Deconstruct stress, before stress deconstructs you.
Lessons learned from going deep into (and coming out the other side) of chronic stress.
Being in Chronic Stress
Imagine your brain feeling like it’s not your own. When at times even finishing this sentence would feel like a massive effort. Imagine when even the most routine of tasks or a simple exercise like responding to binary questions seems overwhelming. Imagine when even the most innocent of requests from your children and wife are met with a rousing anger and frustration, that often eventuates into an outburst that doesn’t even sound like your own voice saying it. This is my experience of being in chronic stress.
Is stress just bad?
Stress is not always a bad thing. Many stresses are good and have a positive benefit on our mind and body. This article is not about them. This is about the progressive chain of negative stresses that left unaddressed, unrecognised and unresolved, can have a long-term degenerative impact on our productivity, our well being and our relationships.
What I’d like to share with you here is what I’ve learnt through my experience of stress. I’ll briefly cover how stress has affected me and challenged me, and how working through a unique, guided process has allowed me to process and break down my stress so I can function as my best self once more.
Before this technique was shown to me, I was partially in denial of how stressed I really was. Superficially I was aware enough to be trying to manage my overwhelming emotions. My approach was to apply more effort, and to just simply do more, not stopping to reconcile why it was taking me three times as long to complete everyday tasks. I am fortunate to have loving family and attentive colleagues around me who could gently, subtly but appropriately directly at times draw me in to appreciation that what I was in during was not a normal level of stress.
In October 2020 when attending a routine health check-up, I received a formal diagnosis of chronic stress from a medical practitioner. This was the summons that brought me to seek structured help to manage my stress. If my experience is resonating with you already, and you’re relating to what I’m describing so far — I urge you to give yourself permission to reach out to professionals to assist you as soon as you feel ready to do so.
The irony is that the process which I have found most beneficial to navigate through stress into my better self with sitting right in front of me. As the leader of a leadership business, I’m blessed by being surrounded by a team of experts from various domains — one of whom wrote his Doctoral dissertation on Stress in the virtual environment. This is the environment in which I (along with most people in the world) had spent most of my time during the preceding months before I engaged with his diagnostic process. My journey progressing through this process I’d now like to briefly share with you.
Taking stress apart
Essentially this is a process of stressor identification calling out categorising and prioritising all the stresses in your life good and bad.
When I went through this process with Dr Tom, my good to bad stress ratio was about 90/10. I was identifying stressors in every category of work and life and when it came to prioritising them it was actually more an endeavour of looking at the smallest ones to manage first. Because all of them seemed important and all of them needed to be addressed in the fullness of time this is a process that you can do for yourself.
An important first step even before the identification process can begin is to be kind to yourself. It’s important to bring some compassion into your context and understand that when it comes to chronic stress, the place that you now look out at the world from has been built and applied layer-on-layer over an extended period of time. This is not something that humans have evolved to deal with very well.
We’re really good at dealing with acute stress stress that is immediate and environmental and that comes and goes or that we can easily and rapidly escape from. Chronic stress endures for extended period of time. Our reserves of perseverance and resilience are both gradually sapped and ground down. Both need time, energy and resources to restore, and the constant pressure of chronic stress can prevent the necessary recharge from occurring.
If at this juncture you’re feeling like this process could help you I invite you to read an article by Dr Tom here which explains how he developed this process and how you can apply it yourself.
Where to start
This process begins by calling out sources of stress, naming them and putting them in buckets. You then examine each stressor one by one, sorting and sifting and pulling one out of the bucket at a time — starting with let’s call them the little fish. You then manage and mitigate each of these in turn, moving through them and beyond them and onto the next one. This pathway of identification I have found highly effective to move away from being in chronic stress.
When I went through this process with Dr Tom my good to bad ratio was about 90/10.
The main thing I’ve learned through going through this process is how relatively simple it is looking back on it from the perspective of being in a far lower level of stress. If you look at this process of deconstructing stress and it seems almost mindlessly simple you probably don’t need it. I can assure you when you look at this process as somebody who is in chronic stress it feels like real work. Managing the amygdala hijack and managing your emotions to even answer the most simple questions takes focus, conviction and energy. It is however very doable even in the most stressed state, entirely beneficial and immediately effective.
Where I stand now…
As I write this, 5 months on from first working with Dr Tom through the Deconstructing Stress process, is entirely different. Sentences are are joy. Emotions are back within a tolerable range. I welcome the requests and inquiries of my wife and kids. Everything seems achievable. I enjoy considering what is possible, not simply doable. I am dreaming big dreams again. You can stand here too.
If you’d like to find out more about why so many people, perhaps you included, are experiencing stress the way we are in this moment, I recommend Dr Tom’s article as mentioned above. If you’d like to engage more directly with his deconstructing stress process and understand how it could help you, or someone you care about, process their stress — you can contact him via our website here.
NB – this article was originally published on 4i’s Medium platform, Lead Forward.
You might also enjoy listening to the conversation between Tim and Dr Tom on Better World Leaders – here.