The Stress Myth

dilbert-on-having-too-many-projects

There is a myth in our culture that stress is a good thing. People think that they work better, or that they’re only able to work, when they’re stressed.

I think it’s helpful to separate pressure from stress. Pressure is when we feel we have to really focus on getting the job done to the best of our ability because it’s not easy and we’ve got limited time. Under such conditions, we can enter ‘flow’, become fully immersed in what we’re doing and do it really well.

Stress, on the other hand, is the body’s response when it’s ready to flee, fight or freeze in the face of a physical danger, historically something like a sabertooth tiger.

Your heart beats faster, your muscles contract, you sweat so that you’re harder to catch hold of and digestion stops because there’s no point processing your last meal if you’re about to be eaten yourself.

Very few of us, thankfully, have to face physical threats in our daily lives. However, we often react in the same way to a harmless threat, like missing a deadline, a presentation or an exam, as we would to a tiger. It may not be as intense as if we were eye to eye with something that might bite our heads off, but it’s quite common for people to feel low-level stress on a daily basis.

Stress is one of the most toxic things for your health. It can cause high blood pressure, which makes heart attacks more likely, back and neck pain, muscle tension and stiffness, stomach pain, digestive problems, increased risk of diabetes, reduced sex drive, impotence in men, mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, anger, sleeplessness, nervousness, inability to concentrate and decreased or increased eating.

And people say they like it?!

It’s also not good for productivity. The graph at the top of this blog shows that when pressure tips over into stress, performance plummets. This is because it becomes harder to concentrate, you make worse decisions because you’re panicking and you reduce your ability to relate to people.

From experience, I can tell you that what does work in being productive, is feeling positive, calm and focused: doing one thing at a time. You are more creative and productive when you’re focused on a result you want to achieve rather than an outcome you want to avoid, so work out what that is.

Get clear what it is you need to do, and then work out if you’ve got enough time to do it. If you don’t, see if you can do less or ask for more time. You’ll be surprised how willing people are to grant you it.

When you work, as I’ve suggested before, use the Pomodoro method and focus on a single task, take short breaks to stand up, stretch and move around.

Stress is bad for you, it’s bad for the people around you and it makes you les productive, so find a way of working that makes you feel good, for everyone’s benefit.


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How to deal with unpleasant emotions, mindfully.

polar-bear-hd

In this country, I think it’s safe to say that the go to method for dealing with unpleasant emotions: stress, anxiety, heart-break and so on, is to get drunk. We drink to let go, relax and forget. It doesn’t deal with the emotion, it just temporarily suppresses it.  It’s basically a way of avoiding feeling what you’re feeling.

The mindfulness approach, in contrast, is to ‘sit with’ you emotion, and allow it to express itself to its fullest extent. The idea is to focus your attention on the feeling and curiously investigate where you can feel it (e.g. stomach, chest, jaw) and what it feels like (e.g. heaviness, tightening, stabbing pain).
What happens if you don’t so this is that the emotion will probably become buried in your body as tension – a tight jaw, knots in you back, an impatience in your mood, and or it will come back again even bigger than before.

An emotion is your body trying to tell you something, and if you don’t listen, it usually shouts louder. This can result, as I have both experienced and witnessed in others, as rage or a panic attack that seems to come from nowhere, or all manner of manifestations that you’d probably rather avoid.

So one thing you practise in mindfulness is listening to the body more. This can be in the form of a body scan such as this one, in which you try to feel each part of your body in turn and notice what sensations are there.

Once you’re feeling a sensation, the practise is then to allow it to be there. Not to tense up, not to distract yourself away from it, not to carry on working and hope it will go away. Imagine the stress, anxiety or anger is knocking at your door, and instead of putting the bolt across you welcome them in as an old friend. This approach is beautifully described in the poem The Guest House by Jelaluddin Rumi.

And what to do with tension that seems to be stuck in you body? Well, we’d do well to learn from polar bears, who, after a stressful experience shake their bodies to dissipate the emotion, as you can see in this video. I finding stretching, singing and dancing are good ways to release tension. Also clenching and releasing the tense area can really help.

So although it goes against our cultural ‘wisdom’, next time you’re feeling an unpleasant feeling, try it for yourself. Stop what you’re doing, close your eyes, investigate what it feels like and see if you can allow that sensation to be there. Try not to analyse why you’re feeling like that and especially don’t start blaming yourself or others.

Try being a bit playful with it. Sometimes I sing to myself (to the tune of The Sound of Silence) “Hello tension my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again…” It usually brings a smile to my face!

My somewhat counter-intuitive conclusion is that the way to be happy, is to allow yourself to feel sad. It might feel scary, but it’s not as bad as what happens when you bottle it up.