Good morning, good afternoon or good evening, wherever you are
Stress, anxiety, worry and depression have been escalating for some time and have indeed reached pandemic proportions. Certainly, if they hadn’t reached this point before the coronavirus, the coronavirus has exacerbated the situation over the last year. Globally, psychologists are busier than ever helping people to cope with these mental health challenges.
Firstly, a disclaimer! This is a deep and complex topic – and I don’t for one moment wish to suggest that I have the ‘silver bullet’. The purpose of this newsletter is, as always, to provoke thought ‘out there’ and broaden perspectives that lead to us handling things in a way that serves us better.
The core? “The busier I am, the more important I must be”
In her book, Stressaholic, Dr Heidi Hanna had this to say:
“We’ve all been fooled by the story that the busier we are and the more stressed we are, the more important we must be.”
I remember years ago when I was practicing law, I had a partner who, whenever asked how he was, would reply that he was “so busy, busy, busy”! Always three busy’s. It struck me at that time how many of us, me included, wore our busyness as some kind of badge of honour. I also remember a story a friend who still tells about his early working days. An older, more experienced, colleague pulled him aside and said he noticed that my friend often had to walk around the business premises as part of his role. He suggested that my friend get himself a clipboard (the iPad of the 70s!) and walk fast and with purpose – that way, the colleague said, no one would ever question my friend’s diligence and importance. For me, these stories are not about whether the two were busy or not, as I think they really were. The point is that we believe being busy makes us appear important, and this changes our behaviour.
The truth is that our work environments place greater pressure on us every year by giving us bigger targets to measure our performance. To succeed in our careers, therefore, we need to work harder and harder each year to achieve these targets. Inevitably, this leads to longer hours. As we accumulate these daily longer hours, we are also more likely to increase our levels of stress, anxiety and worry.
On top of this, we live in a VUCA world, a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. In fact, perhaps we now live in a post-VUCA world for the last year and a bit has made things even worse. For example, what impact does working from home have on our need to be seen to be busy – or at least not skiving off – especially if we have a micromanager as a boss! Come to think of it, we may also feel the pressure if our boss is enabling and empowering, because our colleagues can’t see us marching around with our iPad every day!
A Truth: “This stress is killing me”
The consequence of this type of environment is that stress, anxiety, worry and depression are literally killing us. The scientists appear to be clear on this – these mental health challenges can and do lead to hypertension, heart disease and cancer. Heart disease and cancer were responsible for approximately seventy percent of deaths worldwide before the Covid pandemic struck. To the best of my knowledge, they are still responsible for a lot more deaths than Covid.
Another Truth: “This stress is killing me, but it needn’t”
Normally, our take on all this is that the environment is putting pressure on us to the point that our language even supports and perhaps reinforces this. “The pressure is really getting to me today. I am on the verge of a panic attack.” Yet, what can we put in place that will serve us better?
Dr Alan Watkins speaks of “the three big E’s” in his book, Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership. These E’s are eat, exercise and emotions. The first two E’s are well-known and virtually all of us that have sought medical help for stress, anxiety, worry and depression, have been advised to revise our lifestyles to include healthier approaches to nutrition and our physical health. It’s true too that psychologists, therapists, counsellors and some coaches also support those people who seek their help and this is becoming more prevalent, as the pandemic is proving. However, not so long ago, the tendency was not to seek this ‘soft’ alternative, especially amongst men – as strongly as the badge of honour encouraged them to seek busyness and importance, so too did the aversion to vulnerability preclude them from talking about emotions.
Hopefully that is now changing for the truth is that whilst we think that our emotions are caused by our environment (an outside-in view), it’s more accurate to view it as an inside-out view. Let me explain. Our view of reality is what we notice outside of us – yet we can all view the same external phenomenon and respond differently. Put simplistically, the reality is that we create our own reality by observing what happens outside of us, and placing our own meaning on that.
To take this further, stress and pressure are neither good nor bad. It is the meaning that we ascribe to the stress and pressure that makes it good (eg adrenalin-creating) or bad (eg a panic attack). As Viktor Frankl stated in his widely acclaimed classic, Man’s Search for Meaning:
Accordingly, we are always able to choose our response to stimuli like pressure and stress. We have largely given away this capacity by allowing ourselves to react reflexively in negative ways that don’t serve us, allowing the impulses of our personality to respond automatically. We’ve done this over so many years that it is difficult to change these habits. Yet we can!
And we have to! As Watkins says:
“Clearly it’s not the event or situation that impacts the outcome; it’s what happens emotionally as a result of those events and situations that really makes the difference between life and death, success and failure, happiness and misery.”
Watkins is not exaggerating here. Elsewhere he cites the science behind his statement, namely that scientists have found a direct correlation between responding to stimuli with negative emotions and the very same fatal diseases that I referred to at the beginning of this newsletter – anxiety, depression, heart disease and cancer.
“So, what can I do?”
There are obviously many books and hundreds of proposed solutions. What I am going to suggest here is a start as opposed to a ‘silver bullet’. Remember there are three E’s, so look after your eating and your exercise.
I have put together a 16-week programme that is largely based on Watkins’ work integrated with other practices I have picked up over the years. Doing these practices will begin to build a great foundation for your physiological, emotional, behavioural and relational health and your ability to respond to stress and pressure with positive rather than negative emotions. Remember too, it’s taken all your life to react to stress and pressure the way you currently do; now, it’s going to take some conscious effort every day to start responding habitually with a more positive emotional response.
I am more than happy to share this free booklet with you without any further obligations on your part. Should you wish me to send you a copy, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You will be able to work through the programme on your own; however, if you feel you might need my support to help you create sustainable new habits and emotional health, please drop me a note to this effect at email@example.com and we will set up a free video call to explore how this might look for you.
We all tend to find ways to get in our own way in our lives. Let’s work together to resolve how to get out of our own way, starting with this parallel pandemic.
Thank you for reading this week’s newsletter. Please take care of yourself and stay healthy.
Until next week.