The surprising root cause of your stress and what you can do about it.

You can listen to the audio version of this blog via Spotify.

Tis the season

As Christmas approaches, new rules have been introduced in the UK as to how we can meet up with family and friends. Tis all a tad confusing, especially as tiers have also been announced, which will remain in effect until reviewed on 16 December. We’re all trying to get our head around this information and already today, I have had confusing conversations with grandparents in my family as to who will be in which bubble and whether we can see each other or not.

Social media is awash with people commenting on the announcements – many questioning how much sense this all makes. Many of the comments might be fuelled by frustration, disappointment and sadness which is completely understandable. We have had thoughts on what our plans in this family could be, but they’re probably going to need to change which I know my children will find upsetting because it means not seeing much-loved members of our extended family. And don’t even talk about New Year’s Eve…!

There is much talk of a mental health crisis following this pandemic and you can absolutely see why people are hitting rock bottom. A sustained period of time being unable to see family and friends is challenging, and one reason the government has decreed the five days we can spend with our extended bubbles, is because they recognise that mental health is very important.

More and more people are feeling the strain – there are job losses, extended furlough, businesses running into severe financial difficulties, more and more people relying on Food Banks, families unable to afford the Christmas they’d hoped to with their children, and families unable to be together due to restrictions travelling abroad.

A plague of lighthouse keepers

So, what is the answer, I hear you cry! Well, it’s certainly not about slapping a smile on and being positive – that’s like wearing rubber gloves to fix a leaky pen. If we are feeling stressed in the current situation, or indeed by any challenges or issues – be it about work, relationships, friendships etc etc, how can we help ourselves? How can we own our stress and ensure it doesn’t get the better of us as it were; that we don’t start spiralling downwards to a place from which we cannot return? There is of course no easy answer.  However, there is an answer, but it does mean root and branch stuff. 

If we are feeling stressful - can we do anything about the events or people we think are causing our stress? If we can, then let’s get on and do something. If we can’t, such as COVID-19, it’s about changing the way we are thinking about it so that it doesn’t lead us to the dark places in our mind.

On The Winning Edge programme we talk about lighthouses - in the metaphorical sense they are the same immoveable object which you can do absolutely nothing about… such as the weather or the passing of time; or a person, circumstances, event or issue in your life that stands in your way of achieving what you want to achieve. Many of the lighthouses can be navigated around – it’s just a case of finding a solution to the problem or finding a different way of thinking around the issue. It’s important to acknowledge though that for some, who may live with clinical depression or significant poor mental health, the lighthouse represents an insurmountable problem and their set of circumstances may mean that navigating around is impossible; for the most part however, for the majority of people, there is usually a way around lighthouses.

Recognising lighthouses in our lives and adopting the appropriate mindset to manage the situation is paramount in order that we can move forward. If we are choosing instead to constantly run into the rocks, somewhere along the way we will damage our boat – our psyche – and that’s where the stress begins. It’s about pinpointing whether there are any lighthouses in your life and changing your thinking about how you can begin to steer around them leading to much calmer and trouble-free waters.

It’s always worth remembering the Serenity Prayer: God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

Mind. Body. Soul.

COVID-19 is currently one big lighthouse which is having a huge affect globally. The ramifications and how it ripples out to every facet of our lives is astonishing. I thought about my day-to-day life and how I am needing to take into account the effects of COVID-19 when I make decisions and choices. I think the one thing I do which is not affected by the virus is going out on my bike – I’m not talking to anyone so don’t need to worry about social distancing, nor going anywhere where I’ll need to think about hand sanitising or wearing a face mask. It’s quite glorious and for a few hours, I can forget these crazy times that we are currently living through.

Because that’s just it, we are living through these times; time marches on regardless of our state of mind and if we are choosing to bang our head consistently against the rocks, the result is not going to be good long term. There are going to be the days when we feel frustrated, depressed, disappointed, hopeless and disheartened – a completely natural response to this situation, but as I very often say, it’s ok not to be ok but it’s not ok to stay that way.

If we feel stressed about the effects COVID-19 is having, we can literally make ourselves ill. Stress is a feeling we experience when we feel challenged or overwhelmed. This pandemic ticks both those boxes for a lot of people. Notice I say ‘feeling’. Our feelings derive from the type of thoughts we have, so when we have those feelings of anxiety, worry and stress, it’s drilling down to the nature of our thoughts. If we allow those feelings of stress long-term, it can be a hardwired physical response which travels through our entire body. Stress hormones, over time, can be the cause of a plethora of issues – IBS, weight gain, hypertension, you become more susceptible to infections, fatigue, and in extreme cases, stroke and heart attack. What’s important is how you respond to stressful situations. If you change the way you think about stress, you can change your body’s response to it. As Kelly McGonigal talks about in her TEDx Talk How To Make Stress Your Friend, the new science of stress is that it’s how you think about stress that’s key. She says it’s about being ‘better at stress’ and telling yourself: ‘This is my body helping me to rise to the challenge’ because when you view stress in this way, your body believes you, and your stress response becomes healthier.

Think I’m gonna feel better

Everything in life is relative and we each have our own tipping point however, our mindset determines how we deal with challenging situations. As McGonigal says, the harmful effects of stress are not inevitable. How you think and act can transform your experience of stress. Whether it be a project that’s taking longer to complete than previously planned, or news that shakes your very foundation - it is your mindset and how you choose to react both in the immediacy of the situation as well as over time, that will affect your general demeanour and outlook. It’s about owning your feelings and emotions – they are a direct result of your thinking so when you can consciously manage this, you’re on the right track to leading a much more liberating life where you know the blame lays solely with you with regards to your responses to those around you and events which take place.

Over time are key words here because much can happen to us which is not our choosing but by allowing our self some space and time to adjust to our new circumstances, we can choose the path our life takes from there on in.

To sum up, our stress is caused by our own thoughts – the way we are choosing to think about a situation and thus, managing the resulting emotions. This does not remove the responsibility of parents, managers, partners and people in positions of authority from behaving responsibly and respectfully towards others but it does mean we need to own our stress and find a way of navigating our way out of it by perhaps getting external help in the form of therapy, a mentor or coach or another appropriate professional source. Sometimes, it can mean carving out your own time – seeking sanctuary in an activity which gives you much needed head space. Biking is my happy place – my time for me, to process all that is going on in my head.

The day we are able to look in the mirror and know that we are both the problem but also have access to the answer is the day we can become liberated from our stress.

Hazel Morley, an esteemed Winning Edge facilitator who left us for foreign shores, wrote a wonderful Mindset Blog for us and in it she so insightfully said: “Your thoughts can literally make you sick or they can facilitate health. So, become more conscious of your thinking habits and beliefs about your health and remember you have the power to write your own prescription for self-care and vitality.” Hazel was spot-on.


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