Handling stress by the inch

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As April was ‘Stress Awareness Month,’ I thought it would be a good idea to do a blog and podcast on stress, what it means and how to cope with it in reality.

Because stress is a massive issue.

More than 75% of people suffer from unhealthy stress in one form or another. and that percentage rises even higher for self-employed people and people running their own businesses because:

  • Not only do you have the normal day to day stress that we’re all struggling with,
  • but also, the stress of running your own business… and the uncertainty and continual challenges that come with that.

So much is written about stress and how to deal with it, but if what was written actually worked then we wouldn’t have such a problem on our hands as we really do.

So, like success: there’s an ocean of good advice of ‘do this’ or ‘do that’ … but the real question is: ‘HOW do we do this or that in reality?’

How do you take action properly and continually to address it and to turn it, step by step, into high performance, rather than anxiety and problems?

Now, before we start, we need to understand the different levels of stress.

At low stress, you are very unproductive and not achieving very much.

Then the medium stress, you can be alert and achieving an optimum level. So, a little bit of stress, called Eustress can be hugely beneficial to anyone.

But if you go higher than that, you start to get into the realms of ‘distress’: and this is the stress we all hear so much about that’s beating us up and making us all ill!

The idea of this blog is to give us the tools and ideas to help us make sure that we continue at Eustress levels (because that’s where we’re most productive) without getting drawn upwards into distress and suffering all the negative consequences of that.

……………………………………

We’re going to start with what stress is.

Biologically, we are what is known as ‘hunter gatherers.’ Hunter gatherers thrive and survive by hunting and gathering, at the same time by avoiding being hunted and eaten themselves!

Now, we have large and complicated brains, and sometimes it takes us a while to consider things and work things out.

In the world of the hunter gatherer, that can be a problem because by the time we have thought about a problem, we may already have become lunch for another animal!

This is solved by a part of the brain called the ‘amygdala.’

This is the oldest part of the brain. In fact, every animal has an amygdala.

The amygdala has only one function. That function is to keep the animal physically alive in the present. Nothing else.

 So, it controls four areas:

  1. Keeping all your organs working
  2. Hunger and food
  3. Sex and procreation
  4. Fight or flight: Keeping you alive in dangerous situations – and this, of course, is the part that we are particularly interested in with stress.

Now, as a hunter gatherer, our fight or flight mechanism would be very useful.

It’s incredibly sensitive and can pick up small changes, small movements and small issues that we probably wouldn’t have picked up consciously.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself, noticed things, or felt changes in your circumstances that indicate there may be a threat nearby without you consciously knowing what it is. So, the first thing to remember is it’s extremely sensitive.

The next thing to remember is that it triggers automatically.

You don’t need to think about it (that would take too long, and you might have already become lunch by the time you’d made your mind up) … so it doesn’t think or consider and it happens at the speed of light.

When it triggers, it floods our body with chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol.

That produces an instantaneous response that enables us to react to the situation and either fight or flight.

We will fight if it’s something that will be beneficial to us to fight, ie, enable lunch – and that’s the excitement part of fight or flight, the excitement of the chase, the excitement of the hunt.

And then flight, which is when we are threatened by another animal or a situation whereby we are physically in danger. That will give us the strength and the oomph to climb a tree or run away in order to survive.

So fight or flight, both have the same inputs, they both have the same chemicals, and it’s interesting to note that fear and excitement are both the same thing. They are just two sides of the same coin.

An example of fight or flight working in the natural world would be a mouse out looking for food, and suddenly it senses the presence of a bird of prey.

The mouse’s amygdala triggers, it immediately goes into fight or flight response and scampers to its hole.

Now either it makes it, in which case the amygdala shuts down and the stress goes away, or it doesn’t make it and it becomes lunch for the bird, in which case the amygdala shuts down and the stress goes away.

The point being that the natural course of things is that the fight or flight response is short lived, high impact, very stressful for all the right reasons, and goes away very quickly. This works extremely well in a hunter gatherer situation.

The problem is, in today’s world although we are still biologically hunter gatherers, we are in a totally different world, and today’s stresses are continual and all around us.

The problem is that we can’t generally fight them. It isn’t going to be much help to take a hammer to our computer when we feel stressed, and we can’t run away from them in that they’re all around us constantly and we’re not going to get much done if we spend our life running away and hiding under the sofa.

The stresses are continually coming at us, and there is no way to fight or flight from them.

So it’s really hard to shut them down, and this, of course, is what we call in today’s world ‘stress’.

Stress has always been there, serving us well in short bursts as hunter/gatherers.

It’s just that we now live in a world where there’s a lot of different stresses coming at us continually, and it’s really hard to shut them down effectively using our inbuilt biology.

It’s important to note at this stage that the amygdala doesn’t make any judgments about the stress that’s coming our way. It doesn’t judge whether this stress is a life-threatening stress or an important stress or not. It doesn’t react differently depending on the situation and how life-threatening it is. It just makes one decision. Is this any sort of threat to me or not? Red or green? And it responds in the same way.

A mildly annoying email from a difficult work colleague could easily cause your amygdala to respond in exactly the same way as a physical threat to your life.

And it deals with both in exactly the same way.

So, we have these problems. They are continual and we have no really effective way of dealing with them.

Now, the most important thing about stress then is to remember these facts and by knowing this, to not get too worked up and excited about it, and then to use the ‘Slow Selling’ principle of going the extra inch to take effective action.

We can use this step by step principle to change how we respond to stress and find more effective ways to harness stress creatively and empower us to become more effective and energised in our lives, and to ensure that these stresses don’t carry us away and turn us into a gibbering wreck.

So how do we deal with this in reality on a daily basis without going to the fight or flight response? I’ve already mentioned, I think the key here is to adopt the ‘go the extra inch’ process, and let’s now look at all the four ‘BEAR’ principles of Slow Selling, and what inches we can employ to deal effectively with stress in today’s world.

Beliefs – what can we change inch by inch about our beliefs in order to help us become less stressed and deal with stress more effectively?

Emotions – what can we change about our emotional interpretation of things around us in order to become less stressed and to deal with stress more effectively?

Actions – what actions can we take to become less stressed and deal with our emotions more effectively?

Results – How can we make sure that we are continually looking at our stress levels and continually finding ways to reduce and improve how we deal with it?

Let’s look at each one of these in turn.

Firstly, beliefs.

The key here is to catch, challenge and change our thoughts little by little.

So we can choose our thoughts, we can choose our beliefs, and we can work out what’s truly important in our lives, all done inch by inch.

An example of choosing our thoughts is really well illustrated by the following short story:

A few years ago, I was feeling really stressed by the huge workload I had in running three businesses at once, and also trying to make sure that I was an effective father and husband.

I was chatting to my father-in-law about it, who I have a particular amount of admiration for because he’s such a wise man.

I said to him, ‘I’m finding it so difficult. I’ve got this huge list of things I need to get done, and I don’t know how I’m going to get them all done.’ His response to me was, ‘Yes, that’s fantastic, huge lists of things to do are really great, aren’t they, because those things are always ready for you when you are ready for them.’ 

So basically, all he did was just changed my belief from a huge list of things is a stressful problem, to a huge list of things is a great opportunity in order to excel and do things effectively.

And just by changing my belief, I felt immediately more relaxed, happier and more able to deal with whatever was coming my way.

A small change in thought calmed my amygdala, shut the stress response off and gave me energy and enthusiasm in its place.

The next thing is to change our beliefs.

A great example of this is often taught by the Dalai Lama where he says, ‘it’s a really good idea to reframe your situation.’

As an example of this he uses his own situation where he was forced into exile from his own country at the age of 16 and has become a refugee for the rest of his life.

He reframes this and says, ‘You could look at that situation and say how unfortunate, how sad, how miserable it is, or you could say, what a great opportunity that gives me to tell my story and to influence the world to become a better place because it gives me a platform to in order to do that.’

So reframing, a really great idea. A small change with big results.

The next small step in beliefs is to work out what’s truly important.

A good example of this was I was working with a client a few months ago, and they were feeling very stressed and worked up and it was beginning to affect their relationship.

This client was inheriting a large estate.

After a couple of hours of coaching and training we moved onto this idea of what’s the most important thing in your life?

It was a pivotal moment in the whole meeting because I said to them, ‘This large estate that you are inheriting is there to serve you. You are not there to serve it. This estate was built up by your forefathers to give you options and to give you pleasure. It was not built up by your forefathers to give you stress and problems. So it’s really important to change how you see it and remember, what is the first thing in your life, ie, the first thing is your family and your quality of life and your fulfilment. And the second thing is the physical estate and how you are going to manage and deal with that.’

That was a very important change in the whole situation: by pausing and focusing on want’s REALLY important:  and it definitely helped to reduce the stress in the situation.

So, the first thing is beliefs, how we change our beliefs.

Of course, the simplest way to put that is to change them little by little, to go the extra inch step by step each day and change our beliefs.

A small inch could be: at the end of each day, to review your day and to focus on what you are grateful for. It’s so easy to each day focus on what’s not gone well, what you feel stressed about, what’s a problem, but the key here is to focus on what to be grateful for and to really use that to help yourself, reframe, work out what’s important and change your beliefs.

The next section of the ‘bear’ principles is emotions.

The first emotion that I can suggest you might want to look at inch by inch is to embrace fear as an opportunity.

A good example of this would be when I am about to do a public speaking engagement in front of a large group of people. There’s a fear that kicks in straightaway of: ‘Am I going to mess this up?’

So, I’ve developed a habit of when this fear kicks in to go to a quiet place and to meditate on the fact that the audience wants to have a good time. They want to be engaged, they want to be helped, and therefore we are all on the same side. We are all trying to achieve the same thing. I meditate on how I can make sure that whatever happens, and whether I make a mistake or whatever I say, I can always focus on helping the audience, being there for the audience and trying to ensure that they always have a wonderful experience.

That’s a small change of emotions that massively helps and reduces the stress in the situation.

The second thing on emotions is to look for the humour in any situation.

So, for example, if you are having a disagreement with someone, to look for the humour in that.

Maybe someone says to you, ‘Oh, you’re not very helpful’.

You could say, ‘Ah, well, how helpful would you like me to be? My psychiatrist is always saying how helpful I am’.

Try to turn potential stresses into some banter, into a joke, and into something light-hearted rather than getting into a squabble.

It’s about looking for the humour in every situation then looking to build relationships through humour, and kindness and lightness, no matter how you feel inside.

Very important to learn inch by inch to manage your emotions inch by inch and treat others as you would like to be treated, no matter how you are feeling inside and how stressed or upset you might be feeling in this situation.

And, of course, like everything, the more you practise the easier it gets.

The third thing in emotions is to build relationships of care and kindness as your first priority in any situation.

Most people go into situations trying to get an output: trying to say, ‘Here’s what I want to achieve. These are my goals. These are the outputs I want from this.’

But in Slow Selling, we teach that if you go into any situation primarily focusing on: ‘How can I be kind? How can I be compassionate? How can I build a relationship? How can I really understand this other person?’, you will achieve three very important things.

Firstly, you’ll have a much more enjoyable interaction, secondly, you’ll get much better results, and thirdly you’ll massively reduce potential stress in the situation.

The main cause of suffering is the egoistic desire for one’s own comfort and happiness, and to get the results that we want from any situation.

And I suggest it’s very important to remember here that we came into the world relying on the care and kindness of others, and we will leave it relying on the care and kindness of others.

So, in the middle, it makes sense to act with kindness and care to others?

Now moving on to actions.

The first action I suggest that’s really important for stress management is to choose our language.

We teach this a lot in our effective communication training and time management training. It’s taking control of ourselves. It’s being proactive, and it’s accepting that we have a choice in any situation of how we respond to it.

The key thing is to remember to change little by little, step by step, in our language: perhaps to change the statements and accusations and arguments into open questions.

For example: rather than saying, ‘I don’t agree with you, I think you’re wrong.’ You might want to say instead, ‘That’s an interesting point of view. I hadn’t thought of it that way. What do you think about so and so?’

It is possibIe, to absolutely change it, and to move away from arguments but to move into questions, to do it really effectively, inch by inch in order to understand better and to influence and change and develop people’s – and your own – opinions so that you come to better outcomes, and in the meantime, by the way, build much better relationships and avoid a lot of stress.

We also teach to change your language away from ‘I can’t,’ and ‘I have to’ and ‘I must, ‘and ‘that makes me’ to much more empowering language.

So, for ‘I can’t,’ you might want to say ‘I don’t know how to at the moment.’

For ‘I have to,’ you might want to say, ‘I choose to because…’

And for ‘that makes me’ you might want to change that to ‘I feel that way’ or ‘I am going to do it this way because…’

By changing the language, you’re taking ownership of your own situation, and you are getting rid of the stress which is implied in the situation being out of your control or forced on you by someone else.

The next thing in actions that is a really good way to reduce stress is to make sure that you are good at planning, to do a weekly compass plan, and a daily action plan, prioritised and scheduled.

Now this of course sounds like a load of gobbledygook in a shortish blog like this, but it’s what we teach continually within Slow Selling. And we go into it in more depth in other blogs and articles.

So please do come back to us if you want more information on this. It’s a critically important point, and it’s vital to have and use the right tools for the reduction of stress and the improvement of effectiveness in your life.

As Churchill famously said: ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail’. So proper planning is an essential tool in the reduction of stress every day.

The last thing in actions is to make sure you build in accountability and consequences whenever you are dealing with any plan and any agreed action.

To make sure that you think upfront and agree and execute on accountability, ie how it is that you are going to measure progress, how are you going to make sure things get done, and when are you going to meet to review?

And consequences, which is, what is going to be the consequence, natural and social, of success, and what is going to be the consequence, natural and social, of failure?

Vital areas of communication skills here that we cover in detail in our communication skills course.

Lastly, the results.

The key stress reduction skill for results is to first of all gather them effectively and secondly, take inch by inch improvement action on them rigorously.

So, gathering them effectively is about getting feedback, it’s about holding yourself accountable as we’ve previously discussed, it’s about reviewing, it’s about setting targets, it’s about being honest, it’s about daily reflection and journaling, and lots and lots of tools like that.

Improvement is all about continually ‘sharpening the saw’, inch by inch, in four human dimensions: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.

  • Physical: improving your diet, exercise and sleep inch by inch.
  • Emotional: improving your relationships inch by inch.
  • Mental: improving your knowledge inch by inch.
  • Spiritual: improving your ‘purpose’ and zest for life inch by inch.

And again, we go into all of these a lot more detail in our personal effectiveness training.

So that was a real race through a whole load of information that helps reduce stress. We offer this as training and coaching in ‘Slow Selling’ call it ‘lighter not tighter’, which I think sums it up in a very simple way.

To sum up: the key really is to identify real inches here and there in all four of the ‘bear’ areas – beliefs, changing and developing by the inch, emotions, controlling and changing by the inch, actions, taking lots of small actions, and results – holding yourself accountable by the inch and improving by the inch.

And just making sure that you have a planning system and an accountability system that allows you on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually basis, to build those tiny steps into your programme, and hold yourself accountable to doing that.

And that idea of ‘tiny steps’ really is the absolute key answer to how to deal with stress, make any process empowering and use it to drive you forward… to gather the energy out of stress without letting it get on top of you and drive you mad.

I’d just like to end this blog with some quotes.

Firstly, a Chinese proverb, the crooked stick approach, which is: ‘It’s far better to strike a straight blow with a crooked stick than spend your whole life trying to straighten the darn thing out.’

The next one is from Nelson Mandela. ‘It’s not what happens to us that determines our success in life. It’s how we respond to what happens to us, and that makes all the difference.’

The next is Gandhi. ‘An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.’

And lastly, the great man Winston Churchill. ‘Success is not final, and failure is not fatal… It’s the courage to continue that counts.’

Thank you very much for reading to the end of this blog. I know it’s a long one and I hope it’s been hugely helpful to you.

The key of course lies in the quotes above – ‘It’s the courage to continue that counts’ with as Gandhi says, ‘An ounce of action’ step by step and inch by inch.

Go the extra inch.

Slow Selling is a UK based not for profit organisation for leaders and managers in independent businesses.

It is a set of principles to help you slow down, set up systems for long term success, and use these to grow sales and profits through reputation, attraction, recommendation and referral.

To find out more, please click here

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