Dealing With the Root Cause of Your Stress

Wake Up on Alarm ClockToday’s post is by Nick Petrie, a Senior Faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership.

There is no such thing as a stressful job, stressful company or stressful life. Thirty years of research on stress and resilience has found that all of your stress is created in your head, period.

The researchers from York University found that stress was driven by one key factor – Rumination. Rumination is the process of thinking over and over about events from the past (guilt, regret) or events in the future (fear, anxiety) and attaching negative emotion to them. When you ruminate the hormones adrenaline and cortisol flush through your system sending you into fight or flight. The result for people who ruminate a lot is that they are stressed all the time.

This is problematic on a number of levels beginning with your health. Continuously elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol lead to increased chances of a heart attack coupled with suppressed immune functioning. Secondly people who ruminate a lot spend most of their life in an unhappy mental and emotional state. Finally, people who ruminate are not good at achieving things because the one thing they are not doing is work. In summary, all that rumination gets you is a short, miserable, unproductive life. Other than that, there is nothing wrong with it!

The first key to reducing your rumination is realizing that there is a difference between pressure and stress. Pressure is simply demand in your environment e.g. deadlines, bosses. Stress is what you do with that pressure inside your head. People who have high pressure jobs but don’t ruminate aren’t stressed. People who have low pressure jobs, but do ruminate are. Think of someone you know who ruminates a lot – how stressed are they?

So what can you do about it?

You can drastically reduce your rumination – I went from scoring 9/10 on the rumination profile to now scoring 0/10 by practicing four steps:

Wake Up! – Have you ever left your house in the morning, got in your car and the next thing you know you are at work, yet you can’t remember the drive there? Where were you? You were in what researchers call ‘waking sleep’. In others words you were daydreaming about things which weren’t really happening. All rumination happens while you are in a state of waking sleep, dreaming about the past or the future. The first step to becoming less stressed is to start noticing just how much of your time you are in this state of ‘waking sleep’ and ruminating about things that aren’t actually happening. Self-awareness is step one.

Control your attention – For most of us our attention is constantly being snatched away by thoughts about the past or the future. The second step is to keep bringing your attention back to the present moment. When you are in the present moment you are awake and not ruminating and therefore not generating stress. The way to do this is to literally connect to your senses: What is happening right now in your environment? What can you hear, see, feel? When you come to your senses you wake up.

Detach – The issues we ruminate about are always the ones that we blow out of proportion. People who detach have learned to do two things. First, they have learned to step back and put things into perspective. They don’t turn molehills into mountains and thus don’t let situations overwhelm them.  Second, they only focus on what they can control. While ruminators spend much of their time focusing on things over which they have no control, detached people focus their time on issues they can actually influence. When I ask them about this, they almost always say, “Why worry about things that I can’t control?” (like we all say, but they actually do it!)

Let Go: At the core of why we continue to ruminate about things long after they have happened is that we refuse to let them go. The people who are best at letting go are those who ask themselves a simple question: Will continuing to focus on this help me, my family or my organization? If the answer is no, they let go. A classic example is Nelson Mandela, who when asked why he was not angrier about his time in jail replied, “If I thought it would be useful, I would be.”

Finally – Get Up To The Loft

The house below is a visual metaphor for how to bring all four resilience steps together: Wake Up, Control your Attention, Detach, and Let Go.

Man in the loft as his troubles flow by

Imagine that the house is your mind and the flood water outside is all the pressures, thoughts, and emotions you face each day.

You have three options for how to respond.

A. Denial: Try to hold the front door shut and pretend none of those thoughts or feelings exists. Eventually the door will blow open and you will be swept away.

B. Rumination: Open the door, jump into the water and start swimming in the thoughts and feelings. This will leave you frantic, exhausted, and overwhelmed.

C. Wake Up: Notice that as well as a front door, there is also a back door and an attic. Open the front and back doors so thoughts and stories can flow through; then go up to the loft. From there, stay detached and observe the thoughts and feelings as they pass through but don’t attach to them. Don’t get tangled up with them, and don’t try to hold them out. Simply let them come and let them go.

When you take this approach, you are applying all four steps at once. When you practice this, you may start to notice that you feel more grounded and present. You might still face the same challenges as before, but you start to look at them in a new, more detached way. Furthermore, you may discover that some of what you saw as your biggest problems weren’t really problems at all. They were, in the end, just ruminations.

- Nick Petrie is Senior Faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership. To learn more about this topic go to his website or download his new whitepaper – Wake Up: The Surprising Truth about What Drives Stress and How Leaders Build Resilience.

One Response to “Dealing With the Root Cause of Your Stress”

  1. Duane Penzien says:

    Interesting idea that came through just when I needed it most. I’ve been struggling with excessive stress on / off for some time, but hadn’t been able to put my finger on the WHY. I too was stuck in the rut of blaming others and failing to understand the difference between pressure and stress. I downloaded the white-paper, it is well worth reading and studying on. I am!

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