This is what happens when you get stressed: your body enters a state of high arousal; your blood goes from your stomach to your upper body; at the same time, it thickens; if you’re a man you’re likely to become very focussed; if you’re a woman you may well become more aware of things around you. In short, you are at your mental and physical best. You’re a machine. You could kill a bear. But only for a short time, say 20 minutes or so.
After that, all that thick blood starts to clog up your brain; you might get a headache from the swelling and you won’t be able to think straight. Your stomach starts to lack the blood it sent to the upper body; you might get stomach ache or IBS. Your heart is exhausted from pumping that thick, cloggy blood. Access to your pre-frontal cortex is overridden, blocking the capacity for rational, measured thought. Your IQ drops, your blood pressure rises and you’re pretty much good for nothing. You’re a Neanderthal.
We humans are animals. In order to be happy and healthy, any animal needs to live a life something close to the one it evolved to live. Unfortunately for us, the speed of our social evolution has far overtaken that of our biological evolution, and often that means that we couldn’t be further from living the life we evolved to live. Physiological responses we evolved to help us defend our caves from grizzly bears do not help us much in the modern world. Our lives are super easy compared to what they used to be. Talk about #firstworldproblems. Try being a prehistoric caveman.
So what does this mean? Well it means that our minds and bodies tell us we’re fighting a pack of wolves when we actually just have to respond to a few emails, and this puts us in overly stressful situations more often than is necessary or healthy. But the good news is that we don’t have to succumb to our overdeveloped stress response every time. In fact, essential as it is to our survival, rarely do we need it to trigger to the extent it does on a day-to-day basis. An overloaded email inbox does categorically not put you in as much danger as being faced by a sabretooth tiger. Walking down a dark alley with a tall dark stranger breathing down your neck, however, may well do. So we need to learn to choose our response to stress in appropriate situations.
That’s right: choose our response. Stress is a choice.
Take this example. Dan is on his way to an important pitch meeting. It’s an important new business prospect for his company, and he has been told that if he wins the project, he will be able to run it, putting his own team together. He really wants to win it. On his way to the meeting, he hits a monumental traffic jam caused by an accident ahead. There’s gridlock and he’s going to be late. As he sits and waits for the traffic to clear, he becomes more and more stressed, thinking about all the consequences of not making it on time. Meanwhile, his body prepares to fight a bear. By the time he arrives 30 minutes later, he is late and gives such a poor performance that he doesn’t win the work. When he has to explain what happened to his boss, he tells him about the traffic jam and says it was that that affected his performance.
Lizzy is also on her way to the same pitch meeting. She works for a competitor company and is in her first week of the job. This is the first opportunity she has to prove herself to her new boss, and knows that if she can win this bit of work so early on then she’ll win the respect of her new boss but also the trust of her new team. There is a lot at stake for her. She hits the same traffic jam as Dan and is also late for the meeting. However, Lizzie delivers a perfect performance, wins the work and is praised back in the office for doing such a good job.
So tell me, if Dan and Lizzie were both in the same traffic jam and were both late to the meeting, how can the traffic jam be responsible for Dan’s poor performance? It wasn’t. He was.
The difference between Dan and Lizzie is that Lizzie holds different beliefs about the potentially stressful situation she finds herself in. Knowing that there was nothing she could do about the traffic jam, and understanding that on a scale of 1-100 of stressful situations, this probably ranked about a 2 in terms of how much it would matter in a year’s time, she was able to remain calm and enter a healthy state of physiological stress when it came to the meeting itself, putting her at her best. She was in competency mode. By the time Dan had got to the meeting, his stress response was so far gone that he’d entered survival mode. All that energy he’d built up to fight that bear while he was waiting in the traffic jam was unspent and had made him a useless wreck.
So tell me, who would you rather be? Dan or Lizzie?
Next time you’re in a stressful situation and you feel your stress response kicking in, just ask yourself these three questions:
- How bad is this on a scale of 1-100?
- How much will this matter in 12 months’ time?
- How do I want to respond to this situation?
And if you’re so stressed you don’t have time for all three, just ask yourself the last one. Then make that choice.
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