Over 500,000 people suffer from work related stress, depression or anxiety, resulting in more than 12 million working days lost every year – in the UK alone – and that’s pre-Covid. That number has understandably seen a sharp rise over the past quarter.
So rather than share a few anti-stress hacks, I want to run you through the architecture of stress – because understanding this will create a longer term antidote to both the symptoms and the cause, thereby bolstering your own stress management abilities as a leader.
This is what it looks like:
1. Something external happens: an event, a stimulus, a ‘stressor’ - a major change in your work or finances, or something someone is saying or doing to you.
2. It enters your consciousness – usually through sight or sound.
3. At this point it is no longer external - it exists within your mind as a thought or“imprint”.
4. Now it’s internalised, you make a judgement and assess the stimulus (your brain can’t help but do that).
5. As a result of the judgement, you feel a negative emotion such as fear, anger, loss or guilt
6. This triggers a physical reaction which is externalised, creating a feedback loop(often a negative spiral for all parties concerned).
Sadly, because most people haven’t been trained to observe this chain reaction of stress, we instinctively blame our feelings on external events - some careless words, a difficult boss, a clash of personalities, a thoughtless partner, etc.
And from childhood we’ve been encouraged to deal with and change others’ behaviour to alleviate the impact of our feelings.
But this, of course, is rarely possible, because there’s a natural threshold for what is and isn’t within our sphere of control, and the world rarely bends to our will!
Thus unfortunately this cycle of negativity intensifies feelings, while the (often misplaced) belief that the situation is to blame, and magnifies the sense of hopelessness.
So how can we address the problem?
An effective means of interrupting this destructive cycle, whether it’s internalised or externalised, is to intervene at the point where a judgement is made – i.e. step 4 above.
You see, when the mind is clear, calm and composed, you can, with practice, begin to notice a pause between the stimulus and the judgement of that stimulus or external event. And the calmer you are, the easier it is to catch it, and that’s the pivotal part of what you have to do.
The perception of that pause or gap presents a choice -which is no longer reactive or habitual - it is present.
And in that moment of presence, the rest is down to you. You have full discretion over what happens next, giving you the opportunity to transform a conditioned reaction into a more considered response.
Calming the mind’s clutter to the point of clarity and temporary stillness is best achieved through one or all of the following four methods:
• Reflection -turning attention inwards to explore your mental and emotional dynamics; journaling is a great tool here.
• BilateralDialogue - reflecting with someone else, such as a confidante, colleague or coach.
• Mindfulness- maintaining a conducive state of awareness, a sense of “being” v “doing”.
• Meditation -training our attention to maintain deep focus – temporary cessation of excessive thoughts – from the usual river-like flow, to a gentle trickle –facilitating the outpouring of insights, ideas and solutions.
So by utilising some or all of these methods, we can positively disrupt the dynamics of stress and build better, more empowered responses both at home and in the workplace!