Exploring beyond psychology to deal with stress

Human beings, as all species on this planet, have evolved by adapting to the environment in which they live. Our environment has shaped our physiology and our psychology, and is continually adapting and changing. However, at some point in history, our species managed to differentiate itself from the rest by seeking to take control of our environment, the most obvious being the use of fire to heat up our cave dwellings so we could survive in colder climates. This allowed our species to thrive across the whole planet. More recently, our drive to control our environment has led to the inventions that allow us to live and breathe underwater, defy gravity and even leave the planet on which we evolved.

On a psychological level, we have also developed the ability to control our own reactions to the environment, though self awareness and emotional intelligence. We are able to suppress emotions and control behaviours that otherwise instinctively would harm our ability to cooperate and build communities; factors which concretised our position as the dominant species on Earth. Ancient text like the Baghavat Gita describe conversations ‘with ourselves’ (typically described as talking to god/Shiva) to determine what is right and wrong and be conscious of the cause and effect of our actions. Today, the popularised practice of mindfulness proposes that we are more observant of our inner self and choose how we act to our external environment, rather than simply be triggered to react.

As a business coach, and general observer of human behaviour, I am fascinated to see the prevalence of stress and anxiety caused by individuals who allow their external environment to condition their inner thoughts and feelings. I remember *Jane, a top executive being so affected. A simple look out of the window to a grey wet morning goes on to define her morale and outlook and even change her physiology, significantly decreasing her energy levels. Leaving the house with hunched shoulders and a shuffle is surely going to lead to an unproductive day, especially if you skipped your invigorating morning exercise routine! It’s the same with a person dreading to go to work because they have an obnoxious colleague or annoying customer to deal with, or ‘too much work’ on their plate; they self sabotage their performance.

This self-sabotage is causing a great deal of stress and discomfort because our external environment is becoming more complex, ever changing and unpredictable. It is this lack of stability and predictability that exacerbates our human condition into an anxious ball of nerves. Ironically, the main cause of this escalation is the final and definitive differentiator of our species from any other – Imagination.

Our ability to think of alternative futures has allowed us to create the amazing inventions that allow us to control our environment and raise us above any other species on the planet. It allowed us to create language, to predict the weather, to travel around the globe and to prepare for the unexpected. It allowed us to build resilience to deal with the complexity of our environment as we evolved. It also allows us to understand the implications of our thoughts and feelings, and to manage our behaviours. With imagination, we unlock our fullest potential not only mentally, but physically too. We imagined climbing Everest and what we might need to do to accomplish that feat of endurance. We imagine what it would feel like to cross the marathon finish line and use that as motivation to go through the hardships of training. We understand delayed gratification to control our indulgences otherwise driven by instinct to over eat, drink and sleep.

Yet our imagination is also our limiter. The human mind abhors a vacuum and will fill any unknown with imagined thoughts and the associated feelings. Fortunately for our survival, 80% of these imagined thoughts lead us to keep safe and avoid harm. The balancing act between our curiosity (otherwise described as the testing of our imagination) and our fear of harm has allowed us to prevent our extinction. In essence, imagination also holds us back.

Risk mitigation

It is no surprise therefor that the most successful are those that have a good balance between the risk and benefit of acting on their imagination. Those that don’t go far enough live lives within their comfort zone and don’t do much trail blazing or achieve much beyond the average. Those that go too far typically end up dead, but also set the benchmark for what is possible for the rest of us. Pioneers are clearly in the latter group if imbalanced people!

So how do we take control of our minds and not let our imagination block our ability to stretch out of our comfort zone and explore new opportunities? The first step, as described earlier, is to develop the ability to observe your inner thoughts and feelings mindfully, in order to level-set your state of mind. Knowing that a typical external trigger causes an internal reaction is the necessary first step to gain control of your own mind and not live reactively by your external environment. Being mindful of your inner self is also extremely important when your imagination runs amok and creates unhelpful emotions and behaviours in you. An example of this I see often with the CEOs I coach is a fear of public speaking. We let our imagination fill up the unknown consequences of a potentially poor delivery with thoughts of embarrassment, ridicule and failure cripple us with so much fear that we avoid it completely. With an 80% negative bias mentioned earlier, we always imagine the worst case scenario and need a huge amount of effort and motivation to overcome it, if at all.

We therefore have developed ‘psychological skills’ to manage these situations. We use techniques like positive thinking, self talk, visualisation of success and other ‘hacks’ to overcome the instinctive fear that emerges from these worst case scenarios. In essence, we battle with ourselves, and the winner defines the outcome – we brave the stage or we pass the buck.

But this requires a lot of effort. Trying to overcome our inner thoughts and suppress our emotional reactions requires a great deal of mental toughness. Trying to control our external environment requires even more effort, as neither the weather and our work colleagues will readily follow our command… One of my clients, a top level boxer, was taught such skills by a sport psychologist and practiced repeatedly. She visualised winning against her next opponent, practice positive self-talk as well as her physical and technical preparation. Whilst this had a positive effect on her, the “what if?” questions still crept in and flattened her confidence; sometimes just as she was about to step in the ring. Continuously trying to fight off these thoughts was a tiring and demoralising activity. Our approach through mindfulness training was to practice recognising the thoughts BEFORE they created a negative emotional response. Over time, she became excellent at ‘catching’ these thoughts early and accepting them as moving pictures in her mind, like watching a movie – simply images made up by her own mind, that have no cause or consequence. I used a similar approach with a champion golfer with one extra step. We followed the recognition of an imagined negative thought with a physical smile – programming a negative image into a dopamine trigger. Every time the thought of missing that putt entered his mind, he recognised it, accepted it as a neutral image, and smiled. It worked wonders for his accuracy and playing under pressure!

I myself have learnt to accept things beyond my control well before they create a negative impact on my mental state, especially those triggered by my external environment. The weather is a classic example that I use to explain the simplicity of accepting what you cannot control, rather than let it get into your head and control your thoughts an actions. Take going out for an early run on a wet grey and dark winter morning. If you rely on mental toughness, the outcome is who wins the battle between you and yourself to overcome the voice in your head that suggests you skip today and stay warm in your duvet. Less of an effort, I find, is if I accept that ‘weather’ is simply a condition that is not changeable and therefor not debatable. What I cannot control, I don’t fight. This allows me to take a more pragmatic (and less emotional) approach to the situation and deal with the conditions as best I can – in this case, dressing appropriately. Energy is therefore used positively to find solutions, rather than to overcome a perceived discomfort. Neuroscientifically, this is a better approach as it reduces Cortisol and promotes Dopamine use which can better lead to flow state. In essence, positive energy leading to positive outcomes is self-fulfilling (even ‘addictive’). Negative energy leading to positive outcomes (i.e. overcoming discomfort ‘forcefully’) still leaves some residual cortisol, and is less sustainable.

The most moving example of this is Viktor Frankl’s account of the horrors of the second world war concentration camp he endured and miraculously survived (unlike the rest of his family) where he stated;

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Viktor Frankl, ‘Man’s search for meaning’.


So where does willpower come into all of this? Essentially, willpower works like a battery and is akin to having a level of charge that enables you to overcome adverse conditions as they present themselves. For example; every time I need to overcome my own instinctive action (restraining from eating the chocolate I fancy, or maintaining self control dealing with a difficult person) I am using up ‘battery power’. The greater the self-restrained, the quicker you drain your willpower battery. As a result, after a day requiring heavy self-control, you are more likely to reach for the cookie jar or extra glass of wine, or skip your gym session that evening. Research proves that people working in highly stressful environments like Firemen, Surgeons and CEOs are more likely to succumb to vices in their free time, most likely because they have drained their batteries at work. Having a home environment that further drains your battery, or not getting enough time to recharge it, eventually leads to burnout.

Recharging the battery is simple recovery, sleep, nutrition and exercise. What is useful however, is understanding how to grow the battery so your charge lasts longer – this is what we can refer to as resilience. By continuously exiting your comfort zone and cycling this with recovery stages, your ability to maintain battery charge grows. You acclimatise to stress and you are able to last longer before giving up.

I recall Mario* a top CEO who I coach telling me how drained he was with all the change going on in his multinational business. He was catching flights every week, putting out ‘fires’ in offices around the world, frustrated that it was taking so long and he was afraid he would burn out before they achieved success. He explained how he was constantly asked by his team ‘what to do’ in the complex scenarios unfolding. He couldn’t even sit and eat his lunch at his desk without him being interrupted for his support and advice. Mario knew that he had to be helpful and support his team, to shield them from the stress and take the load off them – but it was having a huge toil on him. He had a young baby which affected his sleep, and he stopped going to the gym because of time and travel. If any situation was going to help build resilience, this was it. I had no doubt that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ was his ethos, but what if he didn’t survive? My advice to him was to start to track each external factor in three categories: things I can control, things I can’t control but can influence, and things I can neither control nor influence. Then for the first, make decisive key actions (including swift delegation), for the second, think around creative ways to change or impact the issue and third – the most important – drop it. Yep, accept the fact that it is unproductive to worry about things you can do nothing about AT THAT TIME. Accept that it is there as an issue but stop letting it take up headspace in your brain.

Using Pareto’s principle, Mario freed up time and headspace to spend 80% work on things under his control, focusing on important over urgent, while the remaining 20% on influencing things (and people) to get other stuff sorted. The skill he found most useful was the mindfulness to discern the difference very quickly. His energy became focused and while he remained busy, it was far less stressful and much more productive.

Mindfulness in practice

So Mario used mindfulness, or self-vigilance, to stop the drain on his mental battery in the first place, whilst building resilience by making time to recover, sleep and go back to the gym. Essentially, if we are mindful of our emotional state early enough, we can take the necessary action (positive action for things we can control/influence or acceptance for the things we cannot) and reduce the drain of will power. We can use this to either last longer under stress, or have more strength to manage through a really difficult or intense situation, delaying our ‘giving up’ point. And with practice we get better and better at doing this, so the more frequently we exit our comfort zone, with the right recovery, the quicker we build our resilience and will power.

The key here is to increase the ‘discomfort’ in small doses each time. By how much? The science behind flow state says “4%”. Whilst I can’t explain the accuracy of this number, the implication is that it is ‘slightly’ out of your comfort zone so as to recover quickly, and then go again. This creates a cumulative effect that speeds up growth and resilience significantly over time. It’s working at a neurological level, rather than the psychological skills level, so the effect is literally rewiring your brain, making growth more permanent.

This way to ‘train your brain’ works both with physical and mental challenges, as it ultimately boils down to mental development anyway. I can increase my morning run mileage gradually, always only stopping AFTER I feel discomfort and the voice in my head suggests quitting. This, on a ‘bad’ day when your legs are tired, may even mean less mileage, but the brain effect is the same! On mental challenges such as problem solving, work-related issues, and other aspects of life that cause emotional or mental discomfort, the same rules apply; increase the load gently as you would at the gym, recover, and go at it again. Say yes to giving a small speech at a friends dinner party before progressing, eventually, to your shareholder’s annual general meeting presentation. If you are shy and being social causes you stress, the same process applies, until you build enough confidence to go to a party on your own and make new friends. Or take on more responsibility at work over time, always stretching, but never biting off too much at one go.

The essence of this approach is that we need to create a paradigm shift around discomfort. We need to look forward to it in two ways; 1) as an opportunity to practice ‘heavy lifting’, to build our resilience and grow our willpower battery and 2) we also need to use it to practice mindfulness to catch the voice in our heads early enough before we give up and quit, and stay objective in the face of adversity. The better we are at the latter, the less drain on our mental and emotional energy.

Acceptance trumps resistance

Ultimately, the effect of the 2nd approach trumps the first in the long run, as the 1st is somewhat limited by time and opportunity to find ways to stretch out of your comfort zone, especially in constrained environments like job roles. The ability to ‘shield’ from your external environment while you build resilience requires energy that is unproductive.

We need to become better at accepting our environmental factors objectively and not wasting effort trying to change what is not changeable. I recall a buddhist text once explained this as being ‘translucent’ where (like light) you decide what enters through into you to deal with, and what is kept out in the external environment and accepted as harmless. We can either influence or accept.

Avatar photo
John de Giorgio

John is the founder of Shireburn Software, a software products company based in Malta and a number of other businesses. Entrepreneurial in nature, he looks at a business process and identifies ways in which process improvement and technology can be married in a practical way to provide value. He is passionate about helping communities and individuals through his work with Rotary International. He is a keen sailor and loves travelling, food and wine.