Mental Toughness

by Doug Strycharczyk

Dealing and coping with stressors

Where are you now?

The first step is to get a better understanding of what stress, pressures and challenges you currently face and the affect they have on you. This is about assessing the current situation and, by implication, the situation as it is likely to be in the future if things are left as they are.

Typically, stressors arise at the individual level, at the team level and at the organisational level, as well as from outside the workplace (elsewhere in your life). People will know they are under pressure and will feel stressed, but they can often be very unsure where that pressure comes from. Simply figuring this out can be a major source of help and support for many individuals.

A useful start point is to use the table in Measures of Mental Toughness as a check list. Are any of the behaviours described relevant to you or your staff? Pinpointing a particular behaviour can indicate what might be the primary stressor.

  1. Write down the stressors that exist in your life at the moment. Where do they arise – in the workplace, at home, in your personal relationships?
  2. Focus on each one in turn and try to assess their impact upon you. Next, rank them in order of impact on you.
  3. Think about your response to each stressor, asking yourself whether there is a better response. How does your response affect the things you do – your performance, your behaviour, your well being and the way you deal with others?
  4. Are any of them linked in any way?
  5. Is there some common theme to them?

Consider which would be the best one to start with. It may not be the top of the list; it may be the one that you feel you have some chance of doing something about.

You then have the chance of increasing your ability to handle the stressor in such a way that it no longer actually creates stress. In some cases, you might find you can change the stressor, but often this will prove to be outside your control.

Changing the stressor

Sometimes you can directly tackle the stressor itself. For example, if the stressor is the rush hour traffic, you may have the option of flexible working hours to avoid the rush hour, or perhaps working from home on at least some days.

You could embark on a major shift in your life and perhaps ‘downshift’ to a slower-paced local job in the country, but this has implications for your whole family and lifestyle that need to be considered.

You may need to think quite creatively to change the stressor itself, particularly if you do not want to change the way you live, but there is always something that can be done to lessen the effect of the stressor itself.

Dealing with the stressor

Given the particular stressor you are looking at, what skills do you have to deal with it?

For example, if you have an impending presentation to make and this is creating a great deal of anxiety and stress, how can you improve your presentation skills so that you are better prepared for it? (Hint... see the Presentations topic.)

If your source of stress is that you have far too much to do and too little time in which to do it, what skills do you need learn to manage your time and to-do list more effectively? (Hint... see the Time Management topic.)

Whatever the stressor, there will be a set of skills that can be learned to enable you to deal with it more effectively. Look at and model people who deal with the same stressor effortlessly. What relevant skills do they have?

Coping with the stressor

A common approach to assisting people cope with stress is to do periodic de-stressing exercises, such as meditation, progressive muscular relaxation, self-hypnosis and so on. You will find more on these in the topic on Stress Management.

When done regularly, these approaches not only de-stress you, they also set up a sort of immunisation affect so that stressors do not have such an impact. Achieving this does, however, take some time and dedication.

The issue here is that all of the techniques don’t work for everyone. You need to try several of them for long enough to find the one which works for you. This means that you need to have some way of evaluating how stressed you are, and how much a technique has changed your stress level.

You can do this subjectively by simply assessing how you feel before and after, but you can also use a Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) meter. This is a simple device which works by detecting small changes in the electrical properties of the skin (of the hand). These change because we respond physiologically to stressors by perspiring. The GSR meter detects these changes. So, if a tool or technique for stress reduction is working, the GSR meter should detect that effect.

The GSR meter can be set to identify a normal or comfortable state. If you suspect you are stressed or underperforming, you can simply attach yourself to the device and confirm whether that is the case.

Another way to monitor your stress levels is to ask friends. You may not realise how stressed you are until you take a holiday, but those who work with you or are close to you will notice behavioural changes and be able to give you feedback if you ask for it.

Key point

Coping with a stressor is about reducing the impact of the stressor by changing how we react to it.

Do we react more than most other people? Does it somehow push our buttons, whereas most other people simply ignore it or take it in their stride?

It is all about our perception of the power of the stressor. Over time we can convince ourselves that there is nothing we can do about it; that this stress will last forever. This is a form of learned helplessness, where a belief is formed that effectively disempowers the individual.

How, then, do we develop a different mindset about the stressor?

In essence, we are looking for a mindset of acceptance that the stressor is part of our life, at least for now, and that while it is there we can let it wash past us without affecting us. Think of reeds that bend and sway in the wind, unharmed as the wind blows through.

  1. Choose a stressor that you wish to come to terms with and note down how stressful it feels on a scale from 1 – 10
  2. Write out little short sentences on what irritates you about it, and what presses your buttons. Be as petty and judgemental as you like. Is it because you have no control, or will be late, or look stupid, or cannot succeed?
  3. Now list out, in short sentences, what ‘should’ be happening, what someone else ‘should’ be doing about it and so on.
  4. Now list out in little short sentences what you would like instead, and how you would like to be instead.
  5. Now take a few minutes doing something else before coming back to what you have written. You might even like to meditate briefly by holding your hand over your heart and feeling your breathing as it slows and steadies.
  6. For every short sentence you have written down, ask the questions listed below. Let your head ask the question and listen to your heart for the answer. This is a meditative process and is aimed at an understanding that will often lead to spontaneous change. Take your time!
  7. Is it true? (Be still, wait, and let the heart respond.)
  8. Can you absolutely know that it is true?
  9. How do you react when you believe that thought?
  10. Who would you be without that thought?
  11. When you have gone through all your written statements and asked the questions for each one, imagine yourself in that stressful situation, and notice what has changed about the way you would react to it. How would you score it now on your 1 – 10 scale?