The field of stress and stress management has more myths than the traditions of ancient Greece and Rome together. One of the explicit aims of the research that forms the evidence-base for the Challenge of Change Resilience Training is to expose these myths for what they are, and to offer an alternative way of thinking about stress. Here are some of the myths that we routinely encounter in our training sessions, and the evidence that contradicts them:
My stress is caused by being in stressful situations. The principle of the Challenge of Change that provokes the most debate is our view that stress is not the property of events or other people – your job, for example, can’t ‘stress you out’. You stress yourself out, by churning over the emotional upset about how unhappy you are at work. If any event was inherently stressful everyone exposed to it would be equally distressed by it, which plainly is not true. Even exposure to traumatic events like disasters affects different people differently: only a relatively small proportion end up being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. As we’ve said elsewhere (see my earlier blog, ‘Carried Over The Threshold’), you may cross the threshold on the continuum that progresses from day-to-day stress to post-traumatic stress. At that point, the choice that we speak about is no longer available. This is fortunately much rarer than the impression you get from the media, but recovery from trauma requires specialised one-to-one help and is not the focus of the Challenge of Change Resilience programme.
I get some of my best ideas when I’m ruminating. How many really interesting, useful or important ideas have come from churning repetitiously over emotional upsets? None. What gets confused with rumination is reflection, which is a consideration of possible outcomes from a range of future actions, informed by recalling how things turned out in the past. The key here is that your attention is controlled and given intentionally to the past and the future, rather than just being hijacked by ruminative thoughts. Being awake and controlling attention creates the mindframe for reflection, but you do have to take the last two steps in the programme too: you can’t reflect until you have a detached perspective from which to consider options, and to remain clear-headed you have to keep letting go of ruminative thoughts.
Detached people just don’t care, and are so laid back they don’t get anything done. Quite the opposite. What we call detachment means being able to maintain perspective, which allows you to do more, not less, than people who endlessly turn molehills into mountains. You can ensure that detachment doesn’t become disengagement by combining it, as we do in the training, with emotional sensitivity. These are the people we describe as having ‘detached compassion’, which corresponds in our programme to empathy; emotional sensitivity which is not moderated by detachment leads to emotional over-involvement, which we call sympathy. Detached compassion, like being able to express emotion appropriately, is a hallmark of emotional intelligence, and we know that leaders with this quality are rated significantly more positively by their direct reports than those who don’t have it.
Ruminating is human nature. That means that ruminating is natural, and it isn’t. How could constantly churning over the same old emotional upset, with no resolution and impacting significantly on your mental and physical well-being, be natural? Convincing yourself that it is natural will make it inevitable; this is just an excuse to carry on ruminating. Consider why you do it: you have an argument with someone that you end up losing. In every subsequent rumination about it, you end up winning, preferably making the other person look foolish. What you’re doing is trying to retrieve the self-esteem you feel has been diminished. A more interesting way to look at it is to ask why your sense of self is so fragile it gets thrown by not always being right. What difference did it make, anyway? The endless scenarios you run through, with you ending up winning the argument, change nothing. We all win some, lose some; does it matter?
Stress leads to burnout. The word ‘burnout’ suggests that the energy to fuel your resilience has been used up, but you don’t have a limited supply. Suppose you flop down in an armchair after a high-pressure day, having convinced yourself you’re exhausted. The phone rings and a friend excitedly invites you to go out and do something you absolutely love and wouldn’t miss, and the burnout evaporates! What will exhaust you and compromise resilience is doing the opposite of the four steps we suggest in the programme: losing control of your attention, completely losing perspective, and not being able to let go of ruminative preoccupations. Continue ruminating and there’s no doubt you’ll lose sleep and become tired, irritable and depressed, and it can become a habitual pattern.
My cure for stress is exercise. There’s no doubt that being fit is important, but it will only help with stress to the extent that it affects your thinking. Physical work on its own may make you physically fitter, but to be free of stress you need to have mental fitness. Your favourite strategy might be a 10-mile run, but if all you do throughout the run is to ruminate about emotional upsets, you’ll just end up fit and miserable. What the run does provide you with, especially if you’re on the road instead of plugged into headphones on a treadmill, is plenty of opportunities to connect with your senses. They only work in the present, so the more you connect – running, at work, anytime – the more you’ll have presence of mind instead of being absent-minded. And in case you thought you could be, you don’t run because you’re ‘addicted to endorphins’. Nobody is, any more than anyone is addicted to adrenaline. Endorphins (endogenous morphines) have a chemical structure similar to opiates, and they probably account for people being able to act in emergencies without sensing pain from injuries until afterwards, but you can’t become addicted. Everyone produces adrenaline to facilitate action; ‘adrenaline junkies’ are simply stimulus-seeking extraverts.
Stress is just part of life, you can’t avoid it. Then why isn’t everyone stressed? Stress is a choice – you’re not genetically programmed to ruminate, and since it is a habit, it can be changed. Saying that stress is unavoidable is a way of justifying being stressed, so why would you want to justify behaving in a way that self-evidently makes you miserable and may make you ill? It goes back to self-esteem: for some, feeling overworked and underpaid becomes a way of defining themselves. Given the opportunity to reflect and consider in the training programme, they’re enabled to see through it and can begin to act rationally.
I can’t just change my personality. That depends on your definition of ‘personality’! There is a widely-held view that personality is fixed and genetically determined. Many individual features are undoubtedly inheritable, such as eye-colour. Others are heritable: determined by genes, but not in the same predictable way across generation. Extraversion, for example, is in part genetically determined, but two very extraverted parents won’t necessarily produce an extraverted child. Extraversion aside, while there is probably a genetic contribution to almost all aspects of our personality, the proportion that can be attributed to nature rather than nurture is very small. Take rumination as an example: contrary to pop-psychological ideas, chronic ruminators are not expressing an evolutionary imperative (see my earlier blog, ‘Why Do We Do It?’), they’re simply perpetuating a habit. We know from our research that the habit of rumination can be changed, which would not be possible if it were genetically fixed. What we call ‘personality’ is overwhelmingly a product of conditioning, and certainly can be changed, though the key word in the comment is ‘just’. This suggests it should be easy, but changing habits requires dedicated practise, and that in turn requires a strong motive to change. What could be more motivating than being happy instead of miserable?