“I Am Not F****ing Stressed OK!!!”
Christmas coming? Shopping not finished? Family coming for the big day? Big lunch to cook? OR Busy Job? Relationship Issues? Moving House? Getting Married? Big stress sources. Missed the bus? Train a few minutes late? Didn’t have time to properly iron your shirt, ‘cos you overslept and you missed breakfast? No coffee in your system yet? Big stress sources, depending on your perspective.
I think we can all agree that at one time or another we have been, or thought we have been ‘stressed’, oh and the last thing or the worst thing anyone can say is “calm down” a red rag moment if ever there was one. Have we really been stressed though? Or are we just experiencing something else, high pressure or anxiety for example? Is it the same thing? Lots of question marks in that last paragraph there, let’s explore.
Bernstein says, “Stress doesn’t come from what is going on in your life. It comes from your thoughts about what is going on in your life.” Hmm, well OK I buy that, but about those thoughts, or shall I call them voices. Those voices create words, dropping little pieces of vitriol into the mind, words I hasten to add that are poisonous and, as my GP informed me ‘your own words’ He was right too, as they were my own words, I was thinking them up, shaping them into corrupt, wicked little sentences, then by breathing life into them by saying them out loud, through the gift that is ‘talking to ones self’ as there is never anyone around to talk to, as you feel even bloody crazier thinking they will listen, and then making these ramblings a self fulfilling prophecy in the neat little gift that keeps on giving that is ‘stress’. How you gonna answer that Mr. Bernstein?
In my time on this revolving sphere, some 45 years, I too have experienced, like many of you reading this no doubt, what is commonly referred to and maybe a bit overused by those seeking attention, as ‘stress’. It doesn’t mean that one loses control and rips into the nearest living thing at the drop of a hat, and it also doesn’t mean that small pets are at risk either. Quite the contrary in fact. Many people suffering from stress for whom I have had the privilege of coaching, are really quite rational, and surprisingly calm. On the outside at least. It is the inner maelstrom that is the problem. Yes when probed they will let a few tears flow, or vent a little frustration, however it the deep down fear of losing control, or that feeling that it is going to be an almost monumental effort just to breathe whilst travelling to work. The sense of impending doom looming nearer and nearer with each passing minute. For those of you reading this perhaps thinking that stress is ‘all in the mind’, well guess what? It bloody well is in the mind. And that is the problem. From there it just eats away and takes over. Oh and just to help make you sceptics (and I really cannot believe there are that many, but hey you never know) understand this, you remember that feeling you had as a kid when the school holidays came to an end and you were about to move up a year, and you worried about new kids, the new teacher, your new desk, what it was going to be like to have to shower in front of other kids, that is stress. Simple. Nowadays we accept that Sunday night feeling each week, we iron our clothes, worry about our boss, his or her mood, hitting a target, turning in a report, but that too is stress. How it eventually manifests itself is up to us, we give it permission don’t we, to grow and evolve and we crumble or thrive. Stop right there. Let us be balanced for a minute. Some readers might think, ‘but that is healthy, I thrive on that type of stress, I get my best work done when I am stressed.’ Of course you are right and I am sure you have said it or heard it before. The issue is the word ‘stress’, here it is misused, it needs to be rephrased to say ‘I get my best work done when I am under pressure.’ There is ‘positive pressure’ but there is no such thing as ‘positive stress’.
Lets think about this ‘positive pressure’ for a minute. Hans Selye is one of the most famous writers and researchers on stress and its effects. He did lots of experiments, focussing on the aspects of the frequency of stress, the duration of the stress and the intensity of the stress. If we, for all intents and purposes, took someone’s arm and wrapped in cotton wool, never letting it work or exert in any way, what would happen to the arm? Of course it would become weak, it would wither and therefore never really fully develop in terms of its purpose or its potential. However if we apply for a short duration, some heavier than normal lifting, and make the lift intensive and, make this happen on a short but regular basis, then over time the arm will become stronger, leaner, more toned. In extremes it will ‘build’ into the massive ‘guns’ we witness on body builders, but they apply huge amounts of intensive, long duration and frequent stress to their bodies. You see it is in these three areas, frequency, duration and intensity that we can focus any remedial help and support in terms of ‘negative stress’ and controlling the resulting symptoms. So perhaps a person who has a number of targets to hit, over a short period of time, and has a manager who is given to being deeply unpleasant though being high-pressured him or herself could create stress. If the principle of frequency, duration and intensity is examined and applied, perhaps the management of this stress could be made easier. It doesn’t mean the work doesn’t get done, it just means things are managed. Selye also talked about gas. G.A.S. to be precise, it stands for General Adaptation Syndrome. It is the adaptation part that is most important, as Selye says, over time the effects of stress can be minimised naturally as the mind and body adapt to the situation. An example of this would be diving into a swimming pool. If a person jumps into a cold swimming pool then the body immediately goes into a form of shock. A short lived, one off, intensive shock. After staying in the water for a short while and having bystanders offer the ‘ever so helpful’ advice of ‘get your shoulders under, you’ll soon warm up chap’ the body starts to feel warmer, more comfortable. It is temporary though as you stay too long in the water and you start to shiver and get cold. General Adaptation Syndrome, says, that if we look at the period of time, or when window of adaptation occurs, and look to capitalise on making that last as long as possible, we can make the overall ‘stress’ experience more tolerable. There is always going to be the initial shock of ‘hitting the water’ moment; however if that can be minimalised then people will adapt much quicker, therefore be more effective and productive dealing with this new environment/task/extra work etc. If we then keep an eye the frequency, duration and intensity of the experience and measure the effects, then it is possible to identify how long you would expect someone to stay in this place, before ‘the water gets too cold’, and they start to crash. Often this is where more pressure is applied, when actually people need simply to be given support and time to ‘catch their breath’ before more work is applied.
All to often, when stress management courses are delivered, there are the usual nuggets of advice when it comes to the actual management and mechanisms of dealing with stress, or more specifically the effects of stress. You know, manage your time better, eat healthier, get a good nights sleep, and take more exercise. Whilst in some cases this can be helpful, it often isn’t. Why? You ask. Well for one thing it is too simplistic, “so eating more fruit, going to bed an hour earlier and joining a gym will make it all just disappear huh?” Not really. Well we need to look at the habits we fall into that we may not be aware of. For example, people use and abuse certain things to help them cope with the effects of stress. I know people who jump onto a cycle (not a bicycle) where they have had a stressful day, they go out for a drink after work to unwind, open a bottle of something at home in front of the TV, the drink knocks them out, they wake up feeling pretty bad, start the day bad, have too much coffee to cope, maybe skip lunch or overeat at lunch, get the late afternoon slump and hit the sugar highs with chocolate, cookies or cake, then go out after work for a drink and so it starts again. A recurring daily cycle of using alcohol, caffeine and sugar to cope with stress and pressure. Actually, when you use this stuff too much, it makes you feel worse as you come off of the caffeine, alcohol or sugar high, making you crave something else to make you feel better again. By the time the weekend comes around and you really relax, and by this you perhaps, drink and eat more, sleep longer etc. you end up finding yourself on a Sunday night, unable to drop off, worrying about work, therefore having a dreadful nights sleep, feeling even worse on Monday morning, so you start the cycle all over again, ad infinitum. Sadly, this is the norm in our society, and therefore the incidents of stress are going to increase. It is not enough to say, eat better, drink less, sleep more, and join a gym. It is about making a huge choice, a huge decision to not just ‘try’, but actually do something to reduce the frequency, duration and intensity of the stress source, and from that decide to reduce the ‘coping additives’ such as the alcohol, sugar and caffeine and break the cycle. Somehow the coping cycle seems to just magnify the issues, alcohol, sugar and caffeine might mask them, but they are still there.
That said, it is important to recognise that diet and exercise adjustment can be useful for some people. The endorphin rush from exercise can help with stress as can the act of exertion. Lifting weights, taking part in a spinning class, running with your music pumping at full tilt can really help and of course the benefits to your heart and waistline are obvious. Much has been written recently about the dangers of too much sugar, and sugar can really affect your mood and levels of anxiety. Sugar can be very addictive too according to some reports, so a reduction in this will play a part in managing your stress levels. Of course if you are thinking of changing your diet or exercise routine you might want a chat with your doctor first, best to be safe.
It could be fair to say that often ‘stress’ is in part self-induced, we continue on a cycle of coping in response to ‘hard work’. The problem here is when something really unpleasant happens, such as a relationship breakdown, moving house, bereavement to name a few, we find ourselves in a position where we really cannot cope, and suddenly with work pressure for example, we spiral out of control, and the fight or flight response kicks in. We fight it with one of our coping ‘additives’ or fly away and we get signed off with stress and hide, hoping it will go away. All to often it doesn’t and it is waiting there for you to deal with when you return. This is where counsellors can step in and really make a huge difference. I fully advocate any form of counselling. Councillors are truly amazing people, with an extraordinary ability to listen and help people who have a reached a point where they cannot cope. In my experience of counselling people, it is the act of just opening up that seems to be most beneficial. Sufferers have this limiting belief that actually talking in terms of ‘how they feel’ is somehow weak and so they bottle everything up, hoping it will go away. The outlet of a counsellor is extremely useful and can help to minimise the overall scope and impact of the stress, therefore adding context and support to allow the individual to move on.
There is also a limiting belief attached to the label of counselling, that it is only for people who are ‘weak’, ‘victims’, or ‘the broken’, and often people suffering the effects of stress, do not see themselves as in need of help or, in some cases weakened, or in some way broken, so they won’t pursue counselling in fear of the stigma that they have perpetuated and attached to it. Therefore feeling even more of a victim. Counsellors, do not judge, you won’t be seen as weak for reaching out for help, in fact in can make you stronger. Strong people are not victims.
You might be reading this, recognising some of the things I have rambled on about. If so you might want to pursue having a chat with someone on an informal basis. Your workplace may have an HR department, they are often your first port of call; they can recommend people to talk to. There are also other professional people too, and a quick chat with your GP can be really helpful as they will be able to put you in touch with local counsellors, some of them offer help free too. Of course, never underestimate the power of friends, family and partners, sit down and talk to them. It is easy to say tell them how you feel, and if you feel you can, then do. However often that can be a big step, so talk about the situations that are bothering you, the individuals or the task, and then let that lead you to the resulting feelings you experience. Explaining things in this way, make the transition to coping much easier. Remember that often these people are very close to you and offer advice that can start with the phrase “if I were you” or “I know what you are going through”. Whilst empathetic, this can result in them turning the conversation around to them in a way that is not helpful to you just by talking about themselves, or better, they can turn it around to use experiences they have gone through that are similar to yours, thereby offering valid empathy through a shared experience. This can help too.
At the start of this blog I talked about those ‘voices’ and having no one to listen. There is always someone out there for you, and if you feel there is anyone and cannot even think of one, then grab a pen, write things down, start in the centre of the page and work out in a mind map format. Get the key things on paper, and then add in the related stuff however random, it will give you a starting point, and a point of view to enable you to start the process of coping, and ultimately eradicating the negative effects.
The negative effects of stress are destructive, non-productive and create cyclical habits to help nurture the on-going feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, dread and sadness. Look at your habits, address the things you have control over and those you do not. Get help from external people for the latter and make strong tough choices for the former. Only then can you make small steps to feeling happier, more content and healthier. Pressure is never going to go away, that is for sure, there is no such thing as an easy life, but you can make life easier by taking control, making choices and then maybe helping others who perhaps feel as you once felt and just need a shoulder, a good ear and someone just to be there.
As mentioned earlier Bernstein says, “Stress doesn’t come from what is going on in your life. It comes from your thoughts about what is going on in your life.” the thoughts, and the words you use with these thoughts, are all your own and created by you, therefore can be tamed and controlled, by you.