Build resilience and renewal to address your stress

Demand for stress management courses has spiked but are we dealing with it correctly?

‘You don’t need that much stress to show all the aspects of cognitive, emotional and perceptual impairment that go with it.’ Illustration: iStock

‘You don’t need that much stress to show all the aspects of cognitive, emotional and perceptual impairment that go with it.’ Illustration: iStock

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Thousands of studies have been done and thousands of books written on the causes and consequences of stress. Far less attention has been paid to what might help mitigate its impact on our mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. One of the main reasons for this is that it’s much easier to identify common stress triggers than it is to nail down a universal coping strategy.

Over the past 15 months, employers and employees alike have recognised the value of “bouncebackability”, especially at times of pressure, and demand for courses on stress management have spiked. But is it possible we’re trying to deal with the problem in the wrong way?

“Yes,” says Prof Richard Boyatzis, an internationally recognised expert in emotional intelligence and behavioural change and professor of organisational behaviour, psychology and cognitive science at Case Western Reserve – one of the leading private research universities in the US.

“Efforts to reduce stress are misdirected,” he says. “Instead we should focus on increasing resilience and renewal.

“From decades of research we know that stress is one of the very nasty things in life that accentuates almost every autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorder. The problem is that most people don’t fully appreciate how much the annoying aspects of stress – such as your mobile phone dropping a call or your computer not booting up every day – contributes to what is medically classified as an overall ‘strain’.

“When you add moments of acute stress, like a pandemic or social disruption because of isolation or people losing their jobs, you have the recipe for people becoming compromised,” he adds.

“You don’t need that much stress to show all the aspects of cognitive, emotional and perceptual impairment that go with it, and anyone who thinks they are ‘really on’ when they’re stressed is fooling themselves.”

By way of illustration, Boyatzis gives the example of a study into vision. A normal visual field is about 180 degrees, but when researchers administered adrenaline to a study group to induce stress, their peripheral vision narrowed dramatically. Subsequent research with athletes showed that the impact of stress on peripheral vision was even more significant in real life than in the laboratory.

‘The only antidote’

Boyatzis says that trying to control and reduce stress is putting the focus on the wrong thing. Stress is a fact of life that the right to disconnect or time off might help ameliorate but it doesn’t go to the heart of the long-term solution, which is learning how to activate the power of the body’s own built-in recovery process, otherwise known as the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

“In reality this is the only antidote to a stress episode,” Boyatzis says. “Each form of stress activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system, and the accumulation of stress arousals becomes strain. For most people, it’s the cumulative effect of chronic or mild stress that causes the most damage.

“Activating the PNS reverses most of the damage and is a means to the body, mind and spirit rebuilding and renewing. Being able to engage the PNS has been called resilience and, in a broad sense, resilience is what helps us rebound from stress and strain.

“Currently, there is an ongoing debate about resilience being a state or an individual disposition or both. But whichever we assume it to be, with repeated practice it can become a habit.”

Getting a fix on what activates the PNS is complex, as it differs between individuals, but Boyatzis says a sufficient number of things have now been consistently identified as helpful to be considered generic.

These include meditation; yoga; prayer to a loving deity (praying to vengeful one induces stress); feeling hopeful about the future; being in a loving relationship; helping others less fortunate; having a pet; having fun; laughing; engaging with nature; and modest exercise that does not involve going for the burn, as this increases the release of derivatives of the stress hormone cortisol to cope with the strain.

Repeated behaviour

What someone does or has from this list doesn’t matter. It’s the doing that counts and more pertinently the repeated doing. The number of times someone activates a renewal behaviour is key, as it’s important that the total number of renewal minutes or hours per week is greater than the amount of time spent in stress. It’s also better to have more short moments than a few long ones.

Boyatzis has written extensively about leadership, effective performance, competency and emotional intelligence, and more than a million students from 215 countries have taken his online course on inspiring leadership through emotional intelligence. He is a close collaborator of Daniel Goleman (he of “why emotional intelligence can matter more than IQ” fame) and, to help people identify and combat stress, they have developed the personal sustainability index, which Goleman says “can help you reflect on the sources of stress in your life, as well as the buffers that can speed your recovery – and that crucial ratio between the two”.

Most stress audits focus on big life events such as buying a house or getting divorced. The personal sustainability index looks at the ordinary things that ramp up our stress levels along with accompanying interpretative material. The test will be available online from Key Step Media shortly.

“The idea is to help people reflect, not assess them or depress them because the heart of stress management is renewal, not merely the attempt to reduce stress,” says Boyatzis.

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