Mental health affects everything, including our work life.
This week is Mental Health Week in the U.K. so we thought we’d get the thoughts of some of our speakers on a complex subject that more and more companies are trying to address. In this guest blog, Dr. Mark Rowe makes a powerful case for embracing stress if we are to become happy.
John (not his real name) was at breaking point when I saw him – burnt out. Years of ‘all work and no play,’ combined with the physical and mental strain of trying to be all things to everyone, had eventually taken their toll. Negative equity and debt had left him emotionally wiped. With mild depressive symptoms, relationship issues and so much negative stress, his life was definitely on a downward spiral.
To get back on track, John needed not just medication but ‘talking treatment’ (counselling). But to get back to his best, he needed to learn some habits that really supported his well-being and vitality.
Progress, not Perfection
Change rarely happens overnight, so I encourage clients to make small improvements, step by step, with the focus at all times on progress, not perfection.
I encouraged John to keep a journal. Slowly he became more aware of how negative thoughts were holding him back, and how to reframe situations in a more positive light. By writing about things he felt genuinely grateful for, he learned to express gratitude regularly. He set goals for his physical health and personal development, built a great exercise habit and learned to reduce his exposure to negative ‘noise’ in the media and in his relationship by creating what I call micro moments of positivity – a short coffee break, a friendly call. More importantly, by being more present, John opens himself up to listen and to share himself with others.
Take Back Control
Today John is utterly transformed. Having had the courage to take back control of his life, he is healthier, off medication, more engaged with family and friends, more in touch with his emotions, happier and more fulfilled. In his own words, his breakdown became his breakthrough, enabling him to really grow as a person.
The Epidemic of Stress
The World Health Organisation calls stress the health epidemic of the 21st century and claims that learning to manage your own stress is one of the most significant health challenges of the future. This is because chronic negative stress can have significant harmful health consequences including increased blood pressure, heart disease, fatigue, impaired concentration and compromised immunity.
Your beliefs can be the difference
What does ‘stress’ mean to you? Is it health depleting or health enhancing? The prevailing mindset is that stress is the all-pervasive destroyer of physical health, psychological fitness and emotional vitality. And this belief is backed up by a wealth of data highlighting the potential impact of negative stress.
Stress: good or bad?
But what if the impact of stress was down more to your beliefs about stress than the stress itself?
That’s what a brilliant piece of research found in 1998 when 30,000 American adults were asked two questions.
- How much stress are you experiencing in your life?
- Do you believe the stress you’re under is harmful to your health or not?
Over the following eight years, those people who had said they were under a lot of stress had a 43% percent increase in mortality.
But – and here’s where it gets really interesting – these adverse effects were found to apply only to those people who answered the second question by saying they believed stress was harmful to them. The same research found no adverse effects whatsoever in those who had said they were under a lot of stress but didn’t actually believe that stress was harmful!
Perhaps the effect you expect tends to be the effect you get.
What if we embraced stress?
Eradicating stress is neither possible nor necessary. Rather, I believe we can – and should – embrace stress by developing resilience and by ensuring we recharge from stress.
By choosing to embrace stress, you become more effective at seeing the setbacks, struggles and so-called failures as opportunities to grow and to learn something useful – and ultimately, to become stronger. Letting go becomes much easier, so you cope in healthy ways and grow psychologically. And finally, by recognising that a certain amount of stress is needed to move forward and perform at your best, you become resilient.
Six Strategies for Embracing Stress
But as I said above, the process of embracing stress takes time. It can be a tricky enough idea to get your head around, so I’ve developed six strategies to consider as you embrace stress.
Recognise The Need For Mindset Change
Recognise that stress in and of itself is neither good nor bad. What’s important is your ability to recharge from stress. Instead of trying to eradicate stress, learn skills to embrace it.
Consider how can you use a difficult experience as an opportunity to grow. In medicine we talk about post-traumatic stress disorder, which can occur after serious life events, but post-traumatic growth is also possible, where adversity leads to a new perspective and to emotional and spiritual growth. Keeping a written journal is a powerful way to reframe experiences positively.
Remember to focus on what you can control
Choosing to focus more of your attentive awareness on those things you can control and positive actions you can take is empowering and builds autonomy, a key variable in well-being. Viktor Frankl puts it beautifully in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. Despite the depravity of his incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp, he believed he was free to choose how to respond in any given moment. You too can choose how to respond.
I call realistic optimism the oxygen for opportunity in life: the belief that things can get better because you’re going to do something about it. Realistic optimism is your commitment to turn your ‘can I or can’t I, will I or won’t I?’ into ’when will I and how?’ In so doing, through your own efforts, you increase the likelihood of these events becoming reality. As you learn to reframe challenging situations in a more positive way, realistic optimism enables you to dissipate negative stress, helping to tip the scales of positivity back in your direction. You develop more grit and the determination to keep going, and cultivate real resilience.
It’s so important to recharge, to build your own personal ‘well-being buffer’ that encompasses physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual aspects.
I prescribe a strategy I term radical self-care because it really is that important: regular exercise, restorative sleep, eating healthfully, ensuring enough time to unplug and unwind. Strengthening your mindset and investing in your ‘emotional bank account’ establishes a reservoir of psychological fitness and positivity that you can draw upon when you need it. We all need to connect to our sense of purpose, knowing that what we do and who we are in the world really does matter.
Reach out to others
Just as our stress response releases powerful stress hormones like cortisol, it also releases oxytocin, which builds a sense of compassion and the willingness to connect with others. Recent research from Harvard University has found that oxytocin can heal heart receptors damaged by stress hormones. So our bodies have a solution built in. It’s good to talk, to friends, family or a trained therapist, and build rich relationships that will support you to share the inevitable worries of life.
Embrace stress – enjoy success
It’s certainly a mindset change for many of us, but if we choose to view stress as something to be embraced, we can be more present and far more effective at what we do. The result is enhanced levels of success in relationships, work, creativity, energy and health.
And isn’t that what we all want?