Can We Really Make Stress Our Friend?

In her inspiring Ted Talk health psychologist Kelly McGonigal urges us to see stress as our friend. By viewing the physical changes that we experience when we are stressed (increased heart rate, breathing faster, sweating etc) as signs that our body is energised and prepared for the challenge ahead we can ameliorate the damage that stress does to our bodies.

This is backed up by research; Jamieson et al (2013) conclude that cognitive reappraisal (reshaping how you think) leads to more positive experiences of stress and benefits to us physically.

I am all for cognitive reappraisal. As I stood watching train after train being removed from the departures board at Waterloo train station last week, I reframed my experience as a perfect opportunity for a slice of cake, a cup of tea and bit of people watching. I understand that cognitive flexibility is an important tool in stress management, but I do think that we have to be a little bit careful not to be too simplistic in our definition of stress.

The argument above is defining stress purely as the physiological changes brought about by the ‘flight or fight’ response. This includes (amongst other things) a rush of adrenaline resulting in increased blood flow and heart rate, dilated pupils, increase in blood glucose and a narrowing of our mental focus. This state tends to be very short lived, with our body returning to its normal equilibrium as the threat (real or perceived) disappears.

The problem with this is that it is not the only definition of stress.

When we describe ourselves as feeling ‘stressed’ we are not only talking about the physical response to feeling threatened. We often use the term to describe our experience of negative emotions such as feeling undervalued, overwhelmed, disillusioned, loss of control, frustrated, or low self-esteem. All emotions that can leave us feeling burnt out and stressed but don’t necessarily result in us feeling energised and prepared for a challenge (how ever much we try and reframe our experience).

But it is true that these negative emotions do tell us something (we need to make changes in our life) and that in itself is an important reappraisal – recognising the emotion and doing something about it. We achieve this through greater self-awareness.

It is important that we all recognise our own early warning signs of stress. How does stress make us feel, think and behave? One sign for me is that I begin waking up in the early hours of the morning, or I become quite withdrawn. By recognising these as my early warning signs of stress I can begin to think through what is causing those feelings and plan ways of increasing my capacity to cope.

Self-awareness also gives you insight into experiences that you find stressful – for example your Monday morning team meetings, or delivering presentations. When you are aware that these are triggers for you, you can plan for them and approach them with more certainty.

So yes, stress can be our friend in that it tells us something and acts as a prompt that we need to be making changes, but it is not something that can always be viewed as an energising response that is preparing us for the challenges ahead. Often it is a subtler and longer-lived feeling that if recognised can serve as a pointer for where changes are needed.

Is Great Happiness Always Better Than Moderate Happiness?

In a previous blog I wrote that happiness is good for us. Happier people are more creative, healthy, productive, wealthy and successful, they live longer and they develop a greater number of significant, lasting relationships. But is it true that the happier you are the better it is for you? Should we all be striving for maximum levels of happiness?

A longitudinal study by Diener et al (2002) analysed the happiness levels of students entering college in 1976 and found that the most cheerful students in 1976 were making substantially more money in 1995 than those who were less cheerful ($65,023 compared with $49,770). Interestingly, the highest earners had rated themselves as having above average levels of happiness rather than the very highest levels of happiness. People who had above average levels of happiness were earning more than people who had the highest level of happiness. So, when it comes to income the optimal level of happiness isn’t the highest possible level of happiness, but rather the above average level.

The same is true with educational attainment. Moderately happy people are more likely to stay in education and achieve higher academic qualifications than very happy people. So for income and educational levels moderate happiness is better than the highest level of happiness.

This isn’t true for length of intimate relationship though. The happier you are the more likely you are to stay in a long-term relationship. But why are there different optimal levels of happiness?

One explanation is that the happiest people may become complacent which prevents them from seeing their weaknesses and working on them. People who are very happy are more likely to be content with who they are and won’t see the need to strive to make changes. People who are less happy may be more self-critical and therefore more motivated to change. They may be more motivated to work harder or to stay in education. Self-criticism brings with it self-improvement often leading to higher performance. Self-criticism isn’t as important in our intimate relationships. The positive illusion (seeing the world through rose tinted glasses) that comes with the very highest level of happiness serves well in romantic relationships, leading to us glossing over our partner’s flaws and focusing on romantic idealisation resulting in relationship stability. The ability of the very happiest people to see the best in the world around them helps them to maintain stable relationships.

One of the downsides of chronic happiness (reporting the very highest level of happiness) is that we can become more sensitive to negative events. Research has shown that chronically happy people need 2 compliments to overcome 1 criticism; where-as moderately happy people are able to recover from 1 criticism after 1 complement.

There is also evidence that people who are in sad moods are more detail-focused and critical in their thinking, which is important in certain roles and certain situations and in problem solving.

While most of us want to strive to achieve the greatest level of happiness we need to remember that great happiness doesn’t always make us successful in life. Most of us would be better off remaining moderately happy.

Reference: Diener, E., Nickerson, C., Lucas, R.E., & Sandvik, E., (2002). Dispositional affect of job outcome. Social Indicators Research. 59, 229 – 259

For more information: Oishi, S., Kurtz, J.L., (2011). The positive Psychology of Positive Emotions: An Avuncular View in Sheldon, K., Kashdan, T.B., & Steger, M.F., (Eds.). Designing the Future of Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward. New York: Oxford University Press.

Reassessing Your Life And Identifying Goals

The end of one year and the start of another is a perfect time to assess where you are and where you want to be.

Having a personal goal is linked to long-term levels of happiness and life satisfaction. We might not see them as goals, we might see them as hopes and dreams, but it is having this direction in life that it is important.

Begin your assessment by making a list of all the areas of your life that are important to you. Your list will be unique to you but you might want to include work, love, friendship, health, money, helping others, personal development and enjoying yourself.

Now rate each area on a scale of 0 – 10 with 0 representing “abysmal” and 10 representing “wonderful”. Base your rating on how satisfied you are with that element of your life.

When you have completed this assessment spend some time deciding which of these areas you are going to focus on changing. It might not be the areas you rated the lowest it might be areas that you feel you have most control over, or most to gain from changing.

Research tells us that your goals should be personally meaningful, satisfy intrinsic needs and conform to your values. Tips on setting and achieving your goals are given below:

Positive goals. Aim towards positive desirable goals instead of negative goals. For example try to “spend more time with others” versus “avoid being lonely”, or “finish work by 5.30pm” rather than “stop working such long hours”.

Intrinsic goals. Goals focused on personal growth are linked to greater wellbeing compared to goals focused on financial success, social recognition or physical attractiveness. These extrinsic goals are positively associated with measures of anxiety and depression.

Focus on your soul. Goals which are most closely associated with increased levels of wellbeing include goals that are linked to close friendship, spirituality and community.

Important and meaningful. Make sure that your goals are important and meaningful to you and that they are challenging but realistic.

One step at a time. To move from the bottom of your rating scale to the top of your rating scale may just be a too large or too imposing step for you. Ask yourself “what needs to happen to move up just one point on my scale?” Identifying a small step might make that change more realistic for you.

SMART. Remember, your goal needs to be:
Specific – is your goal clear?
Measurable – how will you know you have achieved it?
Achievable – is it realistic?
Relevant – is it relevant to what you are trying to achieve?
Timed – what is your timescale?

Creating new habits. If your goal involves a change in behaviour (losing weight, increasing fitness, stopping smoking etc.) remember that on average it takes 66 days to create a new habit (Lally et al 2010), this is an average so for some people it will be even longer. Link your new behaviour or habit to a cue for example, flossing your teeth before bed, attending yoga every Tuesday evening, eating fruit with lunch. Or prepare in advance so you don’t need to think about it (making sure there are healthy snacks in the fridge).

Should you share with others? Research on the value of sharing your goals with others is contradictory. Some research shows that publicly stating your goals helps commit you to achieving them, but other research suggests that the positive feelings you may gain from sharing your goals with other people may actually erode your commitment to achieving them (you have already received the reward of positivity by stating your intention to achieve a goal so you don’t actually need to achieve it!).

Sharing your goals can be important because it enables you to ask for the help, support and understanding of the people around you, but remember, stating your goal isn’t enough – you do need to go on and achieve it.

Reference: Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C.H.M., Potts, H.W.W., Wardle, J., (2010) How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European School of Social Psychology 40:6 998-1009

Staying Resilient – The Art of Acceptance and Letting Go

Mental resilience describes our ability to adapt and function in the face of adversity, stress and trauma. Resilient people are better able to cope with adverse events and changing circumstances, and resilient workers are less prone to sickness absence, presenteeism and staff turnover.

Research commonly estimates that 50% of our resilience is down to genetics and 10% down to environment. That leaves 40% that is within our control. This gives us significant scope to enjoy the benefits of increased resilience.

There are a number of factors that we know are important to increasing psychological resilience; for example, positive thinking, active coping strategies and mental flexibility. In this blog I am reflecting on the theory I have learnt as a work psychologist and my own experience as someone managing a chronic health condition, to identify the key components to staying psychologically resilient and managing stress. Things that we can all benefit from, and things that not only make us more resilient but can make our working lives more productive.

So, today it is the art of acceptance and letting go. Acceptance isn’t a weakness. It isn’t about denial, avoidance, apathy or passivity. It is part of an active coping style that enables you to positively choose where you place your energy and your focus.

On of the mantras of WorkGuru is that we can not always control or change a situation that we are in but we can change the way that we think about it and respond to it.

Our evidence-based resilience-building programme contains a number of exercises aimed at showing you how.

Control, Influence, Accept Model of Stress Reduction
The first is our module on the Control, Influence, and Acceptance (CIA) model of stress reduction. This really simple, but effective approach invites us to recognise which categories our problems or difficulties fall under; which difficulties we can control, which we can influence, and which would benefit from us learning to accept and letting go.

The only thing that we can truly control is our decisions and ourselves. There are many situations and people that we don’t have direct control over but we can influence them. And then there are the things that we cannot control and we cannot influence – but we can begin to accept them and stop wasting our time worrying and complaining about them. These are the things that we need to learn how to let go of. If we can’t change it, if we can’t control it, if we can’t influence it then by continually thinking and worrying about it we squander our energy and our other resources instead of focusing them where they would achieve most benefit.

Mindfulness Meditation
The second exercise on acceptance and letting go is our module on Mindfulness meditation. It is estimated that the average person has 70,000 thoughts flick through their mind each day. Try it for yourself. Sit somewhere comfortable for just 3 minutes, close your eyes and focus on your breath, as your mind begins to drift, make a mental note of where it has gone and then gently but firmly focus your attention back onto your breath. Our mind is a wilful beast; it flits from one thought to another. Mindfulness teaches us to see our thoughts for what they are – just thoughts: not reality, not something we have to act on, not something that defines us – just thoughts. It helps us to learn how to let those thoughts go, a bit like letting go of a balloon, or busting a soap bubble. Mindfulness helps us to learn how to observe our thoughts as they flit into our minds one after the other, to see them for what they are – just thoughts, and to let them go.

Thinking Styles
The third relevant WorkGuru module is on thinking styles. Results published from the UK’s biggest ever online stress survey shows that thinking styles (specifically rumination and self-blame) are powerful determinants in predicting the level of anxiety or depression a person might experience.

We all develop habitual thinking styles. These are ways of thinking that have become automatic and are often not very helpful. For example we may have a tendency to generalise (“This always happens”. “You always do that”), to jump to conclusions or mind read (“Well I know exactly what is going to happen now”. “What you really mean is that you don’t like what I am doing”), or catastrophise (“Well this is appalling, how could it possibly get any worse”. “This is the end of my career; I will never recover from this”). By recognising our thinking styles we can spot our less than helpful thoughts for what they are, and let them go, replacing them with more realistic, helpful thoughts.

Obviously, being the founder of WorkGuru, I have absorbed and enacted all the excellent advice that we provide – and you would never catch me obsessing and worrying over inconsequential things that I have no control or influence over. If only life was that simple. I did get caught recently whilst I was walking my dog and sobbing for 30 minutes as my mind ruminated over and became obsessed with a thought that hadn’t happened and wasn’t based on reality. After the full 30 minutes I managed to pull myself away from the obsessive thought, see it for what it was – just a thought not reality, and let it go moving on to focus on enjoying the walk and being in the moment.

Acceptance and letting go are coping strategies that we could all benefit from to help us build our psychological resilience and better manage our stress. In the wise words of the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

This blog was first published on the Symposium-events website in November 2013

Staying Resilient and Keeping Well: A personal reflection.

If you were to ask me what one thing is essential to building mental resilience I would say self-awareness. There are lots of components to resilience – positive emotions, cognitive flexibility, life-meaning, social support, active coping styles (all of which I am sure we will look at in more detail in future blogs) – but underpinning it all is self-awareness. Knowing yourself, your energy patterns, the way you think, the things that drain you, the things that energise you, the things that sustain you, what your values are. Being your greatest supporter and your greatest friend.

I am a work psychologist and executive coach and I have been working in the work and wellbeing field for over 15 years. But it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with a chronic health condition that put me at a high risk of heart attack and stroke and led to me experiencing bouts of fatigue that I really began to understand the concepts of stress and resilience. If I wanted to move into a healthy old age then becoming more resilient was an imperative not an option; and I think that is true for everyone. Being resilient isn’t about ‘doing less work’ it is about maintaining a life style that you love alongside keeping yourself mentally well. The same as for our physical resilience, most of us have an awareness of what we eat and drink and our exercise levels because we know the benefits of good physical health. Being physically resilient doesn’t mean doing less it means doing the things that we know will help us to keep well.

One of the things I never knew until I experienced fatigue was that it has both a physical and an emotional component. Fatigue drains both my physical and my mental resources. It leaves me feeling exhausted and emotionally vulnerable. When I am fatigued I find it harder to manage conflict and complexity. I have to be very careful about what I focus my mental energy on – because it is finite.

There has been lots of learning for me. I love my job, I love working hard, working long hours and travelling the country. I didn’t want my health problems to stop me from doing something I loved. And it hasn’t – it just means that I have had to develop my self-awareness to help me take better care of myself. So here are some of the things that I have learnt:

Plan your week as a whole
This has been a big one for me. There are some things that I find more draining then others: physically long days outside of the office, networking, intense meetings, hospital visits. I don’t know what my energy levels are going to look like in a few weeks or months ahead. So I try and plan my diary so that each week I have at least 2 mornings working from home. I know that not everybody has this option – but this is about what works for me.

I like to work long hours – I run my own business so long hours are part of the job description – this isn’t about not working those hours it is about having a variety of activity during the week – because if I don’t pace myself my fatigue can take a hold.

Use your weekends
There is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t do some work (see the bit about running my own business) and for me that is fine. But one of the things that I have had to learn is that I can’t work a full working day 7 days a week. I need to spend my weekends with family and friends, taking the time to do the household chores and re-charging my batteries for the week ahead. This has been one of the hardest lessons for me, in order to increase my effectiveness I have to spend some time away from work. Time-out increases my energy, helps keep my thinking creative and agile, and gives me the time to do the pesky chores, which once out of the way will help me to keep focused during the week.

Align your head and your heart
Ok, this may sound like a bit of a poncy one, but I am a firm believer that if your work and your life reflect your core values then it is going to be more joyful and less draining. We all have values – they are the things that give our life meaning, a map that guides us through the world. Some of those values are more important to us than others (at WorkGuru we have 2 exercises to help you identify and priorities your values); these are the ones that we wouldn’t wish to compromise on. Sometimes in life we lose sight of what those values are.

My values are about creativity, honesty, respect, openness being genuine and really believing in what I am doing. When I work in a way that doesn’t reflect these values then I lose my energy and motivation, I become frustrated and risk feeling burnt out.

Listen to your body
It was whilst lecturing to postgraduate University students on workplace stress that I suddenly had the revelation that my head and my body didn’t always agree with each other. My head can tell me “I love all the challenges we are facing at the moment, I am feeling stimulated and energised, it is great to be so busy” but my body is saying, “I’m knackered”. I have a tendency to listen to my head and not notice what my body is trying to say.

Two things that have helped me to listen to my body are Mindfulness and yoga. In Mindfulness meditation you learn the use of the body scan (our module on Mindfulness includes 3 guided meditations one of which is a breath-body meditation that includes a body scan); this involves bringing your awareness to each part of your body and just checking on how it is. Doing this on a regular basis helps you to begin to see connections (maybe noticing how tense your shoulders become after certain meetings, or after long car journeys), and helps you to begin to recognise early warning signs of stress. Yoga works in the same way; through regular stretching and movement you become more attuned to your body, learning to recognise when it is out of kilter.

Physical exercise is important
Finding time for everything that you want to do in life is difficult if not impossible – but don’t neglect exercise. Try to build it into your everyday routine: walking or cycling to work, taking the stairs, walking at lunchtime, taking the dog for a walk – and if you don’t have a dog taking yourself for a walk. Ring-fence time for more vigorous exercise. The gym isn’t for everyone so find something that suits you and put it in your diary. The problem with exercise is that the less you do the more difficult it becomes – but keep going it will get easier and more enjoyable.

When my fatigue is bad getting out of bed in the morning is often a challenge – I don’t have the same surge of energy that propels me into the day – the idea of exercise feels like too much of a hurdle; and it often is. When I am fatigued my energy becomes a very very precious commodity and not one to be squandered lightly. If I were to exercise the way I normally do I would not have the energy to do any work. But I also know that not doing anything lowers my resilience. The answer for me has been short walks, and on days where my work tasks are routine and don’t require too much energy, or at the weekend – a short bike ride.

When my fatigue has lifted I increase my exercise thinking of it as making a deposit in a savings account – building up resilience for when I am going to need it again.

Make changes now
And finally, make changes now. Having a chronic health condition gave me an imperative to change the way I was living. Increasing resilience and managing stress wasn’t a ‘nice thing to do when I have some time’ thing any longer – it was something that I had to take seriously. And for that I am grateful. I now work in a much more effective way, I find time to do the things I love outside of work, I have got back in touch with the things that are important to me, I have learnt to prioritise and, I think I am a much nicer person to be with. Without my health problems I would have still known the theory on mental resilience, but I am not entirely sure I would have put it into practice.