When stress expert Derek Roger is working with groups, he will get them to feel stressed by asking them to think about something that upset them. That simple experience is enough to induce the physiological and psychological symptoms of stress. Then, to pull them out of that mindset, he asks them to listen to his voice. That nudges them into the present, the thoughts of past injustices disappear, and they regain an even keel.
In some ways, that example tells you everything you need to know about stress.
In actuality, it's more complicated than that – but Dr. Roger, who developed his theories about stress at the University of York in England and continues his research at New Zealand's University of Canterbury in Christchurch, is convinced he can improve people's resilience through his Challenge of Change training program.
He offers a new way of looking at stress, with different terms, and probably greater clarity.
Some of the key things we think we know about stress he considers psychobabble, including what stress is and whether there is "good" stress and "bad" stress. He also makes an important distinction between reflection, which is fine, and rumination, which can be debilitating.
These days, we all complain about our lives being out of balance and stressed. He says that's wrong. Our lives are pressured, not stressed.
Pressure is simply a demand to perform. It happens routinely – stuff to do. It's what gets us out of bed each morning. Some of it we like, and some we don't. It just has to be done, to live the life we have chosen. Pressure is not particularly problematic, although our adrenalin will rise and the body can edge into "flight or fight" physiological and emotional arousal. Usually that arousal will dissipate, however.
But sometimes we turn pressure into stress, by ruminating. We worry. That's when pressure takes on a new guise, and becomes a problem. Instead of seeing stress as potentially good or bad, as many experts suggest, he says we should see pressure as fine but stress – when we ruminate – as bad.
Adrenalin and cortisol rise when we ruminate, as does our blood pressure, but it doesn't dissipate easily. Nothing direct is actually happening; all you're reacting to is a thought in your head. But he likes to quote Mark Twain: "Some of the worst things in my life never happened." Twain was referring to rumination, fretting endlessly about "what ifs" and "if onlys," imagining how we could have changed the situation for the better or might someday get revenge. It's not reflection, to his mind – not a rational action plan – but simply a debilitating downward spiral that maintains the emotional upset.
"I don't ruminate," he says, with the cheerful smile that is constantly on his face throughout our Skype interview. "It's pointless."
He has developed a four-step process for dealing with stress, which echoes some of the theories of mindfulness and Buddhism, to help people build resilience:
Often when ruminating, we are effectively sleepwalking, not fully present. Just as people in his program become alert and push aside their emotional distress at the sound of his voice, we must stop drifting and become alert. We must find the Now, as he calls it. "The reason this is important is everything except now is a thought – an imagined life," he says. "Why would you want to be in an imaginary state?"
Control your attention
You now want to be in touch with yourself. So pay attention to your senses, and root yourself in the present. "What stresses me are things I can't control. But one thing I can control is my attention," he states. Don't let it get snatched away by imagining what might be or obsessing over past injuries. To him, that's a waste of a life.
Detach from your thoughts
You must now see your thoughts as simply thoughts, or you will return to rumination. This comes with practice. If you can see what has obsessed you simply as thoughts wrapped up in emotion, you can release them.
All that rumination – all that stress – was really, you now realize, about nothing, just thoughts and imagination. "If you let go, you are actually free," he says.
It takes practice, of course. The first step, waking up and stepping out of rumination, can be the most difficult. But you can also slip back into negative thoughts, and stress, easily throughout the process.
He summed it up in a recent blog post: "What you have to deal with in your day-to-day life is pressure, so instead of saying how stressed you are, say how much pressure you're dealing with. That gives you the opportunity to wake up out of the nightmare of rumination, regain control of your attention, and to view the problem from a detached perspective. Any stress that has been added to the problem – in other words, ruminating about all the emotive worst-case scenarios – can then be seen as just the thoughts that they are, and can be let go. You don't let go of pressure, which is the demand to solve the problem, but you can't solve anything with rumination."
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter