It’s an irony that the build up to Christmas can mean a build up of tension. Christmas is heralded as a time of goodwill and cheer, although it can be ‘anything but’, if we let it get the better of us. Little wonder that we hear ‘bah-humbug’ amongst our more sceptical friends and associates.
As a coach, particularly in the last six months I have noticed more and more coachees presenting with stress symptoms. Some have had ‘it’ before, whilst for others it’s a new thing. Raised expectations around the efficiencies that are meant come with technology and a prevailing attitude of ‘doing more with less’ seem to be contributing to feeling increasingly pressured.
Recently I was privileged to be a part of Derek Roger’s Challenge of Change programme on Resilience. Resilience can be defined as the bounce back factor. Conversely stress can be defined as ‘rumination over emotional upset’. Derek’s programme works from the inside out, challenging our thinking about the pressures of everyday life. [This is as opposed to post-traumatic stress, which requires a clinical intervention]. It makes a distinction between the event itself and one’s thinking about it.
The programme addresses how as individuals we can develop our ‘bounce back muscle’. Its four steps are attractively simple:
1. Wake up. We are asleep much of the time, and the first step is waking up. We walk around on auto-pilot, playing a star role in our home movie. Consequently we miss out on what is really going on. As Mark Twain observed, ‘some of the worst things in my life never happened.’ All that events provide, are things to ruminate about, if we choose to do so.
2. Controlled attention. The second step in the programme is keeping control over our attention and giving it intentionally to the present. Are we truly convinced and committed to what we are doing right now, that it is the best use of our time? Are we trying to multi-task in order to keep up? (It takes on average 10 minutes to get out of what we were doing when we were interrupted / interrupted ourself, and another 10 minutes to get back into what we were doing).
3. Detachment. When we’re awake and controlling our attention, the ruminative thoughts can be seen as just that: imagined scenarios about the worst things that never happen. Being able to put things into perspective in this way is the third step in the programme.
4. Letting go. Derek uses a humorous parallel between ‘letting go’ and ‘how to catch a monkey’. To catch a monkey, find a pot with a hole in it just big enough for him to squeeze his hand in. Put one peanut inside and tie it to the ground. The monkey puts his hand in and grabs the peanut, but now he has a fist that’s too big to pull back through the hole, and he’s caught. The forest is full of food, but the monkey gives up his life for a peanut! That’s what stress is like – all the issues we ruminate about endlessly are not resolving anything, they’re just peanuts, and like the monkey, we need to learn how to let go.
Practically speaking, to apply the learnings, a key thing to understand is that our responses to pressure have been laid down neurologically when we were young, often imbued with emotions. It takes a big helping of self-compassion and dedication to unlearn these emotionally laden reactions and replace them with patterns that give energy and are healthful.
Another thing that helps us to be patient, is to appreciate that our flight / fight responses do have a place, where there is a genuine threat. It is just that when we overuse our flight / fight response, we deplete the useful hormones of adrenalin and cortisone, and this depletion decreases our immunity and increases the chances of sickness.
With this broader appreciation for the origins of stress, and some rigour around how we can self-monitor our responses to events, we are able to approach Christmas with a perspective on what really matters: goodwill, peace of mind and gratitude towards what is happening around us, both good and not so good.