Written and contributed by Stephen Gibb
Around nine months ago, my daughter Willow developed a fear of elevators. Each time we walked towards one, Willow would become hyper-vigilant. Her breath would quicken, and she would cling tightly to me. If I resisted, Willow would begin to cry and become incredibly distressed.
Willow and I live on the top floor of an apartment block. It was upsetting to see her in distress every time we would leave or return home together. My reassurances that elevators held nothing to fear didn’t help. And, while I did my best to convince her, infants don’t care about calming breathing techniques or cognitive reframing when in floods of tears. These tools are, however, very beneficial for adults — more on that later.
On one swelteringly hot day, when the elevator was out of order, Willow and I were forced to climb down and then back up four flights of stairs. Willow complained of sore legs and tiredness every step of the way (other than when I was carrying her of course), which made what happened next even more surprising.
Every day afterwards, Willow asked to use the stairs rather than the elevator, even volunteering to climb all four flights unassisted. Willow had found a way to avoid the uncomfortable feelings brought on by the elevator and was undeterred by the extra effort, discomfort and inconvenience involved.
I, however, wasn’t a fan of Willows labour-intensive plan. I believed she would outgrow her fear and, in what now seems like an act of torture, subjected her to many more stressful rides in the elevator. That was until I understood the underlying cause of her distress.
Fear primarily refers to an experience in which we are faced with an immediate or expected threat to our life or wellbeing. This is called a rational or appropriate fear and is typical and even helpful in dangerous situations. It serves a protective purpose, activating the automatic “fight-or-flight” response to keep us safe.
Another category of fear exists, namely irrational or inappropriate fear. These are fears of something that poses little or no actual danger. Although irrational fears can become so severe that they interfere with everyday life. When they do, they’re called phobias. When confronted with the thing feared, the terror is automatic and overwhelming. The experience can be so nerve-wracking that you will go to great lengths to avoid it — inconveniencing yourself or even changing your lifestyle. This is what was happening to Willow.
As it turns out, Willow didn’t feel threatened by the elevator at all. In fact, the elevator was only a trigger for Willows phobia and experience of anxiety. Willow was anxious about the elevator doors separating her from her dad, and the potential of becoming lost.
Anxiety is a natural part of life and, at normal levels, helps us to function at our best. It’s what motivates us to plan for the future. In this sense, it’s a good thing. It’s that nagging feeling that encourages us to study for that test practice harder for that game or be at our very best in that presentation. However, some people experience such intense anxiety that it is no longer helpful or useful. They may become so overwhelmed and distracted by anxiety that they fail their test, fumble the ball, or spend the whole presentation stumbling over their words and staring at the floor. Anxiety can be incredibly challenging to control and at its worst completely debilitating.
The difference between fear and anxiety is exceptionally nuanced. The perceived threats (physical or imagined) are processed in the same parts of our brain and cause us to experience many similar symptoms and feelings when they occur. However, being able to spot the difference is critical in being able to handle the situation and alleviate the discomfort.
Because Willow never feared the elevator, my attempts to convince her that it was safe were destined to fail. When Willow offered to take the stairs, it wasn’t to avoid using the elevator, it was to dodge the stimulus of the anxiety associated with becoming lost. Willow had stumbled upon a way to suppress the anxiety through avoidance. However, she wasn’t addressing the underlying phobia, meaning there could be numerous other triggers that could cause distress in the future.
Stress, the bodies response to fear and anxiety, is a rapidly increasing challenge of modern society. From an evolutionarily perspective, stress was designed to help us focus on the present moment and by preparing the body to move. It was intended for short irregular applications to help us escape from something or capture something else. Today, however, many of us live in a state of perpetual stress, or, to give it its clinical name, chronic stress. Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. It can cause high blood pressure, the formation of artery-clogging deposits, changes in the brain that may lead to depression and addiction and even obesity.
It appears that benign irrational fears can, in fact, be as life-threatening as their rational equivalents. It is critical, therefore, to take steps to lessen stress in life to maintain a clean bill of health.
I am adept at findings ways to relieve the discomfort of stress, and like Willow, will accept sacrifices to do so. These can be as trivial as leaving the house early to avoid busy public transport or as significant as giving up a personal ambition for fear of failure. Regretfully, this behaviour has deprived me of our meaningful opportunities to learn, grow and lead a liberated more vibrant life.
Most people know when something in their life isn’t working. However, they lack the tools to understand what’s wrong and what remedial steps to take. Fear, or more specifically, anxiety, can be a great indicator of what’s not working. It can also be the catalyst and impetus to step outside of our comfort zone to address the root cause and develop as an individual.
The way I permanently address anxiety and alleviate stress is to eliminate the uncertainty associated with the underlying fear. For Willow, that is a work in progress. I’ve been teaching her what to do if we become separated, not just by the elevator but anywhere. However, the solution to becoming lost goes beyond just knowing how to find each other again. It includes reassuring Willow that I am there for her, that she can rely on me and when she is a little older, that she’ll be capable of independence. This is a tougher nut to crack, but we will get there.
Working through uncertainty is a cognitive process of gathering information that invalidates your fear or increases your comprehension of the imagined situation and how to handle it. Providing your brain with the understanding, you can overcome the fear serves to turn down the volume on the anxiety. The more certainty you can develop around fear, the quieter the anxiety and the resultant stress becomes.
Managing uncertainty can take time, and unsurprisingly, anxiety and stress doesn’t disappear while we are trying to develop certainty. It’s beneficial, therefore, to have some tools that can help release the pressure when it all gets too much. The tools below were shared by Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman from Stanford University on a recent Thrive Global post. They act on the core nervous system to shift us from “fight-or-flight” into the “rest-and-digest” state, and in doing so, calm us down.
1. Use Panoramic Vision
The focus of the eyes is closely linked to felt levels of stress. Engaging panoramic vision (looking straight ahead and allowing the peripheral vision to expand), can positively impact stress levels.
When feeling stressed or experiencing a build-up of anxiety. Lifting the gaze away from the screen and looking ahead can have a profoundly positive affect. Or better still, increase the impact by getting outside into nature and viewing the horizon; bonus points for a sunrise or sunset.
2. Exhale Emphasised Breathing/Physiological Sighs
One of the most common things people say when someone is stressed is to take a deep breath. However, studies show that it’s actually the exhale that plays the most significant role in the calming the nervous system. Inhale focused breathing (any breathing technique in which the inhale is longer) increases agitation and stress in the body; which can be valuable under certain circumstances. Exhale emphasised breathing, where the exhale is longer, allows the nervous system to be reset to base levels.
Completing two to five rounds of a physiological sigh — double inhale (breath in, pause, breath in again) and long sigh out the mouth — will be impactful in lowering stress levels.
3. Take Action
Often times when stress arises, the last thing I feel like is doing is moving. I have even found myself in a state of paralysis in exceptional circumstances. Other times I have attempted to suppress the overwhelming feeling of stress because I’m not sure how to handle it. These reactions are counterintuitive to our physiology.
Rising levels of stress are the nervous systems way of encouraging forward movement to take action towards confronting a challenge or problem. Doing so provides the rewarded of a release of dopamine — a feel-good chemical in the brain that is part of the body’s reward system. This dopamine hit suppressed the internal chemicals responsible for the feeling of stress and strengthens the “take action” circuit of the brain. Making it easier to take action the next time stress takes hold.
I can achieve a similar outcome by taking action on something wholly disassociated from the source of the stress. Just succeeding at making a cup of coffee, putting on a load of washing on or making the bed can also stimulate a release of dopamine in moments of heightened distress.
So, what can we learn from Willow, a three-year-old little girl with a fear of becoming lost?
1. All fear, including anxiety-inducing irrational fear, can be life-threatening. What life-threatening anxiety and suffering are you choosing to live with?
2. It’s easier for us to find avoidant workarounds rather than facing our fears. What are the workarounds masking your fears, and inhibiting your growth opportunities?
3. Irrational fear and the resultant feeling of anxiety can be overcome by eliminating uncertainty. What steps will you take to bring certainty to the context of an existing fear?
Just before I published this article, I spoke to some close friends. I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing by putting a story about my beloved daughter on the internet. One piece of feedback was so thought-provoking; I thought it worth sharing.
“…maybe change this line, because it is only when it comes to lifts, the line below implies she has it in all situations?
So, what can we learn from Willow, a three-year-old girl with a fear of becoming lost?
I don’t know if you want to label her. All kids look for their parents”
The same concern had crossed my mind. Willows situation is primarily concerning elevators, but there have been other instances too, and most kids do worry about becoming lost. But, I think this is an excellent illustration of a large part of the problem. We are societally scared to label and confront our fears. Instead, we put on a brave face, muddle through and die a little more inside each day.
I don’t want that for my daughter or for anyone else. It is my hope that the research I did to write this will allow me to help Willow overcome her fear and that in reading it, others will be inspired to do the same.
We’ve all been there. The looming deadline. The high stakes work. The pressure mounting. The finish line and our chances of getting there are touch and go. But we rise up to the challenge, not only hitting the mark but smashing it out of the park.
As we breathe a sigh of relief we say to ourselves, ‘Never again’.
But soon we find ourselves back there again.
Well in a word, stress. Or more to the point, our complicated relationship with stress. We NEED stress...the good kind that is. It drives up productivity allowing us to achieve beyond perceived limits. The challenge these days is that the story of stress in modern society often only highlights the bad. Anxiety, burnout, poor motivation, are all horrible negative elements that occur when we become over stressed.
So to discover which stress is good and which isn’t, we need to journey back in time and dig into the history of stress. This history lesson will provide a really useful framework for developing individuals and organisations that thrive under pressure.
The birth of stress
Stress as a term has only been around since the early 20th Century and was coined by the “Father of Stress”, Slovakian Scientist Hans Selye when he was testing a hypothesis on ovarian hormones using rats as the test subject. Selye discovered that no matter what substance he substituted for the ovarian hormone, the same reactions happened in the rats. It wasn’t the substance that was instigating the reaction. It was the situation. The situation set off a chain of reactions and those reactions were the same no matter what substance was used. Eventually the rats would die from the sustained stress of the situation.
Two sides to every story
Selye defined stress “as an organisms unspecific reaction to any kind of external demand.” He also defined stress as both positive and negative. Positive stress was named ‘eustress’, based on the Greek word ‘Eu’ meaning good and negative stress was labelled ‘distress’, inspired by the Latin word ‘Dis’, meaning bad. Distress can lead to anxiety if the stress is too high but on the flip side, can also lead to boredom if the stress is not enough.
Yep, you read it right. Low stress is also a negative stress.
The current narrative on stress highlights the negative. When we think of the word stress, we instantly are drawn to our own negative experiences. Stress is bad. That’s what we know, that’s what we believe. But unfortunately it is only half the narrative. To help guide us, we will use a powerful framework to understand the thinking that occurs when we are placed under stress. It is within this framework that we can start to negotiate the necessary mindset, skill sets and coping strategies to turn the tide on stress.
Situation and Self
Inspired by Dr. Selye’s work, Dr. Richard Lazarus and Dr. Susan Folkman developed the Transactional Model of Stress. In this framework, stress ‘is the result of a transactional process between a person and the environment’ (Peifer, 2012). When an external demand (challenge/pressure) is placed on an individual, a certain process is followed. The first assessment we make is whether or not the situation is a threat. If a threat is perceived, we make a second appraisal. Do I have the strategies to cope with this situation? It is this key decision that shapes the stress path we choose. If we believe we don’t have the ability to cope, the stress is perceived as negative stress or distress. If we believe we have the ability to cope, we perceive the stress as eustress and this creates the opportunity for optimal performance.
The demands of the situation meet our skill level and we rise to the challenge.
The work flows out of us effortlessly.
We connect disparate ideas.
We lose all sense of time and feel deeply connected to the work
We are uber productive.
We enter an optimal state of consciousness that psychology calls ‘flow’.
Flow - the antidote to stress
Coined by Hungarian Psychologist, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an “altered state of consciousness in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” It is an optimal state of experience and performance. In flow, people feel great and their performance is elevated. It boosts both morale and productivity.
So how much more productive can you be in flow? How about up to five times?
In a ten year study by McKinsey and Company, 5000 high performing executives operating at their peak reported being up to five times more productive when in Flow. This number varied from person to person but on average executives felt that their output dramatically increased when in a flow state. The challenge however, was that these executives also self reported only being in Flow about 10% of the time. As well as driving up our performance, Flow is one of the only times where five of our most potent neurochemicals are released in our brain at the same time. These neurochemicals enable us to connect disparate ideas, focus intensely, feel really good and connect deeper with other humans. As the Flow Genome Project, a world leading authority on Flow Science, state in their definition of Flow, “we feel our best and perform our best.”
Making friends with stress
Stress is required for Flow to show up. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi listed nine dimensions of Flow and one key Flow dimension is called the Challenge/Skills ratio. This refers directly to stress. Stress is the demands or challenge of a situation. We need to increase/decrease the demands of task to a point that is suitable for our skill level. If the demands are too high, our anxiety rises. If the demands are too low, it promotes boredom. Finding the Goldilocks spot, where it is just right, helps drive our attention into the now. Cortisol, aka the stress chemical, is released and this helps us focus with more intensity. Cortisol enhances selective attention in the brain which filters out superfluous information and tightens focus on the task at hand. We become better at blocking out information that doesn’t enable us to achieve our goal and we become deeply immersed in the task at hand. In an age of distraction, this capacity to deeply focus on demanding work is a modern day superpower and it enables us to reach a peak state of performance. It enables us to be more productive and to feel our best.
Strategies for building a better stress relationship
Contributor: Steve Brophy
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