The nonsense of stress management
I am done with stress. It takes too many people down for too long and it doesn’t need to.
It causes too many people to be operating on empty and again it doesn’t need to.
The business world seems to have become obsessed with “stress management”. We manage things that we want to nurture and care for, why on earth would we manage stress?
It’s time we stopped expecting to feel calm all of the time, stop pretending we are on top of things all of the time and stop resisting against that which only grows through resistant - namely, stress.
The truth is that stress isn’t going anywhere - it is the partner of growth. We shouldn’t be wishing for a stress free life and we don’t need to remove things from our life to make sure we sit beneath our perceived capacity to cope.
Just like health requires certain practises like exercise, good nutrition and sleep, stress does too. In fact they are two sides of the same coin.
Stress has ingredients required for its creation and there are also ingredients for mentally thriving in its presence.
In its most simple form stress is perceived threat and perceived threat is the result of a lack of prediction and response.
Prediction = total brain picture of the current environments impact on safety
Response = pattern of action that allows for conscious interaction with the environment.
When we have these two things our brain feels safe and when our brain feels safe we are free to bring our full creative, rational, and communicative self to the tasks at hand.
Chronic stress is when we live with perceived threat constantly- at this stage we may just feel wired or constantly low, our edge has been dulled to the degree that the presence of a lion around the next corner would change our state very little.
We need to start seeing that little stress alarm as an invitation for action not an indication that it’s time to resist or flight or flight our way to the other side.
Here are my 8 steps to stop managing stress and start living as if it’s not going away.
1. The first step with stress is to acknowledge its presence.
Don’t wrap it up in a pretty little bow and deny its that it’s there.
If you have high blood pressure, poor skin, constant low mood, head aches, muscle aches, frequent illness, excess fat, physical pain, poor diet, poor sleep, drink too much, smoke, drinking lots of coffee, eat lots of sugar, have low energy, frequently don’t do what you said you would do, often lose your temper, constantly hide from the world, resisting new challenges... then stress is kicking your ass in some form.
Once you’ve admitted it is there you can start to do something about it. Ultimately all you have really admitted to at this stage is that your nervous system is being dominated by its sympathetic branch to the degree that you are not recovering and repairing properly any more.
The very act of acknowledging it’s presents however can have a huge impact on your nervous system and so in turn, your health.
Imagine sharing every room you went into with a viscous lion but you were the only one who could see it and you have decide to try and live life as if it’s not there.
*it’s worth noting that most people have their own lion but their coping mechanisms, poor health and poor emotional control haven’t reached their own uniquely defined point of unacceptability.
So you have admitted it and your brain and body have now switched to preparing to heal mode.
The lion hasn’t gone but you are no longer denying it’s existence.
You have declared:
“I’m quiet screwed here folks, bare with me a moment while I turn myself into a lion tamer.”
2. Tell the necessary people
You have been seriously strong for a really long time now. Your mammalian brain had you worrying about either lost of status or loss of human connection should you finally ask for help.
Your mammalian brain is just looking out for you but it’s fear is designed for a world we no longer inhabit. A world where fitting in was paramount and where words were not available to explain our situation to others.
When we keep our mouths closed and stay in our heads it is exactly this threatening prehistoric world that we inhabit.
Now is the time to start telling the people that need to be told. Yes for practical reasons like child care, work cover, maintenance of relationships of those things feel necessary but also because expression removes all of the stored up suppression.
All of the stored suppression requires huge amounts of energy that need to be directed towards repair and recovery not to “get better” but to optimally function at your highest level.
This stage is teaching you a life long lesson.
Suppression leads to depression - expression leads to optimal flow of energy. Learn to harness this and you’ll have more energy and better health for the rest of your much longer life.
3. Starting naming it
“Named your fear must be before banish it you can.” Yoda
So to remove another layer of sugar coating, stress is simply business speak for fear. I tell you this because the word stress has been so over used that it’s hard to apply it.
Fear though, represents every situation where your instinct is to fight, flight or freeze FFF appears.
However small or seemly insignificant it doesn’t matter - Perceived threat isn’t a reality thing for the most part and it isn’t about our coping capacity. It is our brain wiring FFF to something - ANYTHING. Words, environments, clothes, work, colleagues, situations, imagines situations based on our interpretation of past events, our perceived ability to live up to the the labels we live by and our stereotypes of them - anything.
However you choose to express them you must express them. Video, written, spoken a coach - hint me, said to a friend - just get them out and they will lose half of their power.
Look at them more closely once they are out and their power will fade further still. Play with each until you have clarity around it.
4. Get some direction
I’m in a group on Facebook called Expats in Copenhagen, it’s a great place to find answers to some of the little challenges people face when moving to Denmark that you wouldn’t perhaps have thought of before moving.
It’s also filled with a number of people who would be sectioned if they spoke to people in the way that they write to people online. It’s not a small number either.
A simple enquiry as to where someone might find a particular brand of cereal is almost always met with comments about poor health choices, sickness, imminent death and implied sole responsibility for global warming.
These people lack focus and so they find themselves caught up in the thick of thin things. They push passion and authority in any direction as they feel the world is on top of them and they have no way out. They lash out like a monkey trying to demonstrate that it is in fact not the bottom of the pecking order.
We all evolve to behave this way but few overtly display it in everyday life as they do in social media.
When we fail to decide what is important to us and what is not we lose direction. We end up caring about things we really couldn’t care less about but our desire for direction leaks out in moments of passion.
Direction drowns out the noise and directs the passion, so decide where you are going in every area of your life and that certainty will create a new clarity of direction as you stop caring about what other people say is important.
If direction is where your boat is headed then focus is where you place your attention to get it there.
It’s also worth noting here that a boat is never on course at any point in the journey. There is never a straight line along which a boat will travel.
The boat must simply respond to external forces, make adjustments and follow the data.
The weather, the systems, the challenges, are all drama. What’s important is having actions to focus on and an outcome against which to measure the effectiveness of the selected focus.
If being a good parent is your direction and you have clearly defined what that means then focus is placed on actions you believe will allow you to follow your chosen direction. Your data will tell you if that is true but without focus you are a boat without a rudder hoping that your dreams will take you towards your destination- this is innately stressful I’m sure you can see.
Strategy is how we protect our goals. Direction can change. Focus’s can prove to be unfruitful. We can get tired, distracted, run down and at any given moment we can FEEL like we have lost our clarity of direction and focus. We can feel like we are going nowhere. The past and the future are mere figments of our imagination and our imagination is easily hijacked by emotions.
Strategy is our insurance against all of this, it is our document warning us that this very thing would happen and what to do about it. It is our brain outside of our brain that is not subjected to feelings.
It is how we plan to achieve our goals and the system and approach we plan to take to insure that we continue to return to the drawing board in the face of failed attempts. No strategy means no hope.
7. What would this look like if it was more fun?
The brain needs 3 things to thrive:
Sensory stimulation is what makes life rich and turns actions into habits. If you want to wire a way of eating into your brain then your best bet is to make it into a visual and taste sensation.
The same is true for all of life, if you were to write a life of magic and wonder what would be in it?
What hobbies, learnings, pictures, books, foods, holiday, adventures, friends, music, experiences, moments and feelings, how does your home look, your garden, your clothes and your office, your car?
When it comes to building habits the route to rapid transformation is to transform your environment into one that constantly stimulates your senses.
8. Remove stress from the body
Each time the sympathetic branch of the nervous system is dominant the body is catapulted into a state that will allow for peak physical performance. I huge amount happens here but to look at just a few things:
The muscular system fires up all posturally available major muscles leading to muscle imbalance, postural issues, pain and fatigue as well as stress being easier to create in future.
Breathing rhythm is disrupted often resulting in poor breathing patterns making future stress easier to create, head aches, low back pain, poor immune function and poor sleep, to name a few.
Digestive issues leading to IBS, bloating, gas, cravings, allergies, energy slumps, poor immune function and poor gut health.
Sensory hyper alertness leading to poor balance, head aches, dizziness, poor waste removal, low energy, poor immune function.
In short a body frequently dominated by the sympathetic nervous system finds itself caught in a no mans land of never being fully on and never being fully off. It no longer performs at its peak and no longer effectively recovers. It is stuck in a land of no recovery.
The right exercise, sensory stimulation, lymph manipulation, breathing and nutrition is vital here to allow the body and mind to function optimally.
Pay attention to each of these things and you will not longer need to pay any attention to stress management.
Thank you for reading this far.