What Every Good Stress Management Course Should Teach You, Part 2

Story so far

In Part 1 of What All Stress Management Courses should tell you, we looked at the paradox of stress: how it can be such a vital ingredient to a fulfilled life but at the same time a source of so much pain.

We explored the physical mechanics of stress and started to think about how tuning in to the symptoms of stress in our lives can signpost to towards positive change. Here, in part 2 of What All Stress Management Courses Should Teach You, we are going to turn the spotlight on why stress is differently felt by different people, some of the sources of stress that can get out of hand, what we can do makes things better, not worse, including tangible actions to take.

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Horses For Courses

We each of us have a different relationship with stress. When it comes to handling stress we are not all born equal, according to recent genetic research. The FKBP5 gene gets activated by cortisol (that stress hormone we talked about in Part 1) and some of us carry a particular variant of that gene that amps up the effects of cortisol, putting us at higher risk of experiencing mental illness following intense or long-lasting exposure to stress. Add to that the impact that challenging early life experiences can have on our capacity to deal with stress later on.

And there are sex differences too. Stress hormones and sex hormones interact with one another. For example, female brains have been observed to respond to stress by increasing the number of connections between the brain’s control centre, the prefrontal cortex, and its emotional centre, the amygdala. Not so in male brains, however, where its links between other areas of the brain are observed to become less functional.

These structural differences on the impact of stress on male and female brains could account for why too much stress tends to manifest in men as anti-social behaviour, for example, substance abuse, whereas in women it tends to lead to a higher incidence of depression.

All of this builds up quite a complicated picture of what stress is for each individual. And whatever our sex, early life experience or genetic pre-disposition happens to be, our ability to manage stress it is not a constant; how it affects us, how we cope with it can change over time.

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So what do we do then, when that overwhelmed, uptight feeling has been hanging around us for too long, and instead of the space and simplicity that we crave, we feel like we’re being snowed under by life and work’s complexity and relentless demands?

What then?

Standing in the way of control

Whatever action we take a good starting point is to recognise this one simple fact: some things are within our control and other things are not. This idea was bandied about by the Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome and it still rings very true. The serenity prayer used in AA meetings encapsulates this thinking perfectly:

“…Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

And when you think about it, in this huge, unpredictable and wildly complicated world, the amount that is in under our control is actually tiny. But it is there, and tiny though it may be, this arena of control is where we create our lives, so we may as well pay it some serious attention.

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What is within the tiny area of our control then? Well, for starters:

  • Our breathing
  • Our thinking
  • Our behavioural response
  • How well we take care of our health
  • How we communicate

So within this tiny area of control are are actually some pretty big levers and no matter how stressful a position we find ourselves in there will always be actions – often very small ones – that we could take that will a) improves things / make them more bearable or b) worsen them and make them more like hell.

The question becomes then when confronted by stress which path do we choose? And the invitation is to remember that there are ways of breathing, thinking, behaving, attending to our health and communicating that can either make things better or make things worse.

Within that, there is a nearly infinite variety of actions to take or not to take. In the spirit of doing what every good stress management course should do, i.e. give people tangible actions to try out, let’s close this two-part series with a surprising practical tool.

Hot drinks and how we think

Jean Paul Satre once said ‘Hell is other people.’ And whether it’s a colleague, a boss, a child or a partner, relationships can at times be a significant source of stress. Stress in a relationship can sometimes build up to such a degree that it can swamp us with negative emotion.

Silently holding the feelings of being overburdened or under-appreciated, or not sufficiently supported can heighten stress levels within a relationship.  These feelings proliferate often because we do not voice them for fear of sparking a conflict, creating a catch 22 where our fear of further stress inhibits our ability to tackle stress in the here and now. But to confront an issue need not be confrontational. To confront things is not an inevitable step towards conflict.

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Choosing the time, choosing the place.  Being guided by curiosity rather than judgement. Framing the issue as a ‘we’ problem rather than a ‘you versus me’ one, are all ways to confront stress with another without inflaming it.

Having conversations this way tends to give you both a better understanding one another’s perspective better and a clearer idea of what you can both then do to improve things: a ‘we’ problem gives rise to a ‘we’ solution.

People are also usually surprised to discover that the other person had no idea how they felt and that it is often a case of they didn’t know rather than they didn’t care. So have that conversation, and when you have it be sure to deploy the hidden powers of the humble hot drink. Research from the University of Colorado Boulder shows that holding a hot drink lessens our tendency to make negative judgements about another person because, by some quirk of biological fate, the insula part of our brain where judgements about others are formed is the same part where we process temperature.

Never was there a better reason to put the kettle on.

In Sum

Every Stress Management Course should leave us with a better understanding of what stress is and, importantly, our own unique relationship with stress.  Because stress is not experienced in the same way by everyone, different approaches to tackling stress will work differently for different people too.

Whoever we are, the universal key to unlocking our ability to manage stress is being clear about what is in our control and what is not, and then knowing the tangible actions we can take to act on that knowledge.

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Research gives us a wealth of examples of how we can make stressful situations better and not worse and we need to know what they are.

Knowledge is power, and a stress management course should leave a person feeling like next time they find stress levels ratcheting up at work and in life, that they know exactly what is happening, what to do, and which path to head down.

If you missed part 1 in this blog series, you can find it here.

If you want to hear more about the resilience training we offer, start by watching our one minute video here, it will give you a preview of what our Resilience training explores. Any questions? You can click here to contact us.