Stress & Strain

Breathe In


Most of my blog posts are written in coffee shops. Today's establishment is playing a confusing blend of whale music and Florence and the Machine. The tables are high enough for me to fit my legs under (which are significantly smaller since my rowing days) and the staff are always interested to learn how your coffee was. Importantly, coffee shops have conversations. My ears wonder between several at once as voices rise and fall. I don't actively attempt to shut out the surrounding voices, but instead, I use them to guide my thinking.


The inspiration for this blog comes from 'sceptic, author, speaker and Doctor' (although not necessarily in that order) Malcolm Kendrick. If you want to be enlightened as to 'What causes heart disease?' , his blog is a great place to start. If you're interested in the motivations of the pharmaceutical industry, Dr Kendrick's best-selling book, 'Doctoring Data', takes you on a witty and depressing journey through medical research: disseminating the evidence, exposing the conflicts of interest and questioning the efficacy of the nations' medicine cabinets.


The opposite side of the coffee shop is a toddler who has just finished a tantrum. The young lad wasn't allowed to play on Mum's phone (well done, Mum). The child screamed and cried because he couldn't play on a phone. Without going off on a complete tangent and launching into a Black-Mirror-esq rant about the dystopian future kids today face, the toddler was responding to an unfavourable situation by exhibiting physical and emotional stress. As Malcolm Kendrick points out, there is a critical difference between stress and strain. The child has reacted to a situation that for him provided enough stress on his undeveloped emotional system to cause a high strain response (kicking and screaming). As he gets older, his emotional intelligence, rational thinking and resilience will develop. And if he is lucky, he may even get his own phone. When he reaches adulthood, he will no doubt reflect on that fateful day when he threw a tantrum in a coffee shop and raise a wry smile.


When I began typing, a man walked in, sat down behind me and plugged his phone in. He then made a phone call to someone close to him, describing his so-far stressful day. He went on to explain how his phone had died during his earlier journey. Without his trusted A.I (google maps), his world had collapsed! Alas, he remembered the street name of where he was due to be and was able to go old-school, asking someone for directions. He arrived on time and everything worked out. But boy was he stressed. he got me thinking, how would I have reacted?


On one hand, you can understand his frustration (why didn't I charge my phone last night?) incredulous, I know. The other, more rational. What do I do now? (Rational train of thought reaction). Perhaps this man is 2.5 days into a terrible week. We don't know. What we do know is that stress comes disguised in various forms. It doesn't always wear the guise of anger, pulled hair or huffing and a puffing. Could this man suffer from chronic anxiety due to his job? Is he under financial strain? The truth is, we will never know (and no, before you ask, I am not going to turn around and ask him). Critically, we shouldn't judge.


When someone close dies, this is unanimously regarded as 'stressful'. It is undisputed and holds true across cultures. There are also hundreds of potential triggers that could elicit a stress response that is far less stressful than a death. Do we all feel each of these stressors equally? A stressful situation to one person might be a water off a duck's back to another.  And what is the value in knowing what they mean to each of us?


The more I learn about the human body, the more I realise I know so little about it. One area I’ve played close attention recently is the mind. The Iceman, Wim Hoff, who describes himself as an Extreme Athlete, is able to harness the power of his mind using a unique breathing technique. He is able to stimulate hormonal responses via a combination of mediation and a unique breathing pattern. This allows his body to withstand prolonged periods of extreme cold and even reduce the impact of an endotoxin when injected into his body during a research trial. Essentially, he is a boss at dealing with stress and appears to show no strain.


The question must be, then. How do I reduce stress on my body and learn to deal with it (like Wim)?


Seek to understand and then be understood.


There are common stressors in life that we are all familiar with (financial, family, work, social). As individuals, we find it easier to associate with the stressors of others that we are less equipped at dealing with ourselves.


For example, if you are someone who is socially stable (frequent and meaningful contacts with friends, a reciprocal and loving relationship with your partner, a supportive and understanding family) but have always struggled with financial pressures (credit card bills, loans, late bill payments) you will empathise more with someone who is struggling to pay for food or rent than with someone who has a dysfunctional relationship with their partner and an unsupportive family. This isn't to say this person would be disinterested in learning about someone who is in a dysfunctional relationship, just they may find it more difficult to relate to.


And why do I think this is important to discuss? (the above point is not binary in any way, it is simply a general observation).


Breathe Out


I believe we can all benefit from understanding what our own individual stressors are at a given time. By understanding what the root cause of your stress and where the bulk of it comes from is key if you want to treat it.


This year, more people than ever will join a gym and start an exercise regime with the belief it will make them slimmer and happier. But the truth is that those who are already gym members and attend regularly are the small minority that actually enjoys exercise in a gym. By April, most will have realised that the expensive 12-month plaster they signed up for on 2nd January was a poor investment.


I've met and worked with people who transformed their lives by changing one, seemingly small, thing.


At times, it can seem like your entire house is in disarray, grinding from one week to the next. Changing the right thing can make a dramatic difference. Do you have the insight to establish what it is, and the courage to face it and change?


I don't dispute the intention most people have when they join a gym. Get fit, lose weight, tone-up. And they're probably right. But why are you unfit, overweight and unhealthy?. It's not because you are not a gym member. Somewhere along the way, things have slipped but adding more stress to a stressful life isn't the answer. Battering your way through body-pump, psyco-spin and HIIT 'till you S**T every week in January will keep you out of the pub and give you an endorphin kick. But it's not sustainable. Eventually, life will assert itself again. Cheery stuff, hey?


I regard myself as someone who fairly relaxed. I am fortunate to not have much stress in my life although this has been a product of some tough lessons, honest conversations and hard work over the years. To double-check my sanity, I took a '360 stress test'. Note: this is NOT when 4 people hold each one of your limbs and pull until you break but instead a rather straightforward online survey. I'm proud to say I scored 63 out of 200 which puts me in the 'slightly stressed' category. The recommendations are I take more frequent breaks when working (link below), walk more often (I've been unusually sedentary recently due to ankle tendinitis) and perhaps most surprisingly, schedule humour breaks into my day (actual permission to watch cat GIFs). This is an opportunity for a little self-improvement. High expectations are a given in the workplace. The impending threat of a machine, immune from stress, taking over our job, is ever-present. One's ability to apply the brakes momentarily will be a determining factor in the workplace of the future. Can you keep your head, and all that. The paradoxical idea of stopping, or even reversing in order to progress quicker is (I think) critical. This isn’t to say mistakes shouldn’t be made as I think we could all do from failing a little more (Canadian Olympian Adam Kreek has a wonderful TED talk on this) but at least fail in the best way possible. There is no shame in that. When I find myself with one too many balls to juggle, I like to take a step outside and breathe some fresh air. This can be difficult to justify when calls are coming in, emails need replies and deadlines are looming. You may even agree that the walk is good for your health, and your work, yet you still cannot do it! What would stepping out of the office at lunch do anyway when you can sit in front of your keyboard with a bag of crisps and tap anyway? The pull of work will never subside. It will always exist and as responsibility increases, more will be expected. Not delivering is not an option. The challenge is not how long you can stay in the office (apparently this something to be proud of?) but how little you can let your work get to you. Do you have the acumen to stifle stress and hold on to your health?


(I should add, I take my work with people seriously. I engineer my day to ensure I have enough time to prepare and deliver the best session possible with everyone I work with. If I am stressed, overworked and disorganised, those I work with will feel it. I invest time and effort developing myself so I can provide a consistently excellent service).


Stress (or strain) is notoriously difficult to measure due to the reasons highlighted above. Anything that cannot be assigned a value is tough to quantify and therefore ambiguous and difficult to cross-compare or give a normative range. But there is no denying the role stress plays in our busy lives. The two come hand in hand. Does chronic stress reduce your lifespan? Probably. Does it increase your chance of developing a disease? Most probably. Does it have a wider impact on those you look after and care for? Most certainly.


And Repeat


If you work with me, you'll have heard me say before; our environment is not designed to support healthy behaviours. Your workplace is designed to keep you as close to your desk as possible. Bus stops are getting closer and closer together. Supermarkets present the lowest quality, ultra-processed food in the most prominent places. Schools are banning hopscotch, running, handstand and cartwheels. You have to be smart if you want a high quality of life beyond 50. Despite what you may read, our fantastic health service, which has given so much to me and my family, will continue to nurse people through later life and provide the best level of care in the world. What society will not do is encourage you to do less, spend more time with friends and family and drink more coffee. Instead, drugs will continue to be developed for modern diseases and in not so long be delivered via drone.


The dank smell of a freshly run mop and bucket cuts through the mellow coffee I’ve been enjoying. It’s closing time. Over the space of a few coffee’s, problems are solved, stress levels are reducing and the strain of life diminishing.  It’s simple, but like all good things, effective. Did it take some time out to their day? Yes. Will they regret that ‘wasted time’? No. Personally, I'd rather make the days count, rather than count the days.


Take Aways


1. Take the '360 stress test' here, its free and find out where the bulk of your stress is coming from -

2. Download 'Pomodoros' (chrome extension) and get more productive at work -

3. Watch this and smile -