As we continue with our series on stress, we can boil it down to a single question: What is the single most important thing I can do to manage stress in my life? This 11 minute video from Dr Mike Evans, who is a professor of family medicine and public health in Toronto, Canada very helpfully and entertainingly builds on what we have been saying in our previous posts (part 1, part 2 and part 3):

Dr Evans helpfully points out that there is both a negative and a positive side to stress. Having already discussed the negative side to stress, the positive side can be seen in athletes who are able to perform at their best when it really matters, mothers with their tiredness and busy schedules or business executives dealing with rapidly changing and highly charged demands on them. In these cases managing stress is like regulating the pressure in a bicycle tyre – just enough to keep rolling, but not too much that if they hit a bump in the road they don’t explode!

What is it that makes most people resistant to stress? It is dependent on factors such as:
– How much control you feel you have.
– The richness of your social networks in terms of family and friends
– Your openness to change
– A positive attitude like optimism
– Self-care skills like regular exercise, sleeping well, avoiding junk food, enjoying friends and family  and a sense of humour.

But the single most effective factor to manage stress is to change your thinking style. As we explained in part 1 what we call stress is really my subjective thinking about what is happening to me. My brain can literally become a volume dial that can turn my stress level up or down.

According to William James, the 19th century psychologist:
“Our greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” (For further discussion on the power of thinking see Initial Thoughts on Thinking and Thinking with John Maxwell)

In modern psychology we see this with the use of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) that involves problem solving skills, relaxation and challenging common thinking traps that we can fall into (that includes the 4 myths we discussed in part 3).

More recently there has also been the development of mindfulness based CBT that has been shown to be as effective as antidepressant medication in preventing relapse of depression in patients who are in remission. The reasons suggested for this include:
– increased self-awareness (see Awareness Part 1 and Awareness Part 2)
– the mind body connection through breathing and muscle relaxation
– meditation (see ‘The Difference between Talking to Your Heart and Listening to Your Heart“)

It is also important to understand that it is not just replacing thoughts, but choosing where I place my attention on. As the Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl has stated, “Between stimulus and response there is a space.” The power of mindfulness comes from creating that space and giving us the self-awareness that we actually do have the power to choose how we respond.

Linked to this is the importance of our outlook on life or attitude. A study that investigated the factors influencing those employees who coped well with the uncertainty and closure around the break-up of a large telephone company in the United States in the 1980s was able to show the effect of 3 types of thinking attitude:

1. Commitment to a bigger picture of success. While facing uncertainty they stayed committed to doing quality work, enjoying family and friends, their local community, faith and hobbies. We looked at this in understanding definitions of success.

2. Focussing on what they could control and do something about rather than what they were powerless over.

3. Seeing the change that was going on around them as a potential stepping stone to a better future and not a stumbling block or permanent obstacle.

For a personal example of this from my own life in relatively speaking what was a mildly stressful situation see ‘7 Lessons From a Passport‘.

Dr Evans final summary is very insightful:

10% of how we do in life is based on what happens to us and 90% is how we respond.

So it boils down to taking responsibility for our lives through our thoughts and attitude rather than blaming God or other people or circumstances.

How much does the video and these reflections resonate with you? What do you find helpful or unhelpful?

Feel free to add your comments and questions.