Can you overcome stress in everyday life?

Tougher Minds Founder Dr. Jon Finn discusses practical techniques for effective stress management.

He highlights how these will be helpful in the face of the unprecedented challenges we all face on a daily basis (including factors like the return to hybrid working).

Dr. Jon also discusses the stress management lessons we can lean from elite sport and the connection between stress and feeling confident. He highlights how understanding these ideas can help us all to become more mentally resilient.

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Podcast Transcription

Hi, everyone, this is Dr. Jon Finn. Welcome to another Tougher Minds podcast. I’m out walking again, I’m doing that, to help me to recharge for my afternoon session of work, helping me to de-stress. I’m focusing on my breathing a little bit as I’m doing this, just 30 seconds in 30 seconds out. And I’m also reflecting one of the sessions we’ve been running a lot, or one of the insights we’ve been sharing a lot with clients in the last month or so is stress management. We know lots of people are stressed at the moment. And they’re looking for ways to get better at managing that. We know that the things that are causing the stresses are not going to be going away anytime soon, with the whole COVID piece that’s going on in everyone’s lives. 

But also people are going to be making the transition into the world of hybrid and flexible work. And that’s going to cause some more stress. And also what I think has been interesting  in conjunction with this……so my background is in elite sport, as many of you know and that’s where I learned really about psychology in those upper echelons of elite sport and the pressures those athletes are under. And we’ve just had a [cricket] Test series between England and India. India really beat England fairly well, in the last three Test matches. And there’s been a lot of discussion about the England team’s batting performance, which was felt to be, you know, not up to scratch and below par. And one of the things that commentators have been talking about is that the England batsmen have been scarred. 

So for example, because things went wrong in the second test, the England batsmen then carried the things that had gone wrong into the third test that we’re playing in their mind, and I’ve met them that lead them to make more mistakes. And the same in the fourth test and there’s been a lot of commentary about they just need to forget what happened in the past. But we know, we can’t do that. And I think what we’re observing there is that ultimately, stress and confidence are completely interconnected ideas. And that’s something that we talk about a lot in our programmes as well. But let’s get to the foundation of it, why something stressful? 

So we can think about this, as first of all an event happening. So let’s say for example, I hold the door open for somebody. When I do that, I have an expectation of what will happen, what will follow. So let’s say that my expectation is that that person I held the door open for will say, thank you very much. It’s very kind of you. You’re a gentleman married last fall, but you get the idea. But then whatever happens happens, so that person might ignore me. And stress occurs when what we expect to happen, doesn’t happen. And that creates what we call a disconnection of meaning systems. And this, this could be for anything. 

So it could be that you went into the kitchen this morning, you expected your partner to greet you with a big smile, and a good morning and maybe they were a little bit grumpy. And that might have caused a little stress. Maybe you got an email this morning, you were expecting it to praise your work or a project you’ve been working on. But instead, he told you that the work wasn’t up to scratch and you needed to do lots more work. So these little disconnections are happening all the time. And in fact, they don’t even need to actually happen. Our brain projects them happening. So if you listen to these podcasts regularly, you’ll be familiar with the Lighthouse Brain model. And in very simple terms, imagine you have a lighthouse in your brain. And it’s scanning all the time, into the past, the present and the future. And that lighthouse is controlled by a character called HUE, which stands for horribly unhelpful emotions. All the time, HUE is looking for these problems. And the problems don’t even have to have happened. But he’s looking into the future. And he’s saying what might go wrong, where the problem is going to be? That’s his job. That’s what he does. He is a threat detection machine. So in order to get stressed, we don’t even have to have a disconnection between what we expected to happen and what actually happened, we can just get this connection between what we expect to happen and what we think might happen, so that these disconnections happen in milliseconds once there’s been a disconnection, the first thing that happens in the response is the “fight or flight” response. In fact it’s fight, flight or freeze and it ensures our body gets ready to do something. So we get over activated

And then the second part of the stress response is that typically…. imagine….you know that the beam of light from the lighthouse typically gets stuck on all unhelpful thoughts you beat yourself up, tell yourself, you’re useless. You worry, you dwell on all that unhelpful stuff that’s connected with stress responses. So milliseconds after, there’s been one of these disconnections between what we expected to happen, and what actually happens, or what we might think is going to happen, our body reacts in this way. So our physiology kicks up via the fight-flight-freeze response. And then our attention, our thinking and our thoughts, gets magnetised on to the potential problems, the worries, the dwelling, the beating ourselves up of all that unhelpful stuff. 

The good news is, is that we can reverse that effect, we can or we can reverse the stress response effect. We can’t, we can’t stop stress happening. But we can shorten the disruptive impact that has on our lives. So that we’re able to overcome the stress faster and get our brain working properly again. Because when we get stressed our APE brain takes over, it becomes harder to be reflective and think critically and solve problems and manage our and manage our stress and our confidence. Because the APE brain takes over the prefrontal cortex…that’s the part of the brain that we use to do all that really good stuff. So we have to accept that we can’t necessarily avoid becoming stressed. But what we can do is get better at managing the stress response. 

And just let me link this back to everyone who’s going through stressors right now, but also to the England cricketers.  People are just saying, well they just need to forget, well you can’t just forget, the brain doesn’t work like that. One of the ways that we can start to manage the stress, if you think about the second phase of the stress response, where we start to dwell, and beat ourselves up etc. The way we typically try to manage that is we try to have an argument between our willpower and our APE brain. And what we need to recognise is that our APE brain is doing most of what we’re doing most of the time, at least 98%. And sometimes we call that part of the brain, that which is the limbic regions, we call it the million dollar brain. And the part of the part of the brain that we call the Willpower or Willomenia, is the prefrontal cortex that only has the capacity to hold five to seven bits of information at a time. And if you don’t use that information within 30 seconds, or any one bit of it….your brain dumps it and gets rid of it. Sometimes we call that part of the brain, the 10 cent brain. So we’ve got the 10 cent brain versus the million dollar brain. So when you just try and have a thinking argument, a cognitive argument, between the 10 cent brain, the willpower, and the million dollar brain, the APE brain, there will only be one winner, the APE brain. 

So to extend the power of your prefrontal cortex – your willpower, your willomeniapower, you can start to write things down. Because when you write things down, they don’t disappear. Those things don’t disappear after 30 seconds, and you can write down more than five to seven bits of information. So writing helps us to supercharge our prefrontal cortex and our willpower in relation to managing the brain. 

So if we want to get better at managing stress – whether we’re an international cricketer, or someone who’s just trying to be their best every single day – we can use that methodology. And there are multiple things that we teach around this, but the simplest thing is, at the end of the day, we encourage people to have a Big Finish. A Big Finish is a three-to-one written reflection. So in the Me Power, resilience planner, this is at the end of every day, which is that that’s free. If you want to get the Me Power resilience, please go to our website.

But the basic thing that you do is you write down three positive or helpful things about the day so far, or when you’re reflecting back on the day. So, typically we encourage people to do this in the evening. Three positive or three helpful things and then one thing that you can do even better in the next 24 hours. So my example might be – if I was writing it last night – might be..well I went for a run first thing in the morning. It wasn’t an overly positive thing at the time and I didn’t really want to go for a run. But it’s something that I do every morning, and I’ve got into the habit of it  and I know it’s really beneficial for my day, for lots of different reasons. And then, the second thing I might write down is, I got to work with some lovely people yesterday, I’ve worked with several of our clients. And I’m really thankful that I’m able to work with them. So that’s great. And the third thing I might write down is, I was really fortunate that I got to spend some time with my family yesterday evening. And I’m trying to pay attention to this normal stuff that we just take for granted. That actually we’re really fortunate to have. And then the one thing that I might want to improve myself is that I need to be in bed 10 minutes earlier tonight than I was last night. It’s just a tiny little thing to aim towards. 

And if we start to do this three to one, reflection, at the end of every day – it just takes two minutes – we’re starting to build part of our stress response muscle, which is ultimately about getting better at regulating emotions, as is everything to do with resilience

So whatever you’re trying to do in your life, whether it’s to score more runs in a Test cricket game, or whether it’s to just be a bit healthier, a bit happier and be at your best more often, we need to have powerful ways to deal with stress. Because the VUCA world throws more and more stressors than ever before. and managing stress is quite a complex thing. It’s not something you learn quickly. But suddenly one of the bits of gold if you like, is that we can start to write in order to get better at managing stress and processing the stress out faster than we otherwise would do. So instead of taking an hour to go over that stress, can we get over it in 55 minutes, instead of it taking five days to get over? Can we get over it in four, it’s that kind of thing. And every time you engage in the types of techniques and tools that we’ve created in the Tougher Minds programme, they just save you time because you’ll spend two minutes reflecting, but it means you’ll save an hour of time dwelling and beating yourself up. 

So that’s what we’re aiming to do. So I hope that’s helpful. But I know that if you think it’s a good idea, it will only be as helpful as you putting it into practice. So do take us up on the offer of the free Me Power resilience planner, go to our website, you can download that and it gives you these fairly simple, daily weekly planning and reflection activities. That’s all for now. Do check out the other podcasts and if you subscribe, you’ll be made aware when we release the next one which we do very regularly. Be safe until the next session. Speak to you soon. Good bye for now.


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