Stress and the pressures of life

“The reason many people in our society are miserable, sick, and highly stressed is because of an unhealthy attachment to things they have no control over.” ― Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience

I have been silent for a while.

Not in the speaking sense, but from a blog posting perspective. Life and mostly work have been the focus for the past month. A major transformation programme got to launch position and from that day on, it has been full on. Not just for me, but for a whole group of people.

The teams involved have been working long hours, resolving issues as they came up. As someone said “Fixing the wings, at the same time as the plane was flying”.

This put a huge amount of pressure onto everyone involved, me included.

Some people reacted to the stress and pressure by going silent. Some by shouting and swearing. Others still, looked like they were carrying the world on their shoulders. Everyone was impacted in some way. I, too, felt the stress, but, I feel I dealt with it in a slightly different way.

I became more focused; but at the same time, more focused only on the moment at hand; rather than the whole situation. This is part of the mindfulness training and background that I have developed over the past few years. Experiencing “present moment awareness” and only the “present moment”. It is one of the cornerstones of Mindfulness practice and it is something that you can use, not only in a formal manner, but also day to day, even moment to moment.

So what is Present Moment Awareness?

So often, we let the present slip away, allowing time to rush past unobserved and unseized, and squandering the precious seconds of our lives as we worry about the future and ruminate about what’s past. Present-moment awareness involves monitoring and attending to your current experience rather than predicting future events or dwelling on the past. In effect focusing all your attention on the “now”. The present moment is all there ever is. If you don’t believe me, let me give you another premise.

I will do a follow-up article on some of the steps you can take to develop present moment awareness, over and above formal Mindfulness practice.

How long is “now”?

Ugghh? What on earth is Martin banging on about now?

Well, according to a number of studies, it is approximately 3 seconds. Yep, 3 seconds. Whether it is giving someone a hug (I would not necessarily recommend that at work), through reading an e: mail marketeers latest e: mail to you extolling the virtues of xyz; different studies suggest that “now” or the present moment is about 3 seconds in length. In fact, we go through life perceiving the present in a series of 3-second windows. Outside of that timeframe, we then start to either use memory as an aid, or we start to store what is going on around us in short term memory.

Part of my mindfulness awareness, is that I can not change the past, nor can I impact the future. I can only exist in the present moment. Neither can I influence the actions of others, or correct the mistakes that other have made. In addition, I am not responsible for the outcomes of others.

Does this make me more detached? Nope. In fact it helps me increase focus on the present activity and helps me deliver the task at hand. It also helps, as I am more calm and for those around me, that can help them as well.

Nope. In fact, it helps me increase focus on the present activity and helps me deliver the task at hand. It also helps, as I am calmer and for those around me, that can help them as well.

So being present is literally, as short as 3 seconds. I would not advocate using that as a reference when being at work, but I would say, that recognising life is lived in the present moment, is key to dealing with the stress of life.

If you would like to read the article on e: mail marketing or the article on hugs, which both reference the 3 second effect, check out the following links.
In the mean time, I leave you with the following quote.

“I promise you nothing is as chaotic as it seems. Nothing is worth diminishing your health. Nothing is worth poisoning yourself into stress, anxiety, and fear.” ― Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience

Work is a relationship

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” Studs Terkel

Like it or not, but work does define your life. I know some people will argue it does not, but for many of us, it does, We spend more time working than ever before. We have moved way beyond the 9 to 5 Monday to Friday work life of our grand parents. According to one survey, we are working over 42 hours per week. Our culture has become an “always on” one. We are travelling further and working longer than ever before.

However, it is not just the amount of work that we are doing, it is how we are now engaged in the world of work that I think is important. What often gets ignored is that just like the personal relationships we develop, we also develop a working relationship. I don’t mean with the people at work, I mean with the work itself. For many of us, the type of work that we do, also impacts how we engage in a broader sphere.

For some people, putting on the uniform or suit in the morning is like putting on a suit of armour, ready to go to battle. For some, work is about being authentic and consistent. For others, the focus is trying to help and support others around them. I feel that work defines us in so many ways. Ways we sometimes forget.

I worked for a long time for a US technology company, called Hewlett Packard. When I applied to the company it felt as if I was joining a special group of people. The work was hard, the hours were long and the level of commitment expected was high. However, in those early days, I did not feel at all that I was just part of a work machine. Perhaps that is a rose-tinted view in hindsight, but I don’t think so. I felt that I could grow, develop and enjoy myself. I felt that I was recognised both as an individual, as well as for the contribution that I made.

Leap forward in time and I don’t think the world of work is the same. Many people I know that work in many different companies and work environments are mentioning to me a similar set of questions, along the lines of: “How am I recognised as an individual”; “Work does not hold the same meaning anymore”; “I feel I am not achieving what I set out to do”; “How can I help make a difference?”  “What does work mean to me now?”

Perhaps it is an age thing? I don’t think so. Perhaps it is a perception thing? I am not sure. What I do know is that for the vast majority of us, what work we do defines us and the relationship we have with work also impacts how we interact with the world.

I came across a really interesting infographic on the changing dynamics of work. You might want to check it out here.

I leave you with the following quote.

“People are more difficult to work with than machines. And when you break a person, he can’t be fixed.”  Rick Riordan, The Battle of the Labyrinth

What is stress and how do you can deal with it?

“Things get bad for all of us, almost continually, and what we do under the constant stress reveals who/what we are.” ― Charles Bukowski, What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire

We all experience stress. For some, it is mild, transient and they can generally shrug off the impact. For some, it is extreme, long lasting and can have a devastating impact.

What few of us realize is the impact on ourselves, both physically and also mentally. You might not realise the nagging headache you get in the morning; your frequent inability to get to sleep at night and the constant tossing and turning as you get to sleep; being snappy or short with your family or partner, or even your decreased ability to focus and lack of productivity at work are all signs you may be suffering from stress.

Stress related statistics:

  • Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress.
  • Seventy-five percent to 90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) declared stress a hazard of the workplace.
  • Stress costs UK industry more than $3.7 billion annually in lost productivity and sick time.
  • 50% of people will have a recurrence of stress during their working lives.

What are some of the effects of stress?
Stress symptoms can affect your physical body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behavior. Being able to recognize common stress symptoms can give you a jump on managing them.

  • Physical effects include: Headaches; muscle tension or pain in your neck or back, but can be anywhere in your body; chest pains (if you get these, please seek medical attention urgently); fatigue and lethargy; a change in sex drive; stomach upsets and sleep problems.
  • Common effects of stress on your behavior include: Overeating or undereating; angry outbursts; drugs, substance or alcohol abuse; social withdrawal; or even exercising less often or more often

  • Mood effects include:– Anxiety; restlessness; lack of motivation or focus; feelings of being overwhelmed, out of control and lost; Irritability and anger; finally, sadness and finally, depression.

HELPFUL TIPS: How do you begin to deal with Stress?

There are many different ways to deal with milder levels of stress.Try to eat regularly and eat sensible food. I have taken to eating slow release porridge in the morning. It gives me energy and I don’t snack. In addition, I try to eat regular meals for lunch and also for tea. Reduce your caffeine and coffee intake to 2 cups a day. Or even drink alternatives. I drink peppermint tea. Yes, I have a cup of tea first thing in the day and one cup of coffee during the morning, but I do not have the ten or twenty cups I used to have. Avoid cola drinks as they contain caffeine and stimulants. I drink fizzy water instead.Take regular exercise, to help the body manage stress. I love going for a walk and try to walk every day.

For more serious stress issues, you might seek medical advice. You might consider  individual therapy with a therapist; a group talking therapy, where with the support of others you share your worries, concerns and work through ways to deal with it; or an alternative approaches.

One of the approaches that are being recommended by many health professionals and is recognized by NICE – The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence that recommends the use of health technologies within the NHS (such as the use of new and existing medicines, treatments and procedures) – is Mindfulness.

I will be writing a number of follow up articles to share with you how to leverage and take advantage of some of the key aspects of Mindfulness to help you deal with and possibly reduce your stress levels.

In the meantime, I leave you with the following quote.

“The mind can go either direction under stress—toward positive or toward negative: on or off. Think of it as a spectrum whose extremes are unconsciousness at the negative end and hyperconsciousness at the positive end. The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training.” Frank Herbert, Dune

The growth of Mindfulness into the Mainstream of life

“An idea is like a play. It needs a good producer and a good promoter even if it is a masterpiece. Otherwise the play may never open; or it may open but, for a lack of an audience, close after a week. Similarly, an idea will not move from the fringes to the mainstream simply because it is good; it must be skillfully marketed before it will actually shift people’s perceptions and behavior.” David Bornstein, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas

“A moment of mindfulness is a moment of compassion and kindness. It is not a panacea, after the froth has gone and what will be left when the tide of Mindfulness recedes, what will be left?” Is a question that I heard posed to Professor Mark Williams during a recent webcast. I wanted to check out whether Mindfulness was on the increase and whether it had hit what could be called the main stream or if it was just as was asked “froth”?

Checking online, and you can see that the number of scientific publications on mindfulness has rapidly grown from the mid-noughties. The full article can be found here:

The next question that was posed, was “Where is it being driven today?”

Prisons: It is being used in prisons and being taught to prisoners with remarkable results. Just for example: Sahaja Yoga Meditation in Prisons being run across 22 countries, including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic Finland, France, Holland, India, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Taiwan and the UK.

Government: It is being taught in government circles: in the US congress, congressman Tim Ryan is leading the drive for mindfulness – I have listed his book at the end of this article.In the UK Houses of Parliament – 10% of the parliamentary labour party MP’s have done a mindfulness course. There are even classes being launched at the European parliament.

Healthcare: the UK Nice organisation [the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence] has recommended Mindfulness since 2005 for keeping patients with recurrent depressive vulnerability, depression-free. In the USA, The Greater Good Science Center is the leading organisation that studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society across the USA.

Schools: The first large randomised control trial of Mindfulness training compared with ‘teaching as usual’ in 76 UK schools, which will involve nearly six thousand students aged 11 to 14. Other parts of the study are a programme of experimental research to establish whether and how mindfulness improves the mental resilience of teenagers, and an evaluation of the most effective way to train teachers to deliver mindfulness classes to students. The £6.4 million research programme will be carried out by teams at the University of Oxford, UCL (University College London) and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, in collaboration with the University of Exeter, over seven years.

Business: For the past few years, Mindfulness has been an agenda item at the Davos World Economic Forum. If you check out their website, there are over 110 articles on Mindfulness, including podcasts, and research papers on the development of mindfulness in business. This year, 2015, saw the biggest gathering of business leaders at the mindfulness discussions.

I would contend that even with the froth in the media around Mindfulness, the growth in practitioners, both personally, socially, in education, healthcare and in business, means that mainstream it has become.  

I leave you with the following quote:

“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” ― John Lennon

World Economic Forum Website:
The Book: A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit , by Tim Ryan – elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002 and is currently serving in his sixth term representing Ohio’s 13th Congressional District.

Mindfulness and how it helps in business

“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.” ― Steve Jobs

If you work in a business, at some point you are going to have to sit in front of your colleagues and present an update on your part of the business. Whether this is yearly, quarterly or even monthly, this is the beating heart of the company business review cycle. I have worked in organisations where the reviews can be any and all of the above. I think probably, the only company where this does not happen with such rigor, is if you run your own one-person business, though I am sure there are other pressures.

I am in the current company review cycle. The normal process is to review current performance for the period that has just past and to then predict what will happen the following period. Now, this takes time, skill, lots of effort and understanding of the business. And, unless you are in a guaranteed utility business  where the run rate of the business can be predicted over a long time scale – say years – requires a degree of, how can I put it, “predicting the future”.

So how can mindfulness play into this? For the past six months, I have been deliberately practicing a series of mindfulness exercises during the preparation period and even more so, on the day of the review. The reason is twofold: to help me reduce the tension and stress of the review and more importantly: enable me to be more focused in both the preparation and delivery of the review. Mindfulness actually helps improve your attention by getting you to focus on the present moment.

How does it work? For the three or four days leading up the final meeting I do the following. Firstly, I get up early. Well, if you are like me, your mind is going to going at a 100mph anyway, so why on earth stay in bed and ruminate when you can be doing something about it. I practice mindfulness movement exercises and focus really hard on the movements to still the mind. Secondly, I practice a forgiving meditation – this I will cover in a separate post. The combination eases my mind and at the same time, makes me feel more calm as I carry out the review.

So what is the mindful movement exercises? A short explanation follows:-

You want to start at the top of the body, with head and neck movements. Next you move onto the shoulders and the arms. Finally, you move down the body to the feet. I base mine on the audio CD of the book “Mindfulness: Finding peace in a frantic world”, though you may have your own approach.

One of the areas it has helped me to identify is where I have a stress related pain. Generally, in my neck and shoulder area. It has helped me to “lean into that area” as the exercise suggests. First, recognising that the pain is there and also the reason for the pain – the stress. Next, it asks you to accept the pain and move into the pain, exploring with kindness, what that pain is. I know this sounds really weird, but trust me, give it a try for a few days and it really, really works.

The website with the guide notes and also a audio of the exercise is below. Please do try it out, it makes such a difference. main web site

Exercise audio instructions

I leave you with the following quote:

“Our life is made up of time; our days are measured in hours, our pay measured by those hours, our knowledge is measured by years. We grab a few quick minutes in our busy day to have a coffee break. We rush back to our desks, we watch the clock, we live by appointments. And yet your time eventually runs out and you wonder in your heart of hearts if those seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years and decades were being spent the best way they possibly could. In other words, if you could change anything, would you?”

Cecelia Ahern, Love, Rosie