What Every Good Stress Management Course Should Teach You, Part 1

Swan legs and Fidget Spinners

Stress Management courses can be a mixed bag. I’ve heard horror stories of trainers handing out fidget spinners, telling delegates that when they are feeling overwhelmed they should just to think ‘Swan Legs’ (from what I can gather that means pretend outwardly that things are going smoothly and are under control, while under the surface you must paddle away like mad to try to meet all the demands placed on you) and even extolling the virtues of scented candles as an efficient means of overcoming stress. Maybe these measures work for some, but all too often people leave stress management courses none the wiser on how they can actually reduce the day to day stress that they are experiencing in their lives.

In my experience a good stress management course will deliver three things:

Fidget Spinners

  • Help you know your enemy i.e. understand what stress actually is, physiologically.
  • Enable you to quickly identify the causes of stress in your own life.
  • Give you simple, practical actions you can start taking immediately to bring your levels of stress down.

In this article, Part 1 of this 2-part series on What Every Good Stress Management Course Should Teach You (Find Part 2 here) , we’ll explore the nature of stress so we’re in a better position to tackle it. In the second instalment, we’ll look some of its common causes and more importantly, the practical ways we can manage them.

When Good Turns Bad

Paradoxically, stress is actually a good thing. And to understand why that is, all we need to think about is how lobsters grow. Bear with me, I promise this will start to make sense. Lobsters are actually soft, mushy animals contained within a rigid shell that does not expand. So how can a lobster grow? Well as they grow, their shell starts to feel very confining, the lobster feels squeezed by the shell. As it keeps growing, the pressure increases until the discomfort is unbearable.

So the lobster then goes and finds a rock to hide under to stay safe from predators, sheds its old shell and produces a new one. And eventually, as it continues to grow, that shell will become uncomfortable and so back under the rock the lobster goes to repeat the process. The stimulus for the lobster to be able to grow is that it feels uncomfortable.

The same applies to us: looking for a stress-free life is not healthy.  Without reaching beyond the zone of what’s comfortable in terms of how much we sometimes take on or taking on things we are not yet good at, we tend to stagnate and weaken and this can allow a sense meaninglessness to creep into our lives.

So times of stress are often times that are also signals for growth, and if we use adversity properly we can grow through adversity. (If you like this analogy, take a look at this video of Rabbi Twerski talking about lobster growth.)

lobsters

And yet stress has its shadow side, and that is the side we more commonly associate it with. The side that adversely affects our health, be it physically or mentally: raised blood pressure, heart disease, increased risk of diabetes, panic attacks, depression.  Although a stress-free life is not healthy, neither are any of these things. So what gives? Is it simply a case of can’t live with it, can’t live without it? Is stress just another one of life’s strange little tricks that can not be resolved? To answer these questions, we first have to take a look at what stress actually is, physiologically speaking.

Hats on Kidneys

If you were able to see your own kidneys you would notice that they are wearing hats. Why am I telling you this? Because these hats, or the adrenal glands to be exact, play the starring role in our everyday experiences of stress. But before we get further into the physical mechanics, let’s get our definition of stress straight.

A basic definition that suits psychologists and engineers alike is that stress is an immediate response to external pressure. That’s why it is often called the stress response because it is always responding to something outside ourselves.  So back to the hats. Say something happens in our external environment. Like our Satnav lies to us, making us late for an important meeting. Or we have several deadlines looming all at once and none of the tasks are anywhere near finished. Or a boss gives us some seriously unconstructive criticism about some work we’ve just done. Whatever form the external pressure takes, it starts a chain reaction going in our body – kicking in the fight or flight response we hear so much about.

Hat

First of all, our hypothalamus, a gland no bigger than an almond that lies buried deep within our brain, sparks up and sends out the bat signal to our adrenal glands. Most immediately, these glands (or hats) release adrenaline and noradrenaline. In an instant, this speeds up our heart, our breathing, releases a rush of energy in the form of glucose from our liver, and pumps immune cells from our spleen and bone-marrow into our blood. When you get startled or jump off a high diving board that very quick, physical jolt you feel shooting through your body is that first adrenal gland release. The noradrenaline has a similar effect, plus it makes us more mentally alert. The result of all this is that we are primed and ready to take rapid action. Fight or flight.

About half an hour or so after the original alarm was set off by the hypothalamus, the adrenal glands then release a third substance, a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol affects our cellular function and metabolism and it binds to our neurons, altering the way we think and perceive things at that moment. The cortisol gives us immediate energy, controls our blood pressure and like the adrenaline, primes our body to be ready to act in the face of danger.

These three chemicals combine to drastically alter our mental and physical state so we can deal with the stressor. So they have their purpose, but it’s when they start working overtime, we run into problems.

Always On

Stress stops being our friend when it becomes chronic. That is to say, our stress response is kicking in so often that we don’t have adequate time to come down from it and regain our physical and mental state of calm and equilibrium. As I mentioned before we need a certain amount of stress to be able to grow and feel engaged and fulfilled by our lives. And the old saying, attributed to miserablist philosopher and world’s best moustache record holder, Nietzsche:

“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger,”

certainly comes to mind. Like exercise, stress often doesn’t feel nice at the time, but it builds our stamina and strength, two things that none of us is going to get very far in life without. If that stress is ever present though, instead of strengthening us, it makes us weaker.

moustache record holder, Nietzsche

For a start, stress can compromise our health. It hikes our blood pressure, makes our blood sticky and heightens our risk of heart disease. Some studies suggest it increases the risk of cancer too.

In terms of mental illness, stress is one of the major causal factors of depression, a nasty and debilitating condition you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. And then there are panic attacks. If this is starting to sound scary, it needn’t be.

We don’t arrive at the extreme end of stress overnight, and there are so many great ways to prevent stress from building up to the point where it makes life unworkable and compromises our health. Every good stress management course should have people coming away with a toolbox of tactics to deal with things upstream before they become a big problem.

A useful way of understanding how good stress goes bad is by thinking of the way that a system operating at full capacity for too long might at first appear to be super productive, but if it’s never switched off it will soon overheat and break down. How productive is something that’s broken? Not very.

Find the Fire Exit

It’s a common experience for our stress levels to get so high or be so prolonged that they start to undermine our lives and make us feel like we’re drowning.

If you’ve felt recently that you would like the world to stop so you can just get off, then you are in good company: in the UK, 3 out of 4 people have been so overwhelmed by stress that they have felt unable to cope at least once in the past year.

But what can we do when we notice that:

  • nothing feels like fun anymore
  • we can’t switch off and relax
  • we feel low
  • we feel lonely
  • little things seem to annoy us so much more than usual
  • our appetite suffers
  • our sleep’s out of whack

Fire Exit Sign

What then?

Well, the good news is that when we start to notice these signs in our lives, they are actually doing us a favour. All these symptoms point us in the direction of necessary change.

They point us in a direction that will take us back to growth and to better health, if we are alert to them that is, and know how to respond.

In Sum

Stress is not only inevitable, but it is also a part of life that we need and rely on almost as much as food and air. Without it, we don’t feel fully alive. Nothing much of value is ever created in this world without some friction, without some push. Raising a family is hard, getting qualified is hard, if they weren’t they’d have no reward within them.

We only have to look at the lives of some ‘lucky’ people who have been inoculated from stress by being born into great wealth, to see how often the absence of stress and striving translates to an absence of meaning and an absence of joy. The more the stress-free hedonist tries to escape this meaninglessness through distractions and addictions, the more meaningless their life becomes. Sounds heavy I know, but it’s true.

Yet there is a dark side to stress that has to be understood if we are to be the master of it and not its slave. When stress dominates, we suffer. Our health takes a hit. We stop creating so much value and stop enjoying our lives.

Many stress management courses jump straight into offering us off the peg solutions to stress without helping us understand more deeply what and why it is.

To build that understanding we need to take a step back, and look at it in the round. Why does it affect some people more than others? Why does it snowball the way it does? And how can we prevent it from getting out of hand in the first place? The mark of a good stress management course is that we come away not only full of motivation and ideas about the changes we want to make, but also a desire to share what we have learned with others, building better friendships, communities, and workplaces.

Here in Part 1 of this 2-part blog series, we’ve looked at the physical chain reaction that causes a healthy stress response and answered the question of why, at times, something as good and necessary as stress can turn bad. And finally, we’ve looked at some symptoms of chronic stress in people’s lives and framed them less as problems, more as signposts toward change.

But what change?

Find out in Part 2 of What Every Good Stress Management Course Should Teach You.

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