We are experiencing an unprecedented challenge, change and uncertainty in the way people live and work.
A global pandemic and economic collapse are leading to an exponential increase in the amount of stress people are experiencing. Compounded by a sense of isolation that inhibits an ability to connect with and receive support from others. Mental health issues are skyrocketing, don't discriminate and the impact on individuals, organisations and communities is exponential.
We know that up to 90% of visits to GP's are directly related to stress, and it’s the root cause of all the top causes of death.
Beyond the individual, at a team and organisational level, it impacts absenteeism/presenteeism and turnover, decreases productivity, wastes resources (time and money) and compromises the company culture and working relationships.
However, we need to accept and embrace that stress is not going away and it's only likely to increase. However, it is not all bad news.
We need stress in our lives. To evolve, to grow and to achieve. 'Managing Stress' is a skill. One that very few have learnt, but anyone can be taught.
The ability to not only 'Survive' but 'Thrive' in times of high stress lies in empowering the individual with the skills they need to understand, manage and leverage stress effectively.
Giving people the awareness, understanding and ability to take control of stress in their lives by providing them with evidence-based information, frameworks and tools to allow them to enhance their health, well-being and performance at work and in life.
And to do so, we need to address 3 key things.
1. How you THINK about stress (Awareness)
Developing any skill requires a shift in awareness. Getting a clear understanding of what 'stress' really is, the types of 'stressors' we experience and how it works in our body. For example, distinguishing between a stressor (the stimulus) and stress (the response).
Identifying the various 'stressors' in your life (physical, mental/emotional, chemical and nutritional) and using tools to be able to assess your stress through objective (e.g. Heart Rate Variability) and Subjective (e.g. Survey) tools on an ongoing basis.
The key is to re-frame stress, not as an inherently bad thing, but also as a means for healing and growth depending on the type, dose and frequency. For example, it is the 'stress response' from exercise or learning that activates the nervous system, hormonal and immune system for healing and growth, however, if/when chronically activated, it will start to break down the body.
Finally, when thinking about stress, it’s essential to understand the role of the nervous system. You’ve probably heard of the sympathetic (Fight/Flight) and parasympathetic (rest/digest) modes of the nervous system. Put another way, think about them like 'Alert' and 'Calm'. To understand how to better manage these responses, think about it less like an ON/OFF switch and more like a 'Dimmer Switch' i.e. developing an ability to turn the dial up when we need to be alert, but keep the lights down low most of the time.
2. How you FEEL about stress (Understanding)
Once we know how to think about stress, we must understand where it is coming from i.e. what is really driving the experience of 'stress'. And at the root of the majority of the stress we experience are our emotions.
Framed another way, underneath any experience of stress, there is an emotion (even if the experience itself is not mental/emotional). This is because the majority of stress we experience in modern life is a 'perceived threat' conjured up by our limbic brain, and not a genuine threat to our survival.
So if you want to take control of stress, you need to take control of your emotions. And that doesn’t mean becoming a robot, immune to emotion. Quite the opposite. It means developing Emotional Agility, a phrase coined by Susan David (Harvard Neuroscientist) to describe an ability to identify, accept and move through our emotional states.
And in my experience working with and coaching hundreds of high performing professionals, the breakdown in the chain often occurs at the very beginning. In other words, an inability to accurately identify, accept and understand emotions.
People talk about Emotional Intelligence as the key, but you need to have Emotional Literacy first (if you can’t read or write, you won’t become a best selling author). So often, high performing professionals will talk about being busy, under the pump, flat out or swamped. Describing a generic state without being able to recognise the underlying emotion/s driving how they feel and the stress they are experiencing.
This leads to feeling out of control, confused, a victim to your state and unable to resolve the root cause.
When you become skilled at identifying and understanding your emotions, only then can you move through them effectively, let alone empathise with others, lead people and build strong and effective working relationships.
3. What you DO about Stress (Action)
If we know stress is neither good nor bad, emotions are often at the heart of it, and we can identify and understand our emotional states. The next question is, what do we do about it to move through it all and ‘shift our state’.
We have two options here:
Top-Down: Using psychology to change physiology i.e. using the brain to change the experience of stress in the body
Bottom-Up: Using physiology to change psychology i.e. using the body to change the experience in the mind
Here is where it gets interesting. Most people, especially professionals who are often logical and rational, will gravitate towards Top-Down approaches which could include things like journaling, meditation, coaching, counselling/therapy etc.
And whilst all of these are powerful and have a place in developing Skills of Stress, the real power lies in leveraging the Bottom-Up strategies.
Because although stress is created in the mind, it lives in the body. And in relation to thoughts versus emotions, thoughts are the language of the mind, emotions are the language of the body.
So if you want to be able to ‘manage stress’ and ‘manage emotions’ you need to be able to ‘manage the body’. There are various ways to do this, however, the most potent and accessible tool we all have is our breath.
The breath is the bridge between the mind and body, and the primary lever we have to pull that can change both physiology and psychology. It works immediately, allowing you to take control at the moment when you are on fire.
Something as simple as 1 minute of 'Resonance Breathing': breathing through the nose, inhaling for 5 seconds, exhaling for 5 seconds, focused on 3D expansion and contraction of the rib cage, aligns the heart, brain and body and has a positive impact on blood pressure, heart rate, heart rate variability, cortisol levels (stress hormone), pain, digestion and cognition. Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5575449/
Beyond this, you have an ability to learn how to up-regulate (become more alert), down-regulate (become calmer) and balance (think more clearly and focus) by developing an ability to manipulate your breathing.
Having studied in multiple modalities across psychology, nutrition, movement and health for years, and coached and trained many high performing professionals in this work, I can honestly say there is no more powerful tool for the busy professional.
And in a hypercompetitive market that is changing by the day, possessing Skills of Stress could be the most important skill you could ever have for work and life.
To explore how Luke can help support you and your business to create 'Health and High Performance', please contact firstname.lastname@example.org