or too much is a bad thing.
How you go about achieving the right balance of stress for you is by finding ways to avoid over exposure to stressful events or by changing the way you think about them – basically so you don’t think they’re potentially harmful to you.
The harmful aspect of stress is when we’re over-stressed, especially for long periods of time.
Stress is a major health topic with vast amounts of information and life hacks available out there deal with it but it continues to cause business and society such problems.
Why is stress so problematic to deal with?
The way in which we typically approach stress is on the assumption that it’s overall harmful. This is simplistic and misguided.
“Dealing with stress is a personal and adaptive process where, for the most part, we have no control over the stressors we might experience”
But most importantly, the complete picture of stress is complex and dynamic. It is a function of our relationship with the world. The nature of this relationship is different for everyone and it changes over time too.
So dealing with stress is a personal and adaptive process where, for the most part, we have no control over the stressors we might experience in our world (and sometimes we decide to embark on a challenge that causes us great amounts of stress, so it’s self imposed!).
Understanding your stress
One of the great paradoxes of understanding our state of stress is that when we are stressed (even relatively mildly so), we’re highly unlikely to think we are. Our thinking is clouded by the release of chemicals in our brain so even if we think our mind is on form, it won’t be. I therefore don’t get clients to think too much about their stress.
Our bodies can be a much more reliable indicator of stress, but if we’ve been in a stressed state for a long time, our bodies and senses may very well have habituated. For example, we lose awareness of the physical tension we’re holding.
More immediate physical signals such as a pressure or tightness in the chest and shallow breathing can be helpful guides (yet they can be unreliable because they vary with exertion). The approach I tend to take with clients is just to get them experiencing a naturally de-stressing process.
Not only does this have the advantage of avoiding uncomfortable admission but it gives them a direct real-time experience of reducing stress levels (wherever they’re at). It also puts them in a better place for thinking, decision making and productivity.
What to do if you think you are stressed
It is better to self-assess your state of stress when doing it from a place of wellbeing (you’ll also deal much better with stress here too). So what can you do about it if you’re already stressed?
- Find someone objective, outside your normal system of work or social group, to talk to
I find it fascinating that one of the chemicals that clouds our thinking in stress also plays a role in human connection. Reaching out to connect meaningfully with someone just to blurt all the stuff out and unburden yourself is a great outlet. A drink with friends might seem like the first option, but the best results tend to come if you invest in doing this with someone trained to listen. You need this space and you also don’t need to worry about what you say, or even if it makes any sense!I have clients in leadership positions that find this process to be one of the most valuable things they do.
- Get yourself moving
Rhythm is incredibly important in helping wellbeing and de-stressing. Basically get some moving around time that lets you move in a natural and calm rhythm, nothing complicated for now. Walking is excellent, even if you’re just doing it around the office. Getting outside is better, if only so you don’t drive your colleagues mad from your pacing.
- Rest, recuperation, nourishment
Give yourself a break sometimes. Get some rest, do some decent sleeping and nourish yourself with good wholesome varied food (in a good pattern). This one takes some hard work, I know… it can also take time if you haven’t done it for a while, which most leaders and entrepreneurs probably haven’t.
These 3 things chime with some of the effects stress has on us, so they help in the unwinding process. Tune in to your body and mind to notice what happens to the quality of both your thinking and feelings when you follow these simple steps. For example, does talking help to release pressure in your chest, does walking help you to feel more settled?
The next stage I suggest is to develop personal habits according to some broad principles:
If you do something at one end of the stress spectrum, make sure you complement it with something at the other. Something highly stressful and/or strenuous gets followed up with adequate rest and recuperation. An Olympic athlete client of mine almost halved his training routine replacing it with rest resulting in both performance improvement and better quality of life.
This works the other way too; sometimes things have been too sedate so you need a good blast.
Prioritise a proper sleep routine. Without adequate sleep you will eventually end up miserable and you’re going to get easily stressed.
“Have a specific time in the evening, a couple of hours before you go to sleep when you switch off all screens”
Stress often disrupts our sleep but so do screens. I recommend to have a specific time in the evening, a couple of hours before you go to sleep when you switch off all screens. For example, an executive client of mine took two months to become brave enough to switch off his computer and do no work after 7:30pm. In amazement he told me that he was getting to sleep much better but also that he got more done in the day, in part because he didn’t put anything off until later.
Make sure you eat a good, balanced diet. But this also applies to the mind (see below).
Engage in a broad range of physical activities, don’t just concentrate on one type, especially if it’s intensive. I teach Tai Chi but even that isn’t a complete exercise and it needs to be complemented by cardiovascular training. A broad mix of activities is even better because it helps your body and mind in many different ways – make sure you mix it up! Find different things you really enjoy too but also go out and experiment with things you wouldn’t normally consider (or think you might not like).
I’ve been working in the psychology arena for about 25 years and it’s still the most problematic, overlooked and least understood part of the jigsaw. We are particularly bad at doing it and a lack of well understood, systematic approaches doesn’t help either!
Here are a couple of ways you can begin to systematically protect and nourish the mind:
- Engage yourself in new types of learning – variety, broad topic areas, explore something new. It’s also ideal to try and do it socially. Learn not just intellectual stuff but also doing. Why? A sense of too much pressure in work where you can’t find solutions is often an indicator of a need to learn.
- Quieten the mind – but don’t necessarily reach for your mindfulness meditation exercises – there’s plenty of other choices. I tend to recommend approaches that help focus the mind and involve physical movement at the same time. For example, 20 minutes of regular walking in the countryside has been shown to be as effective as equivalent mindfulness meditation, if not more so because of the added benefit of exercise and fresh air! So why not find a way to walk into work, even if it’s just part of the way. Personally I’m a fan of Tai Chi but there is also Yoga (a soft gentle one that doesn’t stress or strain the body). If that’s not up your street, Bouldering or even Dance perhaps. Rhythm is a really important ingredient to help quieten the mind so music works really well too!
Be imaginative because it could even be something others consider to be extreme. I have had plenty of clients who do stuff like motorcycle racing, downhill mountain biking, mixed martial arts and so on because that’s what helps them to unwind from the stresses of their business. It is amazingly focussing to race a motorbike, it requires fitness and there is an amazing close and inclusive social scene so it works on many different levels. It’s a similar situation in mountain biking too.
Go and have fun with things you truly find engaging and don’t be afraid to mix it up and do something different.