There’s no doubt about it that employees, leaders, managers, and even our Zoom video conferencing systems are feeling STRESSED! Over a year ago, we never could have predicted the state that we’d be in now; and even if we did, I wonder if we would have done anything different to prepare. Throughout time it has become pretty obvious that as humans we typically don’t take action, especially expensive action until we have to; and by “have to”, I mean until the pain of not taking action far surpasses the pain of doing something about it.
Stress isn’t new, and while organizations have dabbled in stress management programs for decades, they haven’t become a staple of business to the degree that they deserve perhaps because the whole premise behind them is flawed and misunderstood. I’m not suggesting that addressing stress is flawed, but rather than stress is not something that was ever meant to be “managed”.
#1 Stress Was Never Meant to be “Managed”
At its roots, stress is an evolutionary process that is designed to help creatures survive, and without it, humans would have gone extinct a long time ago. As we’ve noted in past MBM Blogs, on one hand, stress is pretty simple when defined as “the result of a person’s perceived physiological and psychological inability to cope with their current view of reality.” Millions of years ago our ancient ancestors were confronted with various environmental threats including things like predators, dangerous weather, and tribal conflicts. In many ways, our ancestors who possessed the most effective stress responses became the ones who coped best with those challenges and outcompeted other early humans and animals for resources. Robust stress responses gave early peoples’ an evolutionary advantage that could be passed down to their offspring. We are collectively the lineage of folks who were exceptionally effective at becoming stressed! So when it comes to stress management, in truth our stress responses were designed evolutionarily to operate more like wild stallions than trust funds; one is meant to run free and the other, well…. managed.
#2 Stress Is Subconscious
If we look again at the current definition of stress, we’ll notice that it is ultimately the result of someone’s perception. Perception is a construct of our subconscious, not conscious, mind. Our perceptions are primarily formed in our early lives and while they can change over time, our perceptions form the foundations of how we experience reality. No two people perceive the world the same way, so no two people will experience a potentially stressful event the same way. What one person perceives as stressful may be thoroughly enjoyable to another. The bottom line is that our perceptions run us, not the other way around, so the whole idea of “managing” them doesn’t make much sense.
#3 Stress Isn’t the Problem
One key difference between our ancient forbearers and modern selves is that after stress-inducing experiences our early relatives automatically did certain things to return their physiology to a state of relative balance, whereas in modern times we have tended to chronically push past our body’s warning signs and stay in stress responses longer to the point that we develop physiological and psychological imbalances, which we call disease. In other words, modern humans with our “superior intellect” have developed the capacity to consciously override our instinctual responses for recovery following stressful experiences; much to our demise.
What most of us think of as being stressed is our body’s chronic adaptations to low and moderate-grade stressors; think tight muscles, high blood pressure, irritability, emotional volatility, fatigue, and anxiety. Over time these continuous low and moderate grade stressors just start to feel like “life” and we keep piling on the work and responsibilities because we’ve become used to feeling terrible. Even in modern times, if we experience a highly stressful experience like a car accident our bodies will force us to shut down and rebalance, however with lower grade stressors we build an unhealthy capacity over time to tolerate more and more stress. Many stress management programs teach people to relax, breathe deeply, and talk about what is stressful, and while these are all of the great value if a person takes these actions and the stress responses persist then there is something deeper driving the process.
Stress is a response remember, to a perceived inability to cope with a current view of reality. If someone is experiencing chronic stress then it must mean that they are chronically perceiving that they can’t cope with the demands of their current reality, regardless of what those demands are. Stress isn’t the problem, stress is a symptom of the problem. The real problem is whatever is feeding the perception of threat. Focusing on managing stress, therefore, is akin to training the crew of the Titanic to be more efficient bailers!
If Not Now, When?
We, humans, are social beings, and therefore both need one another while at the same time often feel subconsciously threatened by one another. Right now, our social systems and constructs are being pushed past the point where most garden variety stress management strategies are effective, even for short-term relief. It’s time for us to shift our thinking and approach to address the source of stress where it lives, in our perceptions. This isn’t as complicated or mysterious as it sounds, but the real question is, “Are we in enough pain now to do something different, or are going to keep trying to bail out this sinking ship the same way we always have?”