Controlling stress

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Of course, all human beings are prone to failure under pressure. Racing drivers make inexplicable decisions, sports people of all kinds suddenly lose a match they have seemed to be winning, chief executives suddenly start making odd decisions, and talented people of all kinds fail when they are doing things at which they have always excelled in the past.

Malcolm Gladwell has explored two particularly useful concepts here, the ideas of choking and panicking. You have already seen how, under conditions of extreme stress, the higher-order functions of the brain simply stop functioning properly. A rhino is charging at you and all thoughts of philosophy or business economics, not surprisingly, desert you as you seek to survive.

Nevertheless, in everyday life it may be helpful to divide these experiences into two different categories, the moment when you "choke" and the moment when you panic. Choking is possibly the more common of the two experiences.

Gladwell's example of choking is of Jana Novotna's 1993 Wimbledon tennis final against Steffi Graf. At one moment on the point of winning the match, Novotna suddenly and inexplicably lost her touch and let Graf overtake her and win the tournament. Novotna, in short, choked. Perhaps because of the enormity of the event or the presence of the crowd, she simply started to think too much about what she was doing. Consequently, her play became labored and too self-conscious. She lost the easy familiarity of her strokes and became increasingly agitated.

On page 79 you explored the idea of conscious and unconscious competence. The example given was of an experienced car driver who no longer even thinks about their actions as they move the steering wheel and manipulate the pedals. Such a person is no longer conscious of their competence or skill, they do it, as it were, on automatic pilot. It seems that your basal ganglia in your mammalian or middle brain is probably partly responsible for the development of this kind of unconscious or tacit learning.

It is the same with tennis or any activity demanding high levels of performance. If you are too stressed, it is possible that you will stop functioning at an unconscious level and revert to the much more mechanical, conscious one that you displayed as you were learning the skill. In this type of situation, you are simply thinking too much. If you are able to do so, the cure for your stress is to think less, to seek to recapture the instinctive version of your performance.

A good example that I have experienced is public speaking. I do a lot of this and am generally told that I am pretty good at it. But just occasionally, for no obviously scientific reason, I have a choking experience. Somebody in the audience says something that niggles me, or perhaps I am already feeling stressed from a bad journey, and I choke. Suddenly, I try too hard, my stories become labored, and my delivery becomes stilted. I have gone back a stage in the learning process and am now operating as if my competence in public speaking had only just been acquired and was very much at the conscious level. I know now that the way out of this is not to try even harder; quite the reverse. I need to create a short space for myself, by having a drink of water or asking the audience to do something, so that I can catch my breath. In this way, I find that I can recapture the more natural, unconscious level of operation.

Panicking is different. To continue with the example of public speaking, if you panic in situations like this, although it may still be a kind of failure as far as your audience is concerned, what is going on inside your head is quite different. I can remember the feelings of panic when I was just starting to learn the craft of speaking a decade ago. In this situation, your mind goes blank. You cannot remember what it was that you were going to say. The stressful nature of the situation is effectively removing your short-term memory. The problem is that you have stopped thinking and are experiencing what psychologists refer to as "perceptual narrowing." You stop noticing the full range of experience around you.

The thing to do in this kind of case is to give yourself props to rely on if you feel an onset of panic. These could include a visual map of your talk, the first few words written out in full, some good quotations to use if the going gets tough, and many other things to help you through the situation and give you recovery time to start thinking again.

Another classic example of panic would be of a diver in trouble under the sea. On breathing in, they discover that they are inhaling water and not air. They stop thinking and grab at the nearest air supply, even if it is attached to someone else, in the fevered attempt to find oxygen. They panic. Even though in all their training they have been taught to try to share another's air supply and gradually return to the surface, all memory of this deserts them.

Both choking and panicking lead to a reduction in performance. However, while their effect may appear to be the same to someone watching, what is going on in your head is quite different. Most importantly, the cures are different. When you choke you need to think less; when you panic you need to think more.

A Think of times when you have choked or panicked. What caused you to do this? What did you do to deal with the situation?

What tends to make you choke or panic in your work or home lives today? Think of some positive strategies for dealing with these situations.

Of course, there is such a thing as useful stress. This is the stress that ensures that we get out of bed each morning and that the targets we set ourselves have an impact on our daily lives. We are all different, however. What for one person would be an acceptable level of stress, for another would be health threatening. Much of our reaction to stress depends on our attitude to events. You saw in the last chapter how change inevitably brings stress and how anticipating some of the feelings associated with it can minimize the negative aspects. You also learned on page 46 about the critical concepts of learned optimism and pessimism.

The key concept in managing stress is the idea of taking control. Jayne-Anne Gadhia was the most forthright of those I interviewed about this subject: "I am stressed if I am not in control or if I am not well organized."

Indeed, for many people, helplessness is a major contributor to stress. What is important is to work out what you can do something about and what you are not able to influence. The most stressful moments are those over which we feel we have no control. When we are stranded on a railway station late at night and the last train is canceled, for example, we feel helpless rage. When we are desperately trying to produce papers for an important meeting or against an external deadline and the photocopier jams, we may experience a rage of impotent desperation. But, even in these situations we can minimize the stress. A call home to reassure your family, or a decision to pay out on an expensive taxi or to call a friend and ask to stay the night, if taken quickly, stops us sinking into frightened inactivity. Or, early decisions to redeploy other staff, use another copier, or go to an outside copy shop can reduce the angst associated with the inevitability of mechanical failure. At a deeper level, the application of double-loop thinking (see page 174) can provide more creative system options to many of the predictable life experiences.

When we are under great stress, we want to fight or run away. Stress is at the heart of ensuring our successful survival as a species. We have to decide whether to stay or go off to pastures new. Biologically, our heart starts beating up to five times faster and our adrenal gland produces cortisol. Our blood vessels expand to ensure better blood circulation, our pupils dilate for better sight, and our digestive system is shut down through the narrowing of the blood vessels that feed the organs involved in digestion. All of this is controlled by the hypothalamus in our brain. If the incident of stress is short lived, our biological systems return to normal and no harm is done. If it is prolonged, we suffer from all the well-known stress-related illnesses: ulcers, bowel diseases, depression, loss of memory, and a reduced immune system.

Luckily, there are many symptoms you can spot before you start to suffer more seriously. Here are just a few:

♦ Irritability

♦ Aggressiveness

♦ Overdefensiveness

♦ Indecisiveness

♦ Poor concentration

♦ Lack of self-confidence

♦ Prolonged tiredness

♦ Tension in muscles, especially the neck, shoulders, and back

♦ Indigestion

♦ Constipation

♦ Sweating profusely

This is a frightening list. But, don't worry: it might not be stress that is causing them, but something like going to bed too late, alcohol, or the many other things we are all attracted by!

So, in a stressful situation, we either run or fight, literally or metaphorically. Sometimes we are caught in between, frozen into helplessness, without the ability to think constructively about the best course of action. As American business thinker Michael Hammer puts it: "It's exhilarating to be stretched to your limit, but after a while you need a break before you break."

A What are the most stressful things going on for you at the moment?

Do you recognize any of these symptoms in your life? Start to think about what is causing these symptoms.

Think about what is going on for you at work, about your workload, about those who work closely with you, about your sense of being valued, about your ability to manage your time.

Think about new developments that are worrying you.

Think about how you communicate with others and they with you.

Think about the resources at your disposal.

What about your life outside work, in the community, at home?

Is your overall financial situation causing you to worry?

The first of four important steps in dealing with stress is to be much clearer about what you are stressed about. Once you have generated a list of these try the following:

1 Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper, creating two halves. Label the left-hand side "Worries" and the right-hand side "What I could do." Write all your worries on the left and think of all the things you could do to help overcome them. At this stage, do not get diverted into thinking about how you might improve matters. This is a recipe for confused thinking and subsequent inaction. Focus instead on what you could do. List even those things you think you have tried already.

2 Pick out the three most important worries you have and label them 1, 2, or 3 in another color.

You now have the beginnings of some more detailed self-analysis, rather than the generalized sense of stress that can be so damaging to us all. The next stage is to select one of your top three worries and generate some positive actions for it:

3 Focus on each of your main three worries in turn. Still concentrating on what you might do not how you might do it, for each one agree with yourself one thing that you are going to do. Say it to yourself in the privacy of your head. Then, sleep on your ideas and say them to yourself again on the next day. As you gain in confidence with these tentative ideas, start to tell other people what you are going to do.

4 Now, start to think about how you are going to implement some of the things you have thought of. Use some of the creative thinking techniques in Chapter 9 to help you.

As well as focusing on your own needs, there are some simple things you can do in the workplace to minimize the negative effects of stress on you, your mind, and the minds of your colleagues. How much you can do personally may depend to some extent on your seniority.

Nevertheless, there are often things we can all do simply by articulating a suggestion that will clearly be something that benefits everyone. These kinds of ideas are actually quite difficult to ignore, even in the least creative workplaces!

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