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Stressing the Kindness

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Tony Burkinshaw

Spring 2016

Stressing the Kindness

Stress. There’s a lot of it about. It can be hard to ignore stress when its hormones begin their ebb and flow. Thoughts of heart attacks, hardening arteries, palpitations, high blood pressure, statins and pills mix in to make the IBS even worse.

Or so we’re lead to believe.

More and more recent research is re-thinking the negative press that stress has had for many years. It’s beginning to creep into the mainstream. NHS Choices readily acknowledges that one person’s stress is another person’s motivator. Something that can grind one person into the ground, others apparently handle well, turning it to their advantage.

Strangely, little is made of this in traditional stress management circles.

Website after website tells you about fight or flight, the body’s natural stress response. It is prolonged exposure to this response and its cocktail of hormones which takes the blame for our stress-related health problems. The implication is that if you suffer with stress, then you must counteract the fight or flight response in order to manage your stress. Learn to relax. Remove the source of the stress. Live a quieter more peaceful life. Avoid the hubbub.

Talking therapies, medication, meditation & relaxation are often the preferred routes to managing too much stress. That and removing all the sources of stress in your life.

In my time I’ve tried all of them.

I’ve learned some interesting things. It’s only since I took an interest in this recent research into stress that I realised how I’ve really managed to stay together so well. It turns out that our stress response is much more nuanced than we’ve been lead to believe. Without realising it, I appear to have turned this to my advantage and the links to this Random Acts of Kindness column may become clearer.

Much of my earlier career was in Sales Management in the Financial Services Industry, an environment that brought multiple pressures; long commutes, targets, frequent and detailed new regulation, constant re-structuring and occasional redundancies.

Along the way, I uncovered a heart condition that had meant I was essentially operating at full capacity the whole time. Interestingly, it was taking up competitive athletics at the age of 40 and representing Peterborough in the 100m & 200m that brought this to a head.

Getting fit at forty really did save my life, although not in the way I’d expected.

Anyway, my work moved off the road and into Head Office, 9 – 5 and closer to home. No more targets and endless meetings about how to exceed expectations. These were replaced with paperwork, files and research. It helped. But not much.

When it was my turn for the redundancy train, I could have stayed and taken a less interesting role. Instead I jumped ship and started down the road which brought me here, writing this Random Acts of Kindness column for Perception.

And this, I guess, brings me closer to the link which marries up stress and kindnesses.

Along the way, I’ve learned much about the mind, people and myself. Needless to say, I’ve learned to relax and to meditate. Both of these help enormously and I’d heartily recommend them to you to help manage stress. But they are not the whole story and neither are they the solution in my opinion.

Anyway back with the narrative. At the point when it was important to manage stress and perceived wisdom was to reduce the stressors, I opted for redundancy and at the same time resolved not to look for another employed role. I began to take on short-term training contracts and went freelance.

Within a couple of months I found a problem. I had effectively reduced most of the stresses over the previous few years, working fewer hours, much less travel, no targets and so on. Working freelance brought even fewer hours and removed all trace of corporate politicking.

According to theory, I should have been less stressed and happier. But I wasn’t, not really. Something important had gone too. Perhaps the proverbial baby had been thrown out with the bathwater. The core of all my roles had been helping members of my various teams to do better. To climb the mountains they either believed were impossible or were unwilling to climb in the first place, even though their job demanded it. First and foremost, I was a coach.

Without realising it, I had cut myself off from the very thing that gave my work meaning. Yes, I had far less stress but also far less reward. I wasn’t on the path to happiness.

Meanwhile the stresses at home were increasing with major physical and mental health issues raising their heads with close family.

In large part, these were the main reasons I sought out an alternative trade and became possibly the only Cognitive Hypnotherapist Chartered Financial Planner and, according to at least one of my certificates, Master Wizard.

Initially I thought it was to find the ability to help my family relax, to learn to relieve pain and in some way, quieten the demons. But it was also to find a career that helped people. From slow beginnings, despite increasingly uncertain medical and mental health dilemmas in the family, I built a practice.

At a time when I could have fallen over with the pressures and stresses of it all, I’m thriving.

Somehow, over the last three moths, the fog has cleared a little. I’ve taken rooms in Harley Street and am building another practice from scratch in one of the most competitive therapeutic environments in world. It seems that I like a challenge. Somehow I no longer see it that way.

My practice has evolved and matured into a specialisation in clients with high levels of anxiety, depression and stress, three areas I am intimately familiar with. I am often asked how I cope with listening to all this negativity and still being there for family. I thought it was because I was well trained in the art of relaxation, meditation and managing emotional reactions, unconscious triggers and all that hypno-malarkey. There is no doubt that this is a part of the answer.

Now’s the time for our Kindness link

Contrary to popular press, human beings come equipped with a very nuanced stress response. It is this nuanced response which allows some to thrive whilst others sink under ‘Stress’ (note the bunny ears for the first time in this article).

It turns out that which of these nuanced responses you experience isn’t determined by who you are or whether you have high levels of resilience. It is based more on your mindset; your beliefs about stress. Research shows that if you believe that stress is bad for you, the particular mix of stress hormones you get are debilitating, reducing your life expectancy.

But, and this is a big but, if you don’t believe that stress is bad for you, the mix of hormones you get shifts. Your life expectancy remains normal. This shift is measurable in your biology. Even the act of reading this article can be enough to begin the change.

An important consideration here is that we’re not talking about becoming immune to stress. People who appear to thrive on stress still experience all the power of the stressful situation, they’ve just found a way to turn it to their advantage. They work better under this stressful pressure. It’s still tiring. It is still pressure but it has been turned to their advantage.

So what is my point?

One of the key nuanced responses to stress is termed Tend and Befriend. It is where someone under stress reaches out and helps others. Typically these others are going through a similar difficulty. You see all the time with injured veterans, people who work tirelessly for the very charity that supports their life threatening health condition, heart transplant survivors running sponsored marathons. It’s everywhere when you look. These people are genuinely happy and fulfilled, despite the enormous stress that life has thrown their way.

Before I even knew about this research my instinct was help. It is no accident that my practice evolved into working with stress, anxiety and depression. I’ve lived in and around them at work and at home for many years. It wasn’t by conscious design, it just happened. Perhaps my unconscious mind knew it would be good for me.

It is also why I continue to write this column. I enjoy writing but this column is the most difficult writing assignment I have. I guess it’s too close to the core of my Why.

So, how do I manage to keep myself sane and happy despite everything? I help. I give. I Tend and Befriend. Both at work and at home this is what gives my life meaning. It doesn’t reduce my stress. In fact it probably increases it significantly. But I wouldn’t swap it because of what it gives me.

There’s another name for Tend and Befriend; Kindness. Yet more research shows that in a crowded society, Random Acts of Kindness even the really small ones, are fantastic in reducing the negative effects of stress and increasing levels of happiness.

Try it. I did. It works.