BEAT RETURNING TO WORK STRESS – Build better habits?

Dr. Jon Finn explains how building helpful habits will help us overcome the stress and anxiety that many people are experiencing, as they return to the office in a post-Covid world.

He also explains – in practical terms – the science of human stress and how we can respond to this proactively and effectively by understanding what’s happening in our brains.

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Podcast Transcription

Hi, everyone, Dr. Jon Finn here, welcome to another Tougher Minds podcast, you may be able to hear in the background, I am on my office treadmill. And I’m just walking along in the office, as I’m recording this podcast. We’re doing a lot of sessions for clients at the moment, titled things like return to work anxiety, how to build resilience and thrive. So I thought, this is quite topical for people in the moment as we gear up to returning to some sort of normality. And there’s a lot of stress and anxiety connected to that for a lot of people as we enter what is being termed the new normal. So I thought it would be helpful just to share a few of these insights that we’re covering with clients and an hour helping people to start overcoming some of these challenges. 

I think we need to recognise that we do live in the VUCA world….volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world where the only constant is change. And this transition to a more flexible, hybrid agile way of working is just part of that change. And because of the way our brain is designed… and our brain’s number one operating role is to save energy, so it always does what’s easiest. And what’s easiest for our brain is to just do what it always did, because it runs on habits. So anytime we’re asked to make changes, or changes that don’t give us immediate gratification, our brain doesn’t like that, because of that problem. 

So the VUCA world is invariably going to cause more stress and more anxiety. And that’s why we’re seeing these increases in mental health problems. And the VUCA world also makes it more difficult to get your brain working properly. Because it makes it more difficult to build really good sleep, diet and exercise habits. But I think if we’re going to understand how to overcome anxiety and stress, we first of all need to think about why it happens. And some people will say to me, Well, I don’t get stressed, Jon. But the way that I’m using the word stress here is the natural response that happens in everybody’s brain. And you can think of stress levels on a continuum from 10 down to 1. 10 is the highest level of stress you can experience. One is the lowest levels of stress you can experience. And depending on how many little stressors are in your life, or depending on where you are on the continuum. 

But one stress occurs for very simple reasons and we can explain it very simply. So an event happens. Perhaps I’m on the train, going into the office. And my expectation in that situation is that anyone else who’s on the train in close proximity will stay at least two metres away from me. That’s what I expect it to happen. But If that person or if a person starts to get very close to me and this is different from what I expected was going to happen. I get what we call a disconnection in meaning systems. That’s why stress happens. It’s just a difference between what you expected to happen and what is actually happening. And of course, that’s going on all the time now in big ways and small ways. 

So, you know, a big way is that “well we were going to return to the office on this date and now it’s been changed”. That’s a big example. And some of the small ways might be, you know, I expect my children to be able to do their schoolwork independently whilst they’re on holiday. Or if they’re if they’re, if they’re have to be learning from home, so that I can get on with my work, you know, maybe that isn’t the case, or I expect my partner to say something nice to me…first thing in the morning and not to be angry about something or whatever it is, is just these little disconnections, or big disconnections, but that’s what causes the stress. And whenever there is a disconnection, what happens in your brain, you can think of a two part process. First of all, you get the fight, flight or freeze response. So your brain gets ready to do something, and lots of chemicals, neurotransmitters get released. The thing that I point clients towards in this situation is  – and the most important thing we can understand that happens in our stress response –  is that we start to breathe faster.

And for me, that’s the most important thing because it’s the only thing that we have direct control over. By the way, I’m walking along at about three miles per hour now and starting to get slightly out of breath walking and talking this quickly, but I’ll keep going. And we have to reduce the speed. So anyway, so we start to breathe faster, and I’m breathing a bit faster because I’m on the treadmill. And that’s really important to understand because it’s something we can control and manage and actually reduce. And I’ll come back to that later. But essentially, stress happens because there’s a disconnection. The first part of the disconnection now means systems, the first part of the stress response is we start to breathe faster and the fight or flight response kicks in. The second part of that stress response is that we start to get our attention, our thoughts on things that are not particularly helpful, we dwell, we beat ourselves up or we get angry at the situation, typically require energy into things that are not particularly helpful for us. So that’s how stress happens. And if we want to manage the stress response better, the first thing we need to get right are really solid foundations of good sleep, good diet, good exercise. That’s why the first thing we teach Habit Mechanics to do, once we’ve taught them how their brain works, is to build better habits around those areas. 

But  – if those areas are working welL –  the second thing we can start to do to help us to manage the stress is to write it down, not just to keep thinking about it, and rehearsing it in our brain, but actually to write it down to say, Well, what is it? And is it real, and where’s the disconnection here, because by doing that, you’re actually starting to take more control of it. And you’re taking the stress response out of the control of your alive, perceived, energy brain, your APE brain. That’s the term we use to explain the limbic regions of the brain. So we can start to write things down immediately, like giving us more control. Now, the thing with stress is, we can’t necessarily avoid it happening to us. Because often stress has happened because of uncontrollable things. What we can absolutely do is be more proactive in dealing with it. So a stress might last a week, rather than the negative experience or side effects of stress might last a week. Or maybe you can get it down to six days, because you’re proactive, or stress might last a half an hour. Or maybe you can be proactive. So it only lasts 15 minutes. And this is what we’re trying to do as Habit Mechanics, we’re trying to use insights from neuroscience and behavioural science, to build better stress and stress management habits.

So the VUCA world means that we’re, you know, stressed and anxiety is just kind of part of our life. And it’s going to continue to be so we have to get better at managing this. But it’s going to be easier to manage stress if we understand why it happens. And that’s why I gave that simple overview about the disconnection of what you’re expected to happen versus what is happening. And then there’s a two part process that unfolds because of that. One is you start to breathe faster because of the fight or flight response. And then your brain starts to look for the threat or the problem that we’re in. 

And in order to make it easier to manage stress, we have to build better sleep, diet and exercise habits. And then once we start to notice that we’re not feeling good, we’re in a stress response state, we can start to write down what the problem is. If we want to build on that there are some specific things that we can be doing, look, there are lots of things we could talk about here. But in this very short podcast, I’ll give you two things to focus on. 

The first one is to address the first part of the stress response, which is where you go into the fight or flight response and your breathing rate increases. So you get muscle tension. Your APE brain takes over everything, etc. Your activation level – the term that we use in our Habit Mechanic training – gets increased to unhelpful levels. And what we need to do here ultimately is reduce our breathing. So slow, deliberately slow down our breathing. So for me, I’d focus on slowing down my breathing just to five seconds in and five seconds out. But I wouldn’t just be practising doing that when I notice I’m stressed out. I’m listening to the practice of this breathing drill throughout the course of the day. So it could be whilst I’m boiling the kettle, it could be whilst I’m going for a walk. It could be the end of the day as I’m writing down my reflective end of day reflection. 

So we’ve got to counter that first part of the stress response. The second thing is how we deal with the unhelpful thoughts, or we’ve already touched on it, we call this focus reflection. And there are many techniques we can use to learn how to do better focus reflection. Many of those we introduce in the stress management and confidence management modules have level two having mechanical costs, but one of them we will call a waba, which is a written brain argument. Ahem, just literally means instead of dwelling and thinking and beating yourself up or getting angry in your head, write it down, write down what you’re thinking about. He takes seconds minutes to do, and it puts you in control of the conversation that’s going on in your head. So if we’re gonna get better at managing stress and anxiety, whether that’s related to returning to work or in any other area of our life, we need to understand why it happens. And have some specific tools, habit mechanic tools that we can use to start building better habits in how we respond to it, can stop it happening, and we can get better at responding to it. And ultimately get better. Meaning, making stress and anxiety take up less of our time. Around, there’s only 24 hours in a day. And every day is a bit like a barcode. Instead of a black and white barcode. It’s like a red and blue barcode.

And what we’re looking to do. And the red means times in the while we’re doing the thinking things that are not helpful for us being at our best and the blue represents time in the day, when we are doing and thinking things that help us to be at our best. And what we’re trying to do is to mechanically squeeze out as many of those red lines as possible. That means building better habits and stress and anxiety. You find yourself doing a lot of that, and you find it unhelpful for you. And you’ve got to build better stress management habits. If you want to learn to become a Habit Mechanic, the first thing you need to do is become a Level one Habit Mechanic. And anyone can do that for free. All you need to do is go to our website, sign up for the course and take the course of free calls when you finish and will give you your certificate. Thank you so much for listening to this one. guys. I hope it’s helpful. I know this is a real on topic thing for people at the moment. pleased to be able to share these insights. And just you know, thanks for listening, guys. 

If you like what you hear, do review the podcast. We really appreciate that. If you do have any questions about what we’re saying, Just get in touch and you can do that via the website very easily. There’s a big green button in the bottom right hand corner that says ‘contact us’ so just ask us questions through there. These podcasts are going to keep coming. If there are any things that you’d like us to cover in them, just let us know and we’ll do our best to do that. But until next time, stay safe and remember, you’re only ever one small habit away from being your best and achieving your goals.

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