I’m developing workshops and seminars for public safety and business, related to my upcoming book. I’ve been struck by similarities in the stressors experienced by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and public safety. The primary risk in any high-pressure career is that you lose your identity in your work, which can leave you disconnected from essential sources of resilience – your social support network (outward disconnection), yourself and creation (inward disconnection) and your values, ethics and spirituality (upward disconnection). The big difference is that in business the stress tends to be chronic, while public safety workers regularly face life-and-death acute stresses. In Silicon Valley business, people sometimes (often, in some companies) act as if their work is life-and-death!
I thought I’d take a look at what kind of advice businesses are getting about stress. I know there’s a lot of bad information out there.
First, let me tell you my point of view. “Stress reduction” is largely a myth – most of us have little power to remove the sources of stress in our lives (families and jobs are big stressors – get rid of them???). Advice about “fighting stress” or “combating stress” is even worse, since it treats stress as an enemy that must be defeated, activating the very neurophysiological systems that stress balancing will help calm down. The good news is that methods of balancing stressors, unlike trying to reduce or eradicate them, actually work, allowing us to take on enormous challenges without doing damage to our health.
Let’s see what the business publications have to say.
5 Tips for Coping With Stress at Work Starting First Thing in the Morning. (Entrepreneur, 12/8/2014)
This article is in trouble and I haven’t even read past the headline. Although there are ways to balance work-related stress while you are at work, if your job is truly challenging, you don’t want to lower your performance by turning off the positive aspects of your stress response. They help you rise to the challenge. However, when you are done with the day’s duties, your body’s ability to leave them behind, to turn down the stress response, is critical. When that system stays “on duty,” health problems inevitably follow.
The Yahoo article suggest a “morning mantra” and “enter smiling,” which encourage positive thinking. Research does show that optimists cope with stress better… but studies also indicate that your optimism is largely a matter of genetics. It’s not clear that you can force yourself to become an optimist.
The article has a warning against coffee. It’s true that caffeine, like any other stimulant, will increase anxiety. But it is okay in moderation – a cup in the morning and another one when the afternoon sleepies hit won’t hurt. There’s also a recommendation here to have a “caffeine-free warm beverage that counteracts stress.” I’m not aware of any evidence to support this idea.
Finally, Yahoo says “Allow honesty.” Here, they’re onto something, suggesting that if you find yourself in a toxic situation, “extend compassion or remove yourself.” Self-compassion is the antidote to the perfectionism that pervades entrepreneurs and public safety workers – they are a lot alike in imposing unreasonable performance on themselves.
How Successful People Handle Stress (Forbes, 12/9/2014)
Travis Bradberry writes that “90% percent of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control.”
Huh? Suppressing your emotions will not balance your stress one bit. In fact, holding onto unexpressed emotions is a stressor.
Moderate stress can be good for you, this article says, citing research at U.C. Berkeley. It’s only a problem when it is chronic and sustained. So we’re back to stress reduction. A list of techniques follows.
Learn to say no. I hear this advice quite a bit in the context of stress management. It raises the question of where the wisdom and strength to say “no” come from. We say “yes” too much because we want to be liked, or are stuck in perfectionism or ambition. Where’s the instruction manual for how to turn those personality traits down? Not here.
Avoid asking “what if?” Like the previous advice, this is missing the how-to information. The goal is wonderful – we absolutely need to stay present and grounded to be able to let go of the “what ifs.”
Disconnect. Take regular time off the grid. This is another item I see frequently. Turn off your cell phone and all the other electronics and take a break. However, disconnecting is emptiness unless you also choose what you will connect with instead – friends, yourself, causes bigger than yourself.
Sleep. Yes, yes, yes. Sleep and stress are deeply related. Disrupted sleep adds increases the hormone levels that you want to turn down when you don’t need their energy-giving effects. It aggravates post-traumatic stress But again where are the instructions? “You should sleep more” is impractical advice for the person who is so keyed up that they don’t want to or can’t get to sleep, or they keep waking up early. Luckily, the next bit of advice, Exercise, is one of the activities that can help with sleep. But there is much, much more.
Don’t Hold Grudges. “Learning to let go of a grudge will not only make you feel better now but it can improve your health.” Unfortunately, that sentence is the last one in this section. It needs to be the starting point for advice on how to let go of grudges and resentments. The best work I’ve ever seen on this subject is Frederic Luskin’s Forgive for Good. People who are holding onto grudges are doing so because they don’t know how to let go – telling them “Let go” is not a solution.
Don’t Die in the Fight. This has something to do with “unchecked emotions,” but how it relates to stress is a mystery.
Mindfulness. Yes, indeed, mindfulness is the latest name for practices that help us remain present and grounded. However, it is not, as this article claims, “an effective way to gain control of unruly thoughts and behaviors.” It is about accepting things we cannot control, not controlling them!
Squash Negative Self-Talk. Similar to the positive thinking above, this bit of counsel suggests that you just stop ruminating on negative things. Just stop it. The author suggests writing down the negative thoughts and examine them for truth, which seems to be a sort of self-guided cognitive behavior therapy. Okay, but the fact is, our brains sometimes ruminate for a good reason – trying to learn from experience. My preference is to remember that it is earning its paycheck, which helps me to accept and view rumination positively – and that helps me let go of it. The danger in labeling any stress reaction as “bad” is that it blocks us from having compassion for ourselves, which as I mentioned previously, is the antidote to poisonous perfectionism.
Those articles are typical, so here are a few other tidbits of terrible and so-so advice from the business press.
Mentally strong people are aware of their stressors, and “they’re aware of the warning signs that they’re becoming stressed out.” Because of their self-awareness, they are able to “adjust their activities and their lifestyle accordingly so they can combat stress effectively.”
“Combat stress effectively.” Shall we fight stress? Wrestle with it? Do battle? No!!!
Stress is not an enemy that threatens your health and well-being. This reminds me of President Merkin Muffley’s wonderfully ironic line in Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”
“One of the best ways to combat stress is to engage in leisure activities.” It can be anything — hanging with family, engaging in a hobby, watching TV. As long as it relaxes you and improves your mental state, it will be beneficial.
Not necessarily. Kevin Gilmartin, author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, like other psychologists, recommends hobbies and engagement with family and friends – the kinds of activities that can become lost when the job takes over. But there is a huge difference between truly connecting with family and hobbies, versus “hanging out” or mindlessly watching TV. Gilmartin calls this using “The Magic Chair.” To someone watching, the person in the Magic Chair seems relaxed, but inside they are still vigilant for the dangers the workday held. Don’t confuse “checking out” (disengagement, withdrawal) with relaxation.
Balancing stress is not about physical relaxation, it is about maintaining caring and compassionate connections with yourself, others, nature and values. If you are disconnected from these, you will never really relax – that’s the way we are wired. If you do maintain these kinds of relationships, you won’t need any other advice about how to manage stress.