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Stress: Are We Coping?

In support of Mental Health Awareness Week, which runs from 14th to 20th May 2018, I want to share my perspective on an issue that impacts most of us in business.  

This year, the focus of the campaign plays right into my hands: the theme is stress. Regular post readers among you will know that I’m passionate about this topic. That’s why it’s often at the centre of our training objectives here at Oakwood. 

The Mental Health Awareness Week website says it’s:  

focusing on helping employees and employers create a mentally healthy workplace where everyone feels valued and supported. 

So it dovetails perfectly with our own day-to-day endeavours. 

The campaign asks the question ‘Stress: are we coping?’ It will seek to highlight the impact stress has on us all, and the connection between stress and our health – both mental and physical. 

Science uncovers some important truths 

Aha! This is the perfect cue for me to take a deeper dive, and revisit what we know about stress and the science behind it. Pleasingly, scientific research is making notable progress in the analysis of stress. It’s now the subject of many authoritative clinical studies. 

As a result, we now know that some old assumptions are not entirely true: that the introduction of a ‘stressor’ – like an angry customer, grouchy boss or being sent to the naughty step – floods the system with a ‘chemical cocktail’ that overwhelms the ‘logical’ processes in the brain. Advances in neuroscience are shining a light on what actually goes on.  

According to new research it turns out the brain’s response is not to thrust its hands in the air and run around like a four-year-old throwing a tantrum having been denied another pack of Haribo! 

Science shows that the stress response is far more targeted and deliberate. So here’s what we do know.  

Want to make better decisions? Reduce Stress. 

The Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) is the newest part of our brain (evolutionary speaking), and sits roughly behind your forehead. It is rational, logical and deliberate, and is crucial to decision making. Stress actually disengages specific neurons in the PFC. Yes, really! Let’s hear from a scientist who, quite correctly, correlates stress with anxiety… 

 “The data indicates that anxiety has an exquisitely selective effect on neuronal activity that supports decision making… this study shows that anxiety disengages brain cells in a highly specialized manner.” Bita Moghaddam, Ph.D. 

Apparently, the more stressed you are the worse it gets! ‘Multiple stressors’ may add up to be even more potent. Things like a high physical threat coupled to time constraints. Or a burdensome workload exacerbated by low levels of control. You get the idea. Anyway, that sets the scene. (You can follow the thread of this story in more detail in my blog from last September.) 

Accepting that stress can prevent us from always making rational and logical decisions, my summary was this: if you want to make better decisions, or you want the people you manage to make better decisions, reduce stress. But is it that easy? 

No, of course it’s not, but there are things we can consider that may help to reduce stress, and probably things we can actively choose to do. 

Survive or Thrive? 

Exactly a year ago, I talked about​ pumpkins. Sounds odd in the context of stress, right? The pumpkins in my blog image were ostensibly the same. Orange. Same variety. Probably tasty (as a pumpkin can be) and outwardly healthy. Except that one pumpkin was evidently much larger than the other. It was a visual metaphor offered in the spirit of comparing the ability to survive with the capacity to thrive. Perhaps ludicrously, on reflection, I asked: “which pumpkin you would rather be?” 

My serious point, illustrated with a perfect pair of pristine pumpkins (love that alliteration), is that just because you’re not sick doesn’t mean you’re healthy. The World Health Organisation puts it rather succinctly:

 “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” 

That’s how it is with stress. It is so often outwardly invisible. Pumpkins can’t tell you they’re feeling stressed, but people can. Even if they don’t (or won’t), there are often tell-tale signs that can hint at a person’s disposition. Do you, or your colleagues, feel you’re simply going through the same old grind day-in and day-out? Constantly watching the clock? Keeping your head down? Just 15 years 3 months and 32 days until retirement? “Grin and bear it” because at least we’ve got jobs? Hmm! You’re probably in survival mode. And there’s precious little personal reward in that. 

As so many organisations go through seemingly endless rounds of restructure and change, too many of us have just accepted that a high level of stress and anxiety is a fair price to keep our heads above water. Then there’s ‘Agile Working’ that blurs the lines between work time, down time and home life.

Add Social Media in to the mix, “keeping up with the Jones’s” for a cyber age which changes the way we interact with friends, family and even colleagues by exposing us to intimate close up’s of everyone else’s supposedly perfect lives, and it’s no surprise that anxiety is the new norm. Thriving isn’t. 

Good mental health helps us to thrive 

The way we think, feel and act has a huge impact on our ability to enjoy life and roll with the punches when they inevitably come. An unnamed learned individual once observed: “Life happens while you are busy making other plans.” I view that as a clarion call, favoured in the world of self-help, to stop waiting for life to deal you a better hand. It implies that you should take control and deal it yourself.  

But that’s easy to say, and less easy to do. In my experience, many people aren’t making other plans at all; they’re too busy existing. Stressing. Surviving.  

I believe there is a better version of this old adage: “Life happens while you are waiting for…” …something! You can decide what. But whatever it is, it’s essentially waiting. 

If you’re one of the millions who feel that there must be more to life, waiting for something, chances are you’re surviving. I’m not sure a life of ‘continuing to exist’ is all that appealing. That said, no one claims that switching to a life of thriving is straightforward.

But finding a way to prosper and flourish has to be a commendable goal. And not living in “congruence” (one of my favourite words) with who you are and your own values leads to a lack of fulfilment, stress, anxiety and depression.  

For me, from observation, experience and a large helping of scientific study, being aware of the role stress plays in how we are able to exist is surely a key to helping ourselves and others to thrive. I hope that Mental Health Awareness Week will shine a bright light on it. 

So, in closing, from the cutting edge of scientific endeavour we turn to a more ancient wisdom:

 “Know thyself” and “To thine own self be true”.