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Navigating Stress: Suppress or Mitigate?

Did you know that humans are the only species that consciously or unconsciously suppress their stress recovery? Well actually, according to Stanford University Professor Robert Sapolsky, other primates like baboons do it as well. It’s one of the things that intrigues participants in my sessions on developing stress hardiness and resilience strategies.

It seems the higher evolved our intelligence is, the worse we are at protecting ourselves from the ravages of stress on our physical and mental health. As we have evolved, we have moved away from how our primitive ancestors handled stressful situations. A quick recovery was essential. It meant life or death.

Now, the stress response we trigger is usually with our thoughts, fears and worries. It’s not the same as if we’re being chased by a black bear or in my case, thinking we might be chased by one – something that happened while I was visiting my sister in Wild West Virginia this summer. FYI, the bear didn’t appear near her house until after I was gone.

Since it was only a thought, I didn’t have to run for my life. What would have happened though, IF I had let this thought hijack me emotionally? The hormones, glucose and neurotransmitters my body would have produced wouldn’t have metabolized, or at least not as quickly, as if I was running for my life. I would have had extra stress on my heart, blood vessels and other organs for hours, maybe even days. Our imagination is a wonderful thing, until it isn’t…

And yet, there are strategies, beyond the toddler’s shame and blame game (thank you Dr. Gabor Maté), that we can learn and apply to support our stress recovery in modern times. Science has provided us with the knowledge of how our bodies function and how we can best adapt to distress. We can even learn stress mitigating behaviors from other species, that enable us to become more resilient.

One participant asked me why we’ve evolved so far away from how we are meant to respond. Again, I think the reason has to be due to our evolved intelligence. We are continually triggering a stress response for non-physical (hence mental and emotional) causes. We have imaginations that create (disaster) situations which are unlikely to occur. In the words of Mark Twain: “I’ve been through some terrible things in life, some of which actually happened.”

Now, some worry is good for us. It can help us prepare for or prevent a future event that might be harmful to us. “That can lead to some important choices. If you worry about a car accident, you’ll wear your seatbelt. If you worry about skin cancer, you’ll wear sunscreen. Worry prompts you to do something that might be inconvenient, but protective. It also makes you prepare: If you fret about a job interview, you’ll spend more time preparing for it. “ 

The most definitive research (*see note below) I can find is entitled ‘Worry’s Deceit’ by Pennsylvania State University researchers.

They found that about 91 percent of worries didn’t come to pass. Of the remaining 9 percent of worries that did come true, the outcome was better than expected about a third of the time. For 24% of participants, exactly zero of their worries materialized. What a colossal energy drainer, don’t you think?

We are doing this constantly in our daily lives, and it’s taking its toll on our health. We need to learn healthy strategies to deal quickly with stress and build resiliency to thrive. We need to learn when we can make stress our friend. It is, after all, a signal. How we interpret that signal is something we can choose. For that, we need to become emotionally agile, so we can make the right choices that will support us. Luckily, our brains are malleable. We can learn how, no matter our age.

 

 

* LaFreniere, Lucas & Newman, Michelle. (2020). Exposing Worry’s Deceit: Percentage of Untrue Worries in Generalized Anxiety Disorder Treatment. Behavior Therapy. 51. 413–423. 10.1016/j.beth.2019.07.003.

Should Resilience be our ‘North Star’ Skill in the Workplace?

I’ve been promoting building personal and team resilience for more than 12 years. Never have I seen a time when its needed more, than now.

In May 2023, the World Economic Forum published its ‘Future of Jobs Report’. What didn’t surprise me is that Resilience in the 2023 report went to number 3 as a top skill, from number 9 in 2020.

Analytical thinking is at the top of the list for both reported years. Creative thinking went from number 5 to second place.

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My potentially controversial thought for the future of work is since without resilience during stressful, challenging times, you can kiss Analytical and Creative Thinking good-bye – shouldn’t Personal and Team Resilience be desired skill #1?

Our analytical and creative thinking functions get hijacked, if our ability to be emotionally Agile and Flexible ‘in the moment’ isn’t highly developed. Staying calm is of paramount importance in the face of disruption and uncertainty.

A variable of resilience, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Dep’t, is Self-Awareness (#4). Building resilience means building self-awareness. It’s actually the first stepping stone to being able to ‘bounce forward’ and not just ‘bounce back’ from adversity. Bouncing forward means we’ve learned something from what we experienced.

Another of the variables of resilience, as mentioned above, is Emotional Self-Regulation or Agility. With this, we can make choices that are much more likely to serve us.

Curiosity and Life-long Learning skills are also dependent upon being resilient and developing stress ‘hardiness’. When our pre-frontal cortex is heading down the proverbial drain, we start to narrow our focus, which means we’re less likely to be open-minded and have the mental agility we need, when we need it.

When we are self-aware, emotionally and mentally agile, we can be more analytical, more creative, more curious, and more open to learning.

Am I biased in thinking that in addressing the shortage of resilience skills (most of us haven’t received this in our education or in our upbringing) might just be the antidote to many of the other skills we need?

I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts on this!

The Gift of Time

This isn’t what you think it will be about. It’s not about time management or getting things done in a more efficient manner, though both are important in the context of well-being.

The gift of time I’m referring to, is the one which exists between a trigger and your response. In the words of Viktor E. Frankl “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

It is our subconscious perception of a stimulus – that situation, person, or thing – which repeatedly triggers the same (sometimes explosive) reaction in ourselves. We experience something as irritating once, twice, maybe three times and the next time it happens, we react predictably – often called a knee-jerk reaction.

We may not be happy with our reaction. In fact, we may realize that our reaction isn’t supporting us at all but we continue to react in the same way. It’s not always easy to pinpoint the reason for our discomfort or stress. Our brain filters and stores so much information, most of which we aren’t conscious of. Researchers have indicated that only a fraction of the stimuli from our surroundings reaches our conscious level.

Underlying every not-so-feel-good emotion we experience (e.g. irritation, anger, frustration, fear), is a need we have, which isn’t being met. Something we value. A need such as respect, love, being seen, being heard. We have many needs, some more important than others. The more important the need, the faster and stronger we will be triggered.

Knowing what your needs are, can go a long way to choosing the right response. In order to understand which need isn’t being met, you need to give yourself the gift of time; ‘the gap’ between stimulus and response.
Self-awareness is key to achieving the gap. Knowing your stress signs and signals when you are being triggered, is of paramount importance. When you become aware of the first signs that something is generating a not-so-feel-good feeling in you, this is the moment to start breathing slowly and deeply. The act of breathing slow and deep has an immediate response on your autonomic nervous system, telling your brain that you are relaxing.

By knowing and being able to name the need that wasn’t being met, you are able to take some of the significance out of the situation. When you feel ready to respond, you’ll be ready to make a choice that is going to support you, rather than being hijacked by your emotional brain. When we allow ourselves to be triggered into a full-blown stress reaction, our pre-frontal cortex, that part of the brain responsible for creative, logical thinking, shuts down to one degree or another.

Become resilient and practice finding your gap. Breathe and thrive!