Resilience: Inoculation Against Stress

  • Derek Roger

The research programme that underpins the Challenge of Change Resilience programme was based on the fundamental question in science – what's wrong?  We quickly discovered that in the context of stress and stress management, the answer is pretty well everything.  What's needed is a paradigm shift.   There was a time when people were convinced the earth was flat, and despite evidence to the contrary, the shift from a flat-earth to a round-earth paradigm took a long time.  So it would seem with stress management too: ideas like life-events as a cause of stress have been so endorsed by psychologists that people continue to think they're true.  The evidence tells you otherwise: for any so-called 'stressful job' there'll be people who enjoy it and don't find it at all stressful. 

The classic event that's supposed to be inherently stressful is moving house, but all that moving house involves is putting things in boxes in one place and taking them out in another.  There are plenty of people who love moving house!  What moving house does incur is pressure, and hence the critical distinction drawn in the programme between stress and pressure.  Pressure is just a demand to perform, and starts when you wake in the morning and need to get up.  You get to work and need to finish a project before the deadline that day, which is just another form of pressure.

The metaphor we use to describe this in the training is white-water rafting: getting through the first terrifying rapid and then approaching the second.  As you get closer, all that actually increases is pressure.  There's no such thing as a 'stressful' rapid.  Rapids are like deadlines, as they get closer, what increases isn't stress but pressure.  Going back to rafting, what might happen is that half the people in the raft begin to panic as the rapid gets closer.  They've made the mistake of turning pressure into stress, and when this happens the raft will go over and you won't get through. 

There is no training programme that will eliminate pressure, and there doesn't need to be: pressure is a motivator which gets you going and keeps you going. However, pressure should not be confused with so-called 'good stress'.  Defined properly, stress is ruminating about emotional upset, so if you do the job without rumination there'll be plenty of pressure but no stress.  When you respond to demand there is an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, to facilitate action, but this fight-or-flight response is entirely appropriate and is not stress.  Pressure is turned into stress if you go home that night completely preoccupied with the imagined negative consequences of the work – in other words, ruminating about emotional upset, what Mark Twain referred to as the worst things in my life that never actually happen.  That prolongs fight or flight unnecessarily, and all that you're fighting or fleeing from is an imagined thought in your head.

The fundamental research on cardiovascular function and immune function that underpins the Challenge of Change Resilience programme showed clearly that what made people miserable and prolonged recovery from physiological arousal was rumination, and in part, what is needed to shift the paradigm is to stop using the word 'stress' to describe pressure.  How often do you hear people moaning about how stressed they are?  It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, like being told when you're moving house you must be stressed.  You can only claim to be stressed when you're ruminating about emotional upset, which is simply a habit that can be changed. 

Unfortunately, stress is a very contagious condition – you only need one stress-bunny to start panicking about a deadline to put the whole team into a panic.  This is why we focus in the training on resilience rather than stress, based on the principle that resilient people don't get stressed.  People often talk about their 'triggers' for stress, but it isn't the trigger that's important, it's what gets triggered – in other words, how do you respond?  Returning to the white-water rafting metaphor, resilient people are the ones who can negotiate the rapids of life, without becoming infected by ruminating about emotional upset.  Inoculation against stress is as simple as practising the four steps in the programme.

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