Stress is probably one of the chief causes of ill-health. Almost any illness is likely to be made worse by stress, even if it isn’t a direct result of it. So along with healthy eating and regular exercise, stress reduction and stress management have to be one of the most effective ways to reduce the likelihood of getting ill. And besides if you find your life stressful don’t you want to do something about it?
What is stress exactly?
To some extent stress is in the eye of the beholder. The same circumstances may be an invigorating challenge to one person while causing another person to buckle. This of course is partly down to what is going on in the rest of our lives. A challenge at work is easier to cope with if things are going well at home, but when there are many other problems in a person’s life that challenge may be just too much.
Hans Selye who was the father of modern stress science talked about negative and positive stress – positive stress he called eustress and he maintained that we all need a certain level of stress – or challenge. It is when the stress exceeds a certain level that we cannot cope.
I like to use the analogy of a bucket with a small hole in the bottom. If I fill the bucket at a rate which matches the flow of the water out of the hole then the bucket will never fill up. If however I pour water in at a rate that exceeds the rate of flow out of that hole, the bucket will gradually fill up and eventually overflow.
I remember saying to my plumber when I had had no kitchen for six weeks that my stress bucket was about to overflow. If I had had small children, my bucket would have overflowed much sooner!
So why does stress affect our health?
This is an important question because it explains why stress affects us the way that it does. We are designed to cope with short-term stress, such as running away from predators. In the face of a big cat, our fight or flight response kicks in, preparing the body for speed, agility and the ability to spot escape routes, obstacles and so forth. The heart beats faster, our respiratory rate increases, we sweat more, and more oxygen and nutrients are diverted to the brain so that we can think clearly and quickly. This is all orchestrated by the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands (which produce adrenaline and cortisol). They in turn are under the control of a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus.
Normally we would either escape or be eaten. If we escape and return to the “home cave”, we can rest and recuperate. At this point the activity of the sympathetic nervous system reduces and the parasympathetic nervous system becomes more active. The parasympathetic system encourages “housekeeping” functions such as digestion and tissue repair, and it slows the heart and breathing rate.
The problem with modern life is that for some of us there is no escape or return to the home cave. Stress is a daily occurrence resulting in chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system, and this in turn can lead to all sorts of health issues. Some illnesses (such as M.E.) appear to be caused by stress, at least in some cases. Most illnesses are going to get worse if there is stress involved.
What can I do to manage my stress?
The important thing to remember is that there is something else between that stressful situation and your hypothalamus (remember this is the part of the brain which controls your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and your adrenal glands). This something else is the rest of your brain. I like to think of the brain as being like a committee – everyone is represented there, so we have:
- the planner
- the decision maker
- the pessimist
- the CEO
- the creative type
And sometimes one of those committee members will have the upper hand, and at other times someone else will.
The pessimist is represented by your amygdala which is close to the hypothalamus and forms part of the limbic system, which is responsible for emotions. When your amygdala gets the upper hand, it’s all doom and gloom.
However your planner and decision maker (your frontal cortex) have a voice too and this can be a very loud voice if you want it to. This is the bit of you which can say “hang on a second, let’s stay cool and see if we can find a solution – no need to get so wound up about things.” On other hand, this is the bit of your brain which can go round in circles a bit like a dog chasing its tail. It will keep exploring all the what-ifs, and this can lead to anxiety and an inability to make decisions.
The point about this is that once we recognise that our emotions arise from our thinking about circumstances rather than the circumstances themselves, then things start to change. The notion that our emotions are a direct result of the circumstances is known as outside-in thinking. In fact the truth lies in inside-out thinking. Letting go of outside-in thinking leads to clarity.
Outside-in Thinking and Perceptual Models
Crises and day-to-day stress are so much easier to deal with when we have a clear head. Once you have clarity, you can see what needs to be done and then you can take action to either change the situation or to protect yourself. Or in fact once you have reflected on the situation from a position of clarity you may realise that things are not so bad as they seemed.
Our strength as humans is our ability to create internal models which allow us to perceive our surroundings in a very efficient way. Unfortunately sometimes our model is not as accurate as we thought and instead of adjusting it to accommodate new information, we ignore the information. This is particularly true when we get emotional about things. The more emotional we are the more tenaciously we hang on to our inaccurate models.
But sometimes it only takes a few words or a well-formed question to see our outside-in thinking for what it is, and this is my role as a coach – to help you uncover outside-in thinking and achieve clarity.
If you are interested in coaching for stress management, or if you simply want to move your life forward, I am happy to talk on the phone with you so that we can find out whether we could work together. Call me on 01234 409538 and leave a message with your phone number and I will return your call. Or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to hear from you!