Imagine this scenario…you and I are out on a boat fishing in the harbour. Not too far out, maybe 250 metres or so. We’re not wearing life jackets but we’re having a great time laughing and joking when out of nowhere a freak wave appears and topples the boat. We both go flying into the water and, almost at the same time, we reach the surface. Now you’re a confident swimmer and you come up laughing and joking, “Where did that come from?” you ask between fits of laughter. Me, on the other hand, I’m not that confident in the water, in fact, I can’t swim at all so I’m scrambling to get any kind of grip on the side of the boat. I’m holding on for dear life and you say to me, “Don’t worry. Stay with the boat, I’ll swim in and get help.” So off you go giggling to yourself about the look of panic on my face. You’re thinking to yourself how funny this will be when we’re down at the pub later on. Meanwhile, I’m still holding onto the boat white-knuckled and I start to realise just how cold the water actual is. I’m trying to remember how long it takes for somebody to get hypothermia and my body starts to shiver uncontrollably. I notice that the tide is taking the boat further out to sea, perhaps just a little bit but I’m thinking that once a current gets hold of it I’m a gonner! Suddenly I see a shadow in the water, was it a shark? Sharks are common in the waters around New Zealand, what else could it be! I try and grab a hand-hold higher on the surface of the boat and kick my legs in desperation. My breathing becomes short and I can feel my heart pounding in my chest. My mind screams, “I don’t want to die!”
Often times I ask the participants in my workshops, “What causes stress?” I get all sorts of answers including traffic, the boss, deadlines, getting kids ready for school in the morning, noise, speaking in front of a group, and so on. But the answer isn’t any of those things… Let’s go back to the opening scenario. What’s the difference between you and me? We’re both having the same experience at exactly the same time in exactly the same circumstances. Why am I freaking out and under immense stress and you’re not? If you’re thinking that the answer is that you can swim and I can’t, you’d be right. But there’s something else too. My thoughts are filled with the worst-case scenario and they are running riot in my head. They’re getting worse by the moment until I’m thinking that I’m going to die. You, on the other hand, are having completely different thoughts. Therefore, when it comes down to it, stress isn’t caused by the environment or events, stress is caused by us. Stress is the relationship between the environment and you.
The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another. ~ William James
In the days when we were running around in animal skins the stress response had a very specific purpose…to keep us alive! Back in day if we came across a sabre-toothed tiger the sympathetic nervous system would kick in (fight or flight response) and our adrenal glands would flood our system with a whole heap of stress-related hormones such as norepinephrine, adrenaline, and cortisol. Whereas the first two are produced immediately and cause instant energy the effects of cortisol takes a little more time. The purpose of cortisol is to regulate blood pressure and maintain fluid balance during this period. In a normal stress-induced situation the body will naturally absorb these hormones through physical activity; for example, running away or fighting. The problem is that the body reacts in the same way when we ‘perceive’ we are under attack and don’t have the resources or skills (like swimming) to deal with the situation. If we were able to deal with the situation then we wouldn’t have an extreme stress response (it would more likely induce a positive stress response – eustress.) So when we feel under pressure (or put ourselves under pressure) the body goes through the same routine it does as if it was under physical attack. All those little things, if not rationalised away build to what’s termed an allostatic load (think boiling kettle with no vent for the steam) which can lead to irrational outbursts or unexplainable behaviour. That’s one side-effect of stress but why is it killing us. If we don’t manage our chronic stress levels and we are constantly under pressure the endocrine system is continuously drip feeding hormones into the body. Remember, if they are absorbed naturally after the stressor is removed these aren’t a problem however if we have no way of releasing stress then these hormones start to do damage. The constant presence of cortisol in our system suppresses the immune system and can lead to all sorts of ailments such as ulcers, colds, flus, skin complaints, head-aches and migraines, fatigue, back pain…the list goes on. Another side effect of cortisol in the bloodstream is it inhibits the body’s ability to break down harmful fats which end up being deposited along the walls of the coronary arteries. Over time, this build-up of ‘plaque’ narrows the arteries to the heart, blood flow to the heart is reduced, and the likely result is an eventual cardiac arrest.
Its not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it. ~ Hans Selye
So what’s the answer? Stress is something that needs to be actively managed. It’s not something that takes care of itself. Managing chronic stress requires a strategy to prevent the allostatic load from building, to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and return the body to homeostasis (a calm state which returns the immune system to normal function and allows the body to heal and function optimally). The obvious things you could do are regular aerobic exercise, yoga, meditation, a good diet (yes, even those things we put in our body can cause a stress response – fruits and vegetables are best), journaling, and talking to a friend about issues are all useful ways of maintaining and reducing stress levels. But what about those situations that cause acute stress?
First of all, if our stress levels are low in the first instance the fight or flight response won’t be as extreme but more importantly, if there are things that cause you acute stress in your life learn the skills to deal with the situation so it becomes a non-issue for you. Learn to swim! Once you’ve learned the skills go out and practice, practice, practice. Welcome those opportunities to hone your skills. Remember, if stress is the relationship between the environment and you, keep a positive mind-set, relax and just deal with the situation as best you can – the ‘perception’ of being in control makes all the difference.
If you’d like to know more about overcoming stress and still remain highly productive, or if you’d like to explore how coaching can help you lead your team more effectively, or even if you’re just generally curious about what professional coaching can offer you, please contact us at any time for a free consultation.