Duncan Elliot is a life coach working out of Basingstoke in England. He particularly works with people who feel that there must be more to life and are willing to work at it, so that they can feel happier and more in control of their life. He offers life coaching in person, on the phone or via audio or video across the Internet. Click here to contact him.
There is a large predator trying to eat a small child. That is a classic situation where you would expect your stress hormones to kick in with great abandon, yet neither the toddler nor its parents are at all concerned. The reason is that they do not see a threat. The toddler has not learnt to associate tigers with danger: to the child, a tiger is a big, cuddly pussycat. The parents, although presumably they know of the dangers, are aware that there is a thick sheet of glass between the animal and their son and believe that the tiger can't break through it.
Do they actually know that? In reality it's very unlikely. All they can do is to trust that the zoo has done sufficient research, that the manufacturers were rigorous in their processing and that the material scientists who designed the glass were correct in their analysis. That may not be true. They have no empirical evidence that their child is safe but because their thoughts are saying that he is, they are relaxed.
It is the same in many situations. We feel stressed or relaxed based on our interpretation of the situation, rather than the situation itself. One person sees impending redundancy as an opportunity and is excited; another sees it as the end of their career. Our thoughts gather momentum and the first person sees themselves going out, building a business empire and redundancy being the spur to them making their fortune. The second sees loss of income, destitution and a lonely death on a freezing night on a park bench. That is likely to produce a lot of stress, and the only difference is the way that they thought about the impending redundancy.
There are typical thought patterns that produce stress. A big one is “I should...” We think to ourselves, “I should make more money, work longer hours, make no mistakes in work, be a perfect parent, be calm, cool and collected at all times...” This can put huge pressures on you and that causes a lot of stress. I can work with you to help you to change those thought patterns so that you treat yourself a lot more gently. I can guide you to seeing the amazing things that you do, rather than the few that you get wrong, and to accept that you're going to make mistakes because you're human and no human is perfect. That can take a huge load off your shoulders.
Another one is where you're often thinking “what if...”. That's particularly true where the “what if...” is invariably negative. “What if the glass gave way and the tiger broke through? What if I never got another job after my redundancy? What if I put on weight and my partner leaves me?”
Again, these are thoughts that are coming from your head, and because they're coming from your head, you can change them. It's not always easy but it's something that I can lead you through.
A final issue is that of control. Many of us feel that we're out of control. We continually tell ourselves, “I have to...” I have to work long hours; I have to say yes to everything my boss asks me to do; I have to keep the house spotless; I have to make sure the lawn is mowed immaculately. And the biggest of all: I have to make sure that everyone around me is happy.
When we think like that, we feel that we are out of control and that produces stress.
If we think that we have no control, we're wrong. We don't have to work long hours, for example: it's actually our choice. The choice may be between two things that we don't like – such as either working the hours or losing the job – but we do have a choice. “I have to keep the house clean and tidy.” Er, no you don't. You have a choice there. There may be some big implications if you choose not to, but you still have a choice. Once we come to terms with that, it can make a big difference to our stress levels.
Of course the choices aren't always easy and sometimes we need to really work at the thoughts behind our choices. “I have to keep the house clean and tidy or else...” The “or else” can actually be one of the “I should...” or “what if...” scenarios. Or there could be real pain involved in the decision. But we can work through that together.
There are situations where you truly have no control over the outcome. That is a difficult one. The more important the outcome to you and the less control you have over it, the bigger the stress. We adopted. Having gone through the process of being evaluated, we were approved to be adopters. It was then a case of waiting for us to be matched to one or more children. We knew that the matching meeting happened on Tuesdays, so on Tuesday my stress levels would get higher and higher as I waited for the call. Come Wednesday afternoon they'd start to come down again and be replaced by disappointment, but on Monday the expectation would cause them to rise again. The stress was enormous because the outcome was so important to me but I had no control over it whatsoever.
The reality is that, in that situation, you still have choices and control. It may not be over the outcome but you have control over your responses. We can work on your emotional attachment to the outcome, or the way that you handle it. For example, if I was on the phone every week, shouting at my social worker for not finding a match for us, I could change that reaction. I even had the ultimate choice of whether to walk away. “I don't want to endure the stress, so I'm withdrawing from the process.”
If you do feel that you have no control over what's happening – if you feel stuck and powerless – then I can work with you to see what control you do have and work out a way to respond. You can see the power that you do have and that can dramatically reduce your stress levels.
Self-talk and belief
In many of the situations where the stress is coming from your interpretation of your situations, the root is your self-talk and your underlying beliefs. There is a commentary in your head, loud and vocal at some times, and rather more subtle at others, that voices opinions on everything that you do. That is called self-talk. It can be positive or negative. If yours is positive, that's fantastic! Most of us, though, have negative ones.
I was on the way to give a presentation on stress management. On the way there I realised that I'd left the memory stick with the slide show in the pocket of a different pair of trousers. The voice in my head clearly said, “Idiot!” I've been working on my self-talk and it was actually a friendly and affectionate, “Idiot!” but I still worked on it further to get it to, “It's OK. It's only a mistake. You can rectify it.”
Underlying that bit of self-talk was the belief that I have to get everything right first time. Again, I've been working on that belief, because it causes an unrealistic amount of stress – and it's not true.
This sort of perfectionism is just one of the common beliefs that underlie our self-talk. Others include, “I'm no good at it”, “I don't deserve it”, “I have to keep everyone happy”, “Don't rock the boat” and “I have to do it because X, Y or Z expect it” (where that can be partner, parents, children, society, colleagues, manager, etc.). There are a host of others, too! All seething away, generating unhelpful, destructive and stressful self-talk.
Working on our self-talk and the underlying, untrue beliefs that fuel it is one of the pillars to how I work with people on their stress. It's not about learning techniques to calm you down a bit, but addressing the root of the stress itself. And it's fantastic to see the difference that makes in people.
Making the change
Reducing stress can make you more relaxed, help your brain to function better, improve your diet, increase your sleep and reduce your chance of getting a range of illnesses, some serious and life-threatening such as depression, cancer and strokes. You can become more productive and nicer to be around, which can radically improve your personal and family life. Stress reduction can significantly improve your quality of life!
If you'd like to work on reducing your stress levels and getting some of these benefits, then contact me. I'd love to support you, encourage you and challenge you as you make such a significant difference in your life.
Many stress management techniques are based on exactly that: managing the stress that you're under. There are some great techniques for doing that, but my priority is to reduce your stress rather than help you to manage it better. You'd rather that a doctor fixed your broken leg rather that help you to manage your pain. In the same way, I'd love to see your stress reduced rather than to help you stand up under it.
Stress is your brain's response to what it perceives as a threat of pain – whether that be physical or emotional. If your brain sees pain coming it will order the body to do all sorts of interesting things. But most of all, and the one that you are most likely to notice, it will ensure that your body gets flooded with chemicals, such as cortisol, that will ready it for action. These are great for dealing with a dangerous situation, but they're pretty bad for you long term. If you're under too much stress for too long, these chemicals will cause physiological changes that are physically damaging.
In order for you to reduce your stress, the first thing you need to do is to identify the source. Unless you know where it's coming from, it's impossible to effectively reduce the stress. There are a number of different potential sources. Click here to read more about real threats, association and catching stress from those around you. But often the root of our stress is actually from inside our own head.
Surprisingly for most people, most of their stress comes not from automatic responses to threats but from their own thoughts. It's not from what happens to or around us, but our thoughts about it.
This video is a great illustration:
Catch the wind in your sails!