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Stress: How mindsets and networks can help

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

We strain or stress our muscles when we do resistance training i.e. a strength work out. This is good, because the heavier load than we were used to (muscle tension), combined with metabolic stress (the "burn") stimulate our bodies to rebuild our muscles (myofibrils) when we rest. It is the rest that provides the opportunity for growth.

Dr. Hans Selye, the pioneer of research into “biological stress” tried to change his term “stress” to “strain” (The Stress of My Life: a Scientist’s Memoirs, 1979), but it was too late – a widespread adoption of the term had already happened, to our detriment. He did, at least, separate "distress" (negative stress) and "eustress" (positive tension/ strain). Strain – the internal effect of pressure, which can be moderated.

Strain is experienced differently by different people – it is subjective. So, what I see as “strenuous” may be light work for you, and what is easy for me might challenge you in certain circumstances. We are able to reflect on what is happening to us and choose more effective responses. Chronic stress needs to be minimised. "Full stop", as we UK-English-raised-folks say. "Period" for those in the realm of US-English. An alarm response ("Danger! Danger!") is meant to be intense, temporary and not sustained. “Fight, freeze or flight” - enter cortisol - has its purpose. Insane project deliverables without sufficient boundaries and authority, resplendent with email messages and WhatsApp texts on a work group, are not healthy. If the situation continues for weeks/months, it will ultimately result in ulcers and/or high blood pressure, leading to a heart-attack or stroke.

Dr. Robert Sapolsky wrote a book called “Why zebras don’t get ulcers”. Zebras only stress when there’s a predator, and they work with other species and their own kind to mitigate risks. These are long-term strategies and fit with whole-life design. Viktor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for Meaning”, said that he and other Auschwitz survivors had something in common: something significant still to do. If we can figure out what really makes us come alive and is vitally important to us, we can choose to do more of this, lead the pack in it, and lower our stress levels through this passionate pursuit.

Additionally, a recent National Geographic documentary on stress agrees that "social affiliation" alleviates chronic stress. Especially when we are giving input to others. It can combat deterioration of arteries, brain-cell death and the allocation of fat to harmful areas. As we say in South Africa, "Eish!" In other words, "Wow, being around people who don’t stress you out, but are instead committed to your success, is a REALLY good thing!". It’s especially good when you are contributing, or encouraging the growth of the group members. I tend to be around Type-A, ambitious people a fair amount, as an entrepreneur. Sometimes this is a distraction from my role as an executive coach, trying to de-stress executives. I need to be with those who stimulate me to see the bigger picture, and add value to them, too. It might be my colleagues in our business, or the band I play in.

For short-term "distress", we can reframe (convert) threats into challenges that energise us. This mindset is known as the “stress is enhancing” belief, first identified in 2013 by Alia Crum and her colleagues. The opposite mindset is that stress is (always) debilitating. Further research (Hogue, 2019) confirmed that even 15 minutes of priming (training) to reframe distress as eustress lowered cortisol (stress hormone) levels, increased DHEA (a neurosteroid that "undoes" the effects of cortisol) and helped individuals feel like the event was a challenge, not a threat. Sounds good to me!

Dr. Richard Lazarus described a stressful situation as one where perceived demands exceed our perceived resources. How resourced are you - financially, temporally (time), physically and socially? The more confident we are in our ability to cope and overcome, having perceived influence and authority (feeling in control), the less likely we are to experience learned helplessness (the sense that “nothing I do matters”). If we also receive support from those around us, particularly managers and family members, stress can be managed successfully. Jeffrey Pfeffer, from Stanford University, agrees: “One of the most stressful things is to have a lot of job demands, but to have no control over how and when you meet those demands.”

More power to you, as you find your energisers! Please call on us if you need some help making these truths come alive in your sphere of influence. And a special word of thanks to the friends, family (and band) members who lower our stress levels and help us live longer.

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