In my line of work, I have countless conversations with people about how well their lives are working, and one of the most frequent topics I encounter is stress. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have some at some point, myself included. The question is what we do about it. While there are lots of opinions and suggestions, I want to address this from a bit of a different angle, connecting a few dots along the way.
First of all, let me point out that it doesn’t matter if our stress is actual or simply perceived. It’s still stress, it feels very real, and it has far-reaching consequences. For example, studies reveal when we even perceive we are under stress, it heightens our sense of insecurity and uncertainty about the future, making us wonder whether it will be worse than the past. These perceptions, especially if they are ongoing and pervasive, can lead us to feel entrapped, a horrible state which affects health, our psyche and overall development. Going even further, ongoing exposure to perceived stress can carry job performance consequences like skewed decision making, lack of motivation and declined job engagement, cynicism, inefficiency, mental and physical exhaustion, lost hours, and higher rates of employee turnover. Ask any business owner about how those things affect their bottom dollar and they see money flying out the window.
It would be nice to believe that stress is something that predominantly happens away from work life, but reality speaks otherwise. According to UK Trades Union Congress studies, “People’s jobs are reportedly the single biggest cause of stress,” and include inducers like, “overwork, bullying, low job control and satisfaction, job insecurity, new ways of working, poor work organization and the pace of work” as very present and serious aspects of stress (TUC, 2014; TUC, 2008). Obviously, this has far-reaching implications for our organizations...and our individual progress.
Let me get a bit sciencey here for a moment; it helps set the argument. In a nutshell, a strained and stressed life, even if it’s simply perceived stress, affects individual brain-development. Neuroscience, the branch of study focusing on the composition, biochemistry and molecular make-up of our brain, especially as it relates to behavior and learning, reveals how we develop and think. Specifically, research and neuroimaging has discovered that when we engage in stress-based thinking, the parts of our brain that are used for critical reasoning are shut-off, which forces our behavioral response to exist at the base of the brainstem, rather than in the higher levels of the cortex where critical thought occurs. Stress additionally, because of its effects upon physical, emotional and mental health, has opportunity to deepen neural grooves created by the external stimuli and surrounding environment, and this perpetuates the thinking cycle. In other words, prolonged stress literally produces deep and lasting impressions on the brain and this affects our view and approach to the world.
So back to our question: how should we deal with stress? it isn’t going away. While we can try to cope by ignoring the physiological consequences or simply by trying harder to do better, evidence shows that stress is winning the battle. So where’s the hope for things to be different? To answer this, we need to jump back to science for a moment.
As our brain develops, neural pathways (what drives thinking and behavior) are formed through culturally reinforced patterns of perception. We are taught a standard way of understanding the world around us just by being in it. This affects our decision-making. There is a theory that addresses how people make decision; it’s called the Reflective-Reflexive Model. According to the theory, the reflexive cycle of thinking occurs when our brain is exposed to external stimuli (perceived or actual) and makes meaning of it based upon our existing culturally-engrained brain patterns. If the stimuli matches our engrained thinking routes, we act reflexively, or without really thinking about it. It is only when the external stimuli does not match up with existing embedded assumptions and engrained beliefs that we are forced to critically consider the stimuli in the second thought cycle, reflection, which occurs within the higher cortexes of the brain. This happens routinely when we travel to countries or cultures different than our own. For example, when I lived in Mexico, I had to learn a different perspective on time. Culturally, there was a quite a variance from my Midwestern upbringing, and my Latino friends in Northern Mexico were more relaxed about appointment times and meetings. In short, the people you were presently with commonly trumped your “timeliness” for anyone you were on your way to go meet. This was opposite my common practice. I was always excusing myself from one thing to head into the next. Where this challenged me personally, I learned to greater value those that were right in front of me and make sure I was giving adequate time to all that I encountered. I came away from Mexico with a greater respect for people.
Harvard-educated author, Nick Petrie, takes the idea of mental perception and stress a bit further. He states that the major factor determining one’s stress levels is less about external stimuli and more about one’s thinking about that stimuli. He goes further, to say what we generally do with our stress mentally falls into two main responses: we ruminate or we reflect. Rumination is defined as “the mental process of thinking over and over about something, which happens either in the past or could happen in the future, and attaching negative emotion to it” (emphasis mine); and he then goes on to say that “people who ruminate a lot have chronically elevated levels of hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, meaning they are constantly over activated and on edge” (Petrie, 2014, p. 3), which is physically defined as stress. Straight to the point, ruminating is detrimental to our health on multiple levels and bears long-term effect on our thinking patterns.
Here is something to consider on this though, at the opposite end of the spectrum from stress and anxiety, there is hope; and like stress, hope also has neurological implications affecting our mind and body, but in positive directions. Hope requires us to develop new ways of thinking about, and responding to, the inevitable stresses of life, since like stress, hope can establish neural pathways in the brain and become a pattern of perspective. Reflection (rather than rumination) is a critical factor in creating hope-filled brain patterns. Reflection is a state of mental presence involving observation, awareness and consideration, which are all highly desired traits of effective leadership and the best employees. We should practice reflection when stressed. But if reality shows that how we perceive and consider external pressure matters in our efforts to produce hope and the desired outcomes, the question becomes what do we need to DO to reflect and create the right perceptions. The answer may be opposite of what most people think – withdraw.
When stress is ongoing and relentless, we usually react in one of two main ways: run or engage. I am proposing a third that is a combination of the two: engaged withdrawal. As I stated earlier, studies reveal that work is one of the biggest inducers of individual stress, and that our common responses to that stress are often ineffective in dealing with the detrimental physical and organizational effects. According to research on the long-term effects of ongoing stress and striving, our cognitive abilities are directly affected by lack of rest, as levels of cortisol are increased in defense of dealing with the ongoing pressure beyond the short-term benefit. In other words, we live in a prolonged state of fight or flight, which is a cognitive state incapable of producing critical thought. For this reason, developing abilities to counter the aspect of striving are critical. Withdrawal offers just such an opportunity.
Withdrawal not only allows us occasion for the reflection we need, it positions us to gain emotional, mental, relational and physical perspective on external stimuli, which increases the likelihood of intelligent and contextual thinking. Inherently, withdrawal carries an element of solitude, at least in a practice of personal mental space when physical solitude is not possible. Within this separation, we are able to position ourselves for gaining perspective; and this type of activity is one of the most powerful practices for hope and resilience. A key component making it a useful tool for dealing with stress and complex environments is that withdrawal offers a break for emotional reprieve; and research shows how we handle our emotions bears directly upon our ability to react vs. purposefully respond to stimuli. Within the process, we can learn to view external pressure, not as stress-filled stimuli, but as a neutral occurrence holding opportunity for growth, learning and thus, development. In other words, while complex environments and pressure-filled external stimuli are unavoidable, stress is a choice, and withdrawal offers opportunity to engage in positive choice-making, and building perspectives of hope.
Again to practice withdrawal, we don’t necessarily need be alone, but it is best for reflection. And withdrawal doesn’t necessarily have to mean physical stillness either; one can be creative and active and still practice retreat. Some examples include: journaling; engagement in artistic mediums, such as painting or playing the piano; going for a walk, run or practicing yoga; gardening or cooking, to name a few. The importance is in engaging in purposeful variance (and hopefully solitude) apart from the pressure-filled stimuli. In this aspect, companies like Google and Quicken make great efforts to encourage playful withdrawal during work hours, with activities like ping pong and other fun surroundings.
FINALLY...PUTTING IT TO PRACTICE
There are four main steps to doing stress reflection and withdrawal. The first can be both physical and mental, but the last three are definitely a mental process that, with practice, builds healthy perspectives and positive physical outcomes. It gets easier and faster the more you engage it.
1. Change your location: This goes to the above point about withdrawing, getting to another space or engaging in a different activity that uses another part of your brain. This helps set up the next three steps.
2. Getting the facts: the second step, but really the first in reflection is to observe exactly what circumstances are causing your reaction...or rumination. What are the “whats,” “whens,” “hows,” and/or the “whos” inducing your stress? Try to get as specific as you can here to pinpoint your stress. It might come down to a “who” that does an action (“what”) in a certain way (“how”), only at certain moments (the “when”).
3. Control factors: After you gain answers to these questions, the next step is to only focus on what you can control about the situation (which is never a “who,” by the way). Little else is beneficial in your consideration, so don’t waste your time or your energy. During this stage, it is also important to remind yourself of the mission and goals of your organization or group, as this can provide context for meaning and direction.
4. Redirected focus: Lastly in the practice, you should only focus on what will actually make a difference, letting go of what will not. This final step obviously takes persistent
practice in order to gain efficiency, but the point is that it is easy to get irritated and overwhelmed by things we can neither control or actually matter. When we can’t let go, it
usually means there is a personal factor from our past that is driving our reaction. This is a perfect time to dig in deep and do some soul searching. You are, after all, the main
common denominator in your stressors.
Just remember, while difficulties and life struggles are a norm, stress is a choice; a matter of perspective that gives occasion for growth and forward personal movement, or one that negatively affects health and relationships. I encourage you to make the decision now to choose well when life gives you those opportunities.
Petrie, N. (2014). Wake up! The surprising truth about what drives stress and how leaders build resilience. White Paper. Colorado Springs, CO: Center for Creative Leadership.
Trades Union Congress (TUC) (2014). Stress is the UK’s top health and safety concern, say workplace reps. Trades Union Congress. London, Retrieved from: https://www.tuc.org.uk/…/stress-uk%E2%80%99s-top-health-and….