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Learning to cope

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Business Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 2/2022 vom 26.01.2022


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Renewal: dealing with stress rather than eliminating it

Before the pandemic stopped life in its tracks, business leaders thought that VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity — summed up the challenges they faced (see also Business Spotlight 11/2021). Then the coronavirus crisis accentuated these challenges and heaped more on top. It became clear that the problems associated with remote working, social isolation and the threat of contracting Covid-19 were taking their toll. The demand for stress management training spiked.

But can stress really be “managed”, or is this coming at the problem the wrong way? Professor Richard Boyatzis, an internationally recognized expert in emotional intelligence and behavioural change, believes that efforts to reduce stress are misdirected. He says that a more effective solution is to become familiar with the concept of resilience (see box, p. 14). “At the heart of stress management is ...

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... renewal, not merely the attempt to reduce it,” Boyatzis says.

The causes and consequences of stress are well documented. Far less attention has been paid to what might help soften its impact on our mental, physical and emotional health. It is much easier to identify common stress triggers than it is to define effective solutions.

Coping, not eliminating

Boyatzis is a professor of organizational behaviour, psychology and cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, one of the leading private research universities in the US. Having spent his professional life observing human behaviour, he has come to the conclusion that the emphasis should be on how to cope with stress rather than trying to eliminate it.

“From decades of research we know that stress is one of the very nasty things in life that accentuate almost every autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorder,” he says. “The problem is that most people don’t fully appreciate how much the annoying aspects of stress — such as your cell phone dropping a call or your computer not booting up every day — contribute to what is medically classified as an overall ‘strain’. When you add moments of acute stress, like a pandemic or social disruption or losing one’s job, you have the recipe for people becoming compromised.”

Stress is a fact of life for most people, and it is the cumulative effect of mild stresses that causes the most damage. Taking time off, doing fun things, socializing, disconnecting from the digital world and not becoming overly immersed in social media can all help. But these quick fixes don’t go to the heart of the long-term solution. This, says Professor Boyatzis, is learning how to activate the power of the body’s built-in recovery process, otherwise known as the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

“At the heart of stress management is renewal, not merely the attempt to reduce stress”

Rebounding from stress

“Each form of stress activates the sympathetic nervous system and an accumulation of stress arousals becomes strain,” Boyatzis explains. “Activating the PNS reverses most of the damage and is a means for the body, mind and spirit to rebuild and renew. Being able to engage the PNS has been called ‘resilience’. In a broad sense, resilience is what helps us rebound from stress and strain.”

Each person is different, and what activates renewal for one may not do so for another. But a sufficient number of positive interventions that are most likely to engage the PNS have now been identified by scientists. These include meditation, yoga, prayer to a loving deity (praying to a vengeful one induces stress), feeling hopeful about the future, being in a loving relationship, helping others who are less fortunate, having a pet, laughing, engaging with nature and doing moderate exercise. Strenuous exercise is less effective because it increases the release of derivatives of the cortisol stress hormone.

It doesn’t matter which of the interventions are selected. What matters is doing them frequently. Regular short bursts are better than a few long ones. The ultimate aim is to spend more minutes per week on renewal than on things that cause stress.

Boyatzis is a close collaborator of emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman. Together, they have developed and launched a self-guided online tool called the Personal Sustainability Index, or PSI (see box, p. 14). Goleman says this “can help you reflect on the sources of stress in your life, as well as the buffers that can speed your recovery.”

Most stress audits focus on big life events, such as buying a house or getting divorced. The PSI looks at the ordinary things that increase our stress levels. It highlights the things that stress us out the most but also the renewal activities that offer the most support.

“Anyone who thinks they are ‘really on’ when they’re stressed is fooling themselves”

High performers

High achievers often say they thrive on stress. Boyatzis disputes this. “You don’t need that much stress to show all the aspects of cognitive, emotional and perceptual impairment that go with it. Anyone who thinks they are ‘really on’ when they’re stressed is fooling themselves,” he says.

To illustrate this, Boyatzis gives the example of a study into vision. A normal visual field is roughly 180 degrees, but when researchers administered adrenaline to a test group to induce stress, their peripheral vision narrowed dramatically. Subsequent research done on athletes showed that the impact of stress on peripheral vision was even more significant in real life than in the laboratory.

Vanessa Dietzel and Laura Watkins, authors of the recently published book The Performance Curve (see box, p. 14), believe that high performance doesn’t have to come at the expense of personal well-being. Both women are familiar with the stresses of high-pressure environments, having worked for leading international consultancies McKinsey and Boston Consulting, before starting their own in the world of leadership, coaching and organizational development.

By watching clients become increasingly stressed by the complexities of modern commerce, Dietzel and Watkins could see that there was a huge trade-off between performance and personal well-being. As a consequence, many apparently highly successful individuals were exhausted and fundamentally dissatisfied with life, although they were usually reluctant to admit it.

Getting hard-nosed business people to accept that they are heading for burnout is not easy. But Watkins has a weapon that’s hard to fight against — science. If clients won’t believe that being “constantly on” is bad for them, Watkins shows them brain scans to illustrate how chronic stress weakens the brain’s structure and functioning. “Having the brain conversation makes people aware of what’s happening when their brain is constantly in fight-or-flight mode and how this can affect the quality of their decision-making,” she says.

Dietzel points out that effectiveness and well-being can be synergistic: when combined, they are a powerful force for increased performance. “If someone is functioning on red alert all of the time, then there is not enough time left over for recovery,” she says. “By contrast, when we increase our inner capacity to deal with change, complexity and challenges, there is less strain on the well-being of our brains and bodies.”


● Before going into a difficult situation or potentially stressful meeting, pause and focus momentarily on your breathing. Inhale for a count of three and exhale for six. Even one or two breaths will help calm the mind.

● Start a journal, spending a few minutes three or four times every week writing down your thoughts and feelings. There is strong evidence for the positive impact of expressive writing on mental and physical well-being.

● Take a break in nature. Switch off by consciously listening to surrounding sounds such as birdsong, water, the wind in the trees or the sound of crisp leaves underfoot.

Calm breathing

The way we breathe is important, says Dietzel. “Simply becoming aware of our breathing is also effective because it is such a strong connection between the body and the mind. When our breathing is fast, shallow or constricted, this indicates our brain is in ‘protect mode’. Breathing can be a bit like a remote control for the brain. We can use the brain-body feedback loop to influence our thoughts and emotions. Lengthening your exhalation — to make it twice as long as your inhalation — can help our brains shift from ‘protect mode’ to ‘explore mode’. It has a calming effect on our nervous system, helps process stress and lowers our blood pressure and heart rate.”

But Dietzel adds that there is no silver-bullet solution for stress. “Our modern world is too complex, uncertain and diverse — and so are we as human beings,” she says. “The best way to initiate recovery is to start small, for example writing down a few things we are grateful for each day. This helps our brains to feel more resourceful and content.”


The Performance Curve: Maximize Your Potential at Work while Strengthening Your Well-being, Vanessa Dietzel, Laura Watkins (Bloomsbury Business)

● The Personal Sustainability Index (PSI) can be accessed through Key Step Media at www.keystepmedia.com/shop/ psi

“Our modern world is too complex, uncertain and diverse — and so are we as human beings”


Psychologist, academic and author Dr Rick Hanson is an expert on how to overcome the brain’s natural negativity bias to achieve happiness, self-worth and inner peace.

In an ideal world, says Hanson, the human brain would remember the good things that happen and let go of the bad. In reality, it’s the other way around. There is a good evolutionary reason for this — not getting eaten by a predator, for example — but as a consequence, negative experiences tend to stick and good things do not. Shifting the balance is the key to coping with stress and building resilience.

Margaret Forde is an organizational psychologist and holistic psychotherapist. She has spent the past 30 years guiding individuals and companies towards a more positive mindset. “Over time, our brain, our mental outlook and our behaviour all change in response to what we continually focus on,” she says. “A continual focus on fearful situations wires the brain to be more sensitive to threats. The brain’s alarm system becomes like a super highway flooding the body with stress hormones. Conversely, when you focus on the good, you build circuits that release feel-good chemicals throughout the body. What I try to make people aware of is that you are the gatekeeper. You can control this process by what you give your attention to.”

Forde is not suggesting being unrealistically positive. “We should accept our negative feelings but try to pay more attention to the good ones,” she says. “Increasing the amount of attention we give to positive emotional experiences downsizes the amount of attention we give to the negative ones. Professor Barbara Fredrickson, a world expert on positive emotion and its benefits for adaptability, calls this process ‘increasing our positivity ratio’.”

Author and meditation teacher Jeff Warren calls it “letting the good stuff land”. Actively doing so is the antidote to allowing our worries to take over our lives. “We need to wire positive experiences into our headspace and that’s actually pretty easy,” Warren says. “We do this by noticing the tiny things during the day that are nice and then we take an extra beat to savour them.” For Warren, nice things are simple pleasures such as silence and the first sip of good coffee in the morning.