Nowadays the word stress has a very negative connotation. But stress is not inherently a bad thing. When you look it up in the Oxford online dictionary you find it simply defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.”
Mental and emotion strain and tension have some good aspects. They activate the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) which is very important and useful. Its function is to unlock our energy and enable us to take action. For example, it helps us get up in the morning, focus our attention, and to push us to go to the limits of our capacity to achieve our goals.
The challenge is that while our world has changed dramatically, the wiring of our nervous system has not changed much in the last thousands of years. At that time our main stress was being under physical threat. That’s why stress activates our survival instinct. Today most stressors are not physical threats. But our nervous system has not adapted to this new reality. It has not learned to differentiate. It reacts the same way to an unfriendly post on social media, or when we are worried others will not like us at work, as to the threat of being attacked by a tiger.
Nowadays we are constantly bombarded with stressors, way more than thousands of years ago. Most of them are minor, but even minor ones build up and create a state of chronic stress. And chronic stress results in cognitive, emotional, and perceptual impairment, which is not conducive to optimal work performance and well-being.
Fortunately we have ways to alleviate the damage from chronic stress. The most important is the arousal of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). It reverses the negative effects of chronic stress. We are at our cognitive best in the PNS. It is the best state for complex thinking and being creative. And in this state we are also more open to new ideas and innovation.
Stress is a natural part of life. We cannot eliminate it but we can manage it and develop a sustainable way of working and living. When it comes to managing stress, the most important is balance. Just as a car engine needs some idle time to cool down after being driven at maximum capacity for an extended period, in the same way human beings need to balance periods of high activation and demands with relaxation. Without regular stimulation of the PNS, we literally wear out and slowly reduce our ability to function, adapt, be pleasant, enjoy life, and so on.
There are many ways to activate the PNS. The most obvious ones are regular rest and sleep, exercise, or simply spending some time in nature. Relaxed and positive social time, reading, music, and entertainment are also very helpful. The challenge is that these activities are very difficult to build into the workday.
This is where Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence can be immensely helpful in managing stress. They can tackle the problem at the root and actually prevent the build up of chronic stress. How is that?
Mindfulness helps us be more aware of the occurrence of stress. This is important because it is difficult to change something we are not aware of. A lot of times we are not fully aware of stress and until its negative effects manifest. The increased awareness that mindfulness provides helps us gain understanding of our mental and emotional experience. And we become more aware how we react in stressful situations. When we are aware and emotionally intelligent the executive part of the brain can manage stress. It can help us pause and reflect before we take action in stressful situations. And it can help us choose responses and actions that create positives outcomes and prevent the build-up of stress.
Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence provide us with the means to upgrade the human nervous system for the 21st century so we can be more resilient to stress and more skillful in challenging situation. And this is not just an upgrade for our “software”, the way we process mentally, but even our “hardware”, the brain. Research of Neuroplasticity has shown that if we practice consistently we can actually rewire our brain.
Note: The above is to a large extent based on the article “My Personal Sustainability” by Richard E. Boyatzis and Daniel Goleman. They also developed an assessment called the Personal Sustainability Index (PSI)© which is available through Key Step Media that helps you understand your personal state of stress and renewal.