How to stress-proof yourself
You might react to stress by becoming anxious, like the example I gave of Susan, who was suffering from toxic stress, or maybe you become confrontational and react like Colm, in the example I give below. Whatever your reaction, read on for effective techniques told through Susan and Colm's experience, which, if practised over three months, will lay down new pathways in the brain, and shift you towards healthier emotional and physical health.
Can you prevent toxic stress?
Dealing with the negative behaviours about sleep, exercise, diet, caffeine, alcohol and technology/social media all help to cope with stress, but the real secret is to increase your emotional resilience.
What does that mean? It relates to your individual capacity to manage periods of stress. For decades the view was that the ability to face adversity was individual and related to our specific genes or upbringing.
In my book Emotional Resilience I dispute this fixed view of resilience. After years of clinical practice, I believe emotional resilience involves key personal, social and life skills that can be taught, learnt, practiced and passed on to others.
These skills can transform lives, and reduce the chance of developing toxic stress. Contrary to what many people assume, you don't always need an 'expert' to help. All you need is information, an open mind, a notebook and a sense of humour about yourself and life.
How long does it take to change your brain?
It takes about three months to acquire any new skill - think of learning to drive. Changing unhealthy patterns of thinking or behaviour is no different. This is because the brain requires this time to reshape the pathways underlying these negative patterns and turn them into more positive automatic ones.
You will notice how often when learning these techniques, I advise using a notebook to write down regularly how you thought, felt or acted in response to specific triggering stressful events. Doing this over one to three months, depending on the skill in question, allows your rational brain to analyse what happened and learn for the future.
The tools you need
Remember the example I gave of Susan, who was dealing with toxic stress? I want to show how developing some of these vital skills could help Susan - and ourselves - become more emotionally resilient and better at managing stressful situations.
1 Accept yourself
The problem: Unconditional self-acceptance is the most important resilience skill of all. It involves learning how to be 'comfortable in your own skin'. Let's go back to Susan. She has always suffered from stress-related anxiety because she places impossible demands on herself in every part of her life and rates herself mercilessly if she can't satisfy these demands. She struggles with the 'healthy school lunchbox', the chaotic house, the work deadline and most of all not having time to network with friends. It's an intolerable pressure, and her self-rating regularly plummets. In modern parlance, Susan would be described as having issues with self-esteem.
Like Susan, we're all living in a world of self-rating, driven mainly by social media and unrealistic expectations of ourselves, others and life itself. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in our schools and colleges.
I think self-esteem is a myth. It suggests human beings can be rated, one against another. In practice, all of us are unique, special human beings and must learn to accept ourselves as we are.
If, for example, I fail at a task and just believe 'I am a failure' then I don't have to change my life. If, however, I stop rating myself as a failure, but accept that I can assess what I failed at, then I can make changes so that I am less likely to fail at the task the next time. 'The only failure in life is not getting back up again' lies at the heart of resilience.
This is a much more challenging concept as it forces us to explore our behaviour and if necessary change it, while accepting ourselves as the wonderful individuals we all are.
The solution: For Susan to develop this skill, she will need to jot down in a notebook whenever she falls into the trap of self or other rating. She must later challenge it on paper, and continue for roughly three months. Can she as a human be a failure, for example, or has she just failed at a task? This allows her rational mind to increasingly overrule her emotional mind which is trying to convince her that she is weak, worthless or a failure.
2 Let go of perfect
The problem: Being a perfectionist has almost destroyed Susan's life since her teens. She constantly searched for imperfections in herself. It led to her becoming persistently anxious as she not only demanded 100pc perfection in life but also rated herself mercilessly if she couldn't achieve it.
The solution: For Susan (and those of us like her) to break free of this destructive form of thinking and behaviour, she will need to, once again, write into her notebook occasions when she sought 100pc perfection and later challenge it on paper.
She will also have to practice some simple CBT exercises to help her get used to managing 'the imperfect' in her life. For example, her husband might be asked to cause chaos in the kitchen and she must live with the mess for 24 hours.
3 Stop thinking the worst
The problem: Catastrophising, or visualising the 'worst-case scenario', adds to distress. In Susan's case, a simple phone call from the creche, for example, might start a cascade of catastrophic thoughts, ending with her visualising her child in hospital with meningitis. This drains reserves of energy making her increasingly anxious.
The emotional mind is so much stronger than the logical mind. If the former turns negative, it can swamp the latter. To counteract this, we need to develop techniques to challenge it.
The solution: Again, Susan needs to identify her catastrophic thoughts every day, writing them down in her notebook and then later challenge them on paper. She will have to provide 'evidence' such thoughts are true. Very quickly her rational brain will confirm they are not. By carrying out such an exercise over several months she will in time capture such thoughts in her mind before they take root.
4 Dump the procrastination
Many of us procrastinate when stressed. In fact, procrastination was paralysing Susan's life. She couldn't bring herself to start a task or project, unless she believed it would be 100pc perfect when finished. The longer she delayed, the more stressed she became. She would then find herself rushing to complete the task at the last minute, while bitterly rating herself as a failure when she realised it wasn't as 'perfect' as she desired.
The solution: Susan needs to challenge her perfectionism and rating. She can then develop the skill of breaking tasks into smaller chunks with individual timelines ahead of the actual deadline.
5 Sit with your feelings
The problem: The source of physical symptoms of acute anxiety and panic attacks lie in the amygdala, which I call 'the Gunslinger'. The more Susan tries to stop her symptoms, the more danger the amygdala senses, turning up the dial, and the more it fires her stress system to release adrenaline into the bloodstream, which gives rise to all her symptoms. It's a vicious cycle.
The solution: Flooding is a simple technique to help deal with the physical symptoms of acute anxiety or panic attacks. The technique involves learning to go with the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety, like a wave washing over us, while never trying to stop them. If Susan can just sit with these physical symptoms - literally visualise herself stuck to the seat - and allow them to flood over her, without any other intervention, the Gunslinger will turn down the dial and eventually switch off.
6 Find balance
The problem: Work/life balance, or rather imbalance, lay at the heart of Susan's toxic stress. Her priorities had become skewed. Everyone else's needs mattered 'except her'.
The solution: Susan needs to develop the skill of creating a weekly healthy priority list and challenging it on paper over a three-month period. She might, for example, sit down with her partner once a week to detail whether she put work or children or family or herself or her wider family or the rest in the right order or priority.
The key, of course, is that her number one and two priorities should be herself and others. If not, she could plan how she will shift things for the following week.
If you deal with stress by becoming aggressive or confrontational, developing the following techniques (in addition to those on page 4) will help.
Take the example of Colm, whose stress levels have gradually risen to a toxic level over the past six months. He is a hard, uncompromising and perfectionist manager who runs his work division without a trace of empathy or understanding for those he manages. He carries this approach into his home life, which is creating significant issues for his family, and his wife is considering a separation. Colm becomes easily frustrated and loses his cool regularly.
As a driver Colm is a bully, and on occasion he comes close to road rage. He is constantly tense. His only release is a weekly game of squash where he has to win at all costs. He drinks heavily at night to relieve the tension, and spends most of his evenings and early mornings answering emails. He feels that being able to survive on less than six or seven hours' sleep is a badge of honour. It was only a question of time before his body gave way and he developed severe headaches and high blood pressure and a cardiac arrhythmia. Toxic stress has arrived.
7 Embrace discomfort
The problem: Discomfort, or more accurately how to avoid it, lies at the heart of someone like Colm's toxic stress. All his life he has believed everyone around him, in fact, life itself must change so that he is never made to suffer disturbance, discomfort or hassle. And so his response to any situation not turning out as he wants is to become confrontational, frustrated and nasty. This triggers his 'fight' stress response.
The solution: Someone like Colm is going to have to develop the skill over several months of challenging, on paper, the situations in which he is trying to force the world to become the way he feels it should be. Life is full of discomfort, so he must learn to deal with this reality. Every time he becomes frustrated or tries to avoid the discomfort of making changes in his life while insisting other people change theirs, he needs to explore this on paper.
He will learn to accept he is the one who needs to change, not other people.
8 Develop empathy
The problem: Empathy, or rather lack of it, is also a major issue for many of us. Empathy involves learning how to sense where others are at from an emotional point of view. It allows us to navigate the social landscape of life smoothly. While some of us find this skill easier to develop and use, all of us can work on our empathy skills.
The solution: For someone like Colm this means accepting that a lack of empathy is destructive for himself, his family and work. If he is prepared to become more mindfully 'aware' of how other people react to positive and negative interactions and practice in a guided manner some simple empathy exercises, the results can be life changing. For example, he might spend a month focusing on what happens in everyday situations, observing the non-verbal cues which he had hitherto failed to see. He would note how people respond to kindness in a positive open manner. He would also note how people 'shut down' when faced with a brusque remark or lack of interest.
Colm would follow up by listening to others as they talk, trying to tune in to where they are at emotionally. This involves him mirroring emotions, asking himself how he would feel if what the person described had happened to him.