How to manage stress: a lesson you might want to avoid

father and daughter

I look down. I am covered in vomit.

I look around.

There’s vomit in the bed, on the floor and on the wall.

It’s in my hair. It’s on my face. It’s soaking through my clothes and sticking them to my skin.

I am shocked.

A minute ago I was watching the climax of the 2015 Tour de France on TV (I’m an Englishman in Australia, so I have to watch the great sporting events of Europe at unearthly hours), while my wife and children slept soundly at the far end of the house.

Now, I’m clutching Lulu, my two-year-old daughter, tightly to me as she screams, distressed and frightened by the suddenness of her sickness.

Yet despite the shock, I feel strangely calm. My senses are heightened and my concentration is intense. I’m deeply concerned, but there’s no sense of panic.

As Lulu begins to calm down, my wife and I get to work, cleaning Lulu up, cleaning me up, changing the bedclothes and comforting our frightened little girl.

I take her to the living room and keep her with me whilst I watch the riders climb up the legendary Alpe D’Huez. It is two a.m. and Chris Froome has secured his second Tour victory by the time I finally get Lulu to bed again.

In the time that I wait for her to go to sleep I reflect upon my reaction to what happened.

Resilience

A few years ago, I suffered a period of stress-induced depression, one of the effects of which was that I seemed to lose much of the resilience to stress that I had built up over the years. I am much improved now, but it was a long, slow, deliberate rebuilding process and I still have to manage stress and my response to stressful situations quite carefully.

So tonight, in a situation which on the face of it was far worse than most of the dumb inconveniences that can push my buttons, I would have expected to feel the familiar tide of anxiety rising up to swamp me if I let it.

But instead, I was as an ice man. I was Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, I was Roger Federer serving to win Wimbledon, I was Rory McIlroy with a tricky six footer to clinch the Masters.

How did I stay so calm?

What made this situation so different?

And how can I tap into this and apply it to the rest of my life?

Stress responses

It seems to me that this was all about the ‘fight or flight response’ (a.k.a. the ‘stress response’) – that instinctive sequence of mental and physiological reactions that evolved in humans and other mammals to help us survive in life-threatening circumstances. When we perceive threat, our minds and bodies instantaneously prepare us to deal with the threat or to flee.

The problem we have, and the reason that we suffer from stress, is that the fight or flight response can still be triggered when we perceive that we are threatened, even though in modern life most of those situations are not emergencies at all. Thus, unless we learn to manage it, we will typically respond as if we are under threat when we feel we lack the resources to manage what’s being asked of us or when outside circumstances interfere with what we are trying to achieve.

The interesting thing is, that in the face of Lulu’s sudden sickness, I seem to have experienced the fight or flight response in exactly the way that evolution intended us to experience it.

In other words, this was a genuine emergency situation. My precious daughter was sick and in distress, so my brain and body put me in the exact state I needed to be in to deal with it.

Through the release of a complex combination of hormones, prompting a sudden increase in the supply of blood sugars, my senses were heightened, my brain was alert and, my body was primed so that I could respond in the best possible way.

And that is exactly what I did.

Had I been panicking, complaining, angry or fearful, the whole situation would have been so much worse. Yet those are the kinds of reactions we can have when the fight or flight response is triggered as a consequence of non-emergency situations.

We do not need the adrenaline rush and the laser focus that come with the stress response just to deal with a dispute with an uncooperative colleague or another unreasonable deadline. Yet, unless we can exercise some control over our reactions to such situations, we get the full suite of hormones anyway.

What is more, because there is often no simple way to diminish the heightened state that arises (unless we end up punching the colleague or quitting the job, neither of which are usually helpful solutions or indeed likely to leave us feeling less stressed), that heightened state often prompts negative emotional responses in us.

Actions

I suppose the lesson from this in relation to managing stress, is all about trying to be alive to the true nature of potentially stressful situations. It is about being able to recognise those that are not genuine emergencies and defusing the stress response before it arises.

Of course, that is easier said than done because the hormonal reactions occur subconsciously as a response to our perception of threat.

It is therefore the thinking, or what we pay attention to, that prompts our conscious emotional responses that we need to target.

So, in the future, before I get carried away with how disastrous it is that the train is late or that my diary is chock full of meetings that are going to result in a longer to-do list, I need to ask myself how important those things really are.

One way I can do that effectively, is to think about how it compares with how serious it felt when Lulu was suddenly and inexplicably sick.

It should be easy to remember to do this because, as I write this conclusion, a few weeks later, Lulu is still delighting in telling anybody who will listen about the time she “did a vomit on Daddy”.

Perhaps you can think of a similar memorable experience you’ve had that you can use as your stress-busting benchmark.

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1 thought on “How to manage stress: a lesson you might want to avoid”

  1. I remember a few years ago I ran into a situation that would have initially sent me into panic but I stayed calmed. I had a kitten who got her head stuck in a plastic jar which was suctioned to her head. She couldn’t breath. My ex was panicking and running around while I remained calmed and told him to get me a knife. I calmly cut a hole so she could breath then got it to release from her head. Afterwords I felt sick to my stomach but in the moment I was calm and level headed. It shocked me I guess.

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