Stress - It's *never* good

Stress can, most likely, shorten your life. Understanding it and dealing with it can therefore, most likely, help you live longer… so read on.

I recently had the great pleasure of attending a course at the General Medical Council, which was around Resilience (or at least that’s what the course notes told me). The course was based on neuroscience research from Dr Derek Roger, more details of which, along with other courses and the interesting psychometric tests can be found at: https://challengeofchange.co.uk/. The course was led by an assistant director at the GMC and she did a great job of dealing with what can sometimes be a complex and difficult subject.

Dr Derek Roger also has a book which covers many of the tools, exercises and research covered on the training course. Work without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success.

Resilience appears to be a fairly common theme in coaching. Or at least, it’s fairly common to hear people at the end of their tether. Struggling with workload, struggling with busyness at home and work and feeling as though they are close to some kind of edge. This sometimes comes across as a desire to “make a change” or simply a showing of emotions of some kind within the coaching session. Often when I work with clients on an initial “simple” (is it ever!) issue, we get to an underlying root which turns out to be linked to the levels of stress they are experiencing or how they are dealing with that stress. Understanding our relationship with stress, and much more importantly, what we can do about it, is therefore key to being able to move forward on many other levels. That’s why the ideas shared are pretty important.

Disclaimer: These thoughts are based on my notes from the course, and the materials. If you want to really understand them then get the book, take the psychometric and do the course. It’s great :-)… Now onward..

So the first concept that we covered was around stress itself and what it actually is and means. It’s interesting to think about the many definitions of stress, as well as how people view stress, which I think covers a pretty wide set of views. The Mental Health Foundation defines stress as:

The degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable .

And I quite like this. Let’s break it down. Firstly there is the concept that stress comes in degrees. Or to put it another way it’s likely that we are going to experience some stress in our lives. It’s unlikely (but not impossible) that we can banish it for good in all aspects of out life. It’s also interesting to think that we have some control over the degree that we “feel”. This get’s to one of the key concepts which is that it’s our response to things that happen in our lives that causes the stress. Note that the quote uses the phrase “feel overwhelmed”, rather than actually being overwhelmed. That also applies to being able to cope. Sometimes we feel unable to cope, and underestimate our actual ability to cope. Once again it’s those pesky feelings, rather than the objective reality of the situation itself.

It’s also interesting to think about the difference between pressure and stress. People may often use stress as a positive thing. For example, when working to a tight deadline people will often acknowledge stress as a good factor in motivating them to get the job done. People may also view pressure as a positive responsibility. “I’m under a lot of stress / pressure” really meaning that I’ve got a lot of important responsibility to deal with and actually that’s a good thing, or at least a thing. That leads us to the “unable to cope” part. Being unable to cope is not a good thing.

So let’s review and introduce a key concept. Stress is never good. Pressure can be a good thing. But how do you really tell the difference. It can be a bit tricky, so here’s a test from Dr Hendrie Weisinger who knows more about it than me.

Dr Weisinger recommends that any time you feel the “heat,” ask yourself,

“Am I feeling overwhelmed by the demands upon me, or do I feel I have to produce a specific result?”  If your answer is the former, a feeling of being overwhelmed, too many demands and not enough resources, you are stressed.  If you are in a situation or entering one in which you feel you have to deliver the goods, that’s pressure.

Let’s give an example. I recently had to deliver a set of PowerPoint slides for an upcoming presentation. I needed to them in a couple of weeks in advance, and they had to be specifically formatted and look really nice (it’s a bit conference talk). Getting things done in advance is not my normal mode of operation, and not really my usual way of constructing a talk. At some points I was feeling the “heat”. But, I needed to deliver the goods, and thus I was under “pressure”. This was actually a good thing. With the help of colleagues, cups of tea, planning and stern words to myself I was able to push on through and deliver the slides. Contrast this to feelings that I experience a couple of years ago when I was feeling overwhelmed by the volume of work and home tasks, the death of my father, the responsibility of paying the bills, ensuring my kids were on the straight and narrow and a whole bunch of other things. This did’t have a specific outcome, and it was clear (not at the time) that I was under stress.

Stress is bad - medically bad - life expectancy altering bad*

OK, we’ve had a look at the differences between pressure and stress. So now we can name the “useful” feeling that we describe when we are up against a deadline or delivering results, and we understand what stress is, then we can look at the concept that stress is bad. All of it. All the time. Anytime. It might alter your life expectancy. It probably will.

Cortisol

Cortisol

Our amazing body produces a chemical called Cortisol, which is released when we are experiencing stress and pressure. In some cases a small release can cause us to have those “ah-ha” moments or rapid responses to a danger (think being attacked by a bear!) However, in the normal short term cortisol process the levels return to normal (or zero if you’ve been eaten by the bear). If we have too much for too long, which is the case when we are stressed, then bad things can happen. I’m talking about life shortening things. Things like anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, memory and concentration problems. Are you ticking them off? Being honest, I can probably identify with all of them in relatively recent times. (for more on this see this article https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037)

According to anxiety UK, 1 in 10 people have a “disabling anxiety disorder” at some point in their lives. Disabling sounds bad. It is.

Depression affects at least 1 in 10 people as well, with an estimated 9.8 million lost working days caused by it. 6000 suicides in the UK each year. Or if you like 3 million people in the UK suffering from depression, which is more than the population of Wales. Sound a lot? It is, and it’s going up. According to the world health organisation, depression will be the second-leading cause of world disability by 2020 (and this is 2019 don’t forget)

* A word on the “it will shorten your life”. Well.. it might do. Predicting how long you’re going to be around is not an exact science (despite websites like https://www.death-clock.org/) but major predictors are your DNA. If you’ve got a family history of something nasty then this is probably going to be a bigger factor than your overall cortisol levels and stress, and you could always get knocked over by a bus tomorrow (this is happy, isn’t it). However we’ve agreed that being stressed is not good and so perhaps we can agreed that whatever your DNA reducing it is a smart idea.

Stress is a choice - it doesn’t have to always be like this

So before we finish on stress, let’s deliver an idea that will help when we look at how to actually reduce that stress response. That’s the idea that as we go through life things happen. Some of these things we might view as positive or negative, helpful or tricky, useful or unhelpful, stressful or empowering. However, they are just things that are happening. It’s the way that we view them that is key to how stressful we find them. To put it another way the production of our body chemicals will largely be determined by our response to whatever we are experiencing. That’s even true when we come face to face with a bear. If you think about it, some of those responses are automatic. So when someone jumps out at us on a ghost train, or pulls out on us from a junction, we respond automatically, producing cortisol and a useful reaction on how to deal with the immediate situation. However, there are other situations where the reaction is not automatic. If a colleague persistently behaves in critical way, if the bank balance is always overdrawn, if a friend doesn’t call for many days, if we can’t stop eating donuts etc. We can choose our response to these examples.

Viktor Frankl put it like this

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Of course, training ourselves to recognize the space, to do something useful, to choose the right response and to use this is a skill. A skill that needs to be practiced, and perhaps something that we are always learning more about. There are many resources, tools, techniques and experts to help. In a future post, I’ll try and outline some of these, and highlight some of the things that I’ve found useful.

But for now, hopefully we can agree on what stress is, that it’s to be avoided and that the way to avoid it is to recognize that we have a choice in our response. If we can understand this, and let it sink in, then we are well on our way to be able to deal with stress and significantly reduce its effects in our lives.