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Stress is Good: embracing stress, not fighting it

May 29, 2018 Leave a comment

Stress-can-actually-be-good-for-me-YAY-300x300We talk a lot about stress as something negative, something to be avoided.  Students tell me all the time how “stressed” they are as if it is something entirely negative.  The reality is that often stress is an appropriate response to a situation.  A student should feel stress, particularly when going into an exam.  If you do not have stress, I would be even more concerned.

Stress tends to have the impact that you expect it to have.  If you believe your stress is harmful it is more likely to be harmful and if you believe your stress is a resource we can use it to activate the energy and focus we need to overcome challenges.

Stress is not something that happens to us, instead, think of it as something that happens within us.  It is a subtle distinction, but if we think of it as something internal rather than external being forced upon us, we feel a greater sense of control and ownership over how we use it.   Dr. Kelly McGonigal, an expert in the field of “science help,” recommends that we do not attempt to directly fight the physiological responses that we have to stress, but instead subtly reframe it in a way that is positive.  Thus, instead of trying to calm ourselves down, we should see the surge of adrenaline, energy, etc that often comes with a stressful situation as an indication of excitement.  Indeed, at times of stress, our bodies and minds are in a state of excitement.  While it may feel unreasonable to convince yourself in those moments to be calm, it is not unreasonable to convince yourself to view your emotional and physiological response as excitement.

Further, it is important to remind ourselves that stress is fundamentally linked with what we care about and what we value.  If we view the stress we encounter in each day as a part of eudaimonic well-being, then we will be have the courage and resilience to grow from stress and realise its critical role in self-realization.  (Eudaimonic wellbeing is an alternative to hedonic happiness; it focusses more on human flourishing including self-realization, values, and purpose and less on the pursuit of pleasure that is associated more with hedonism.)

We can use this perspective on a daily basis when dealing with the inevitable stress that is associated with doing a university degree.  By reframing our thoughts on stress and seeing stress as something we can harness and use to our advantage rather than something that is happening to us and is innately negative, we will be able to help alleviate some of the more destructive consequences that the negative view of stress has on our academic, physical and psychological well-being.

The reality is, stress is an essential part of a fulfilling and productive life.  If we had no stress, we would not have the pressure and motivation to get up and do anything.  Stress is what gets us going, it is what helps us be energetic and engaged at the right moments.  The goal should not be to eliminate stress, but to get better at interpreting stress as a productive tool.

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When your day is filled with clouds

March 21, 2018 Leave a comment

Clouds Background Cloud High Sky Air

Even when the sky is filled with clouds, the sun is still out and shining, you just can’t see it.  I remind myself of this when I am struggling to find the good in a day.  The truth is that nothing living can survive without rain, so even if we don’t like the clouds, we cannot thrive and grow without them.

With the flood of smiling faces and sunny vacations, the constant façade of perfect lives that we are presented with in people’s carefully curated Facebook feeds, we can feel as though the dull days of our lives are not the norm.  However, when I sit in my office across from students whose lives are filled with clouds and rain, when I connect with friends, who are burnt out, exhausted, struggling with parenting, feeling like they don’t get time to rest or relax, I realise that what we think is the norm is not at all.  What is normal is to struggle.

Well that sounds terrible!  And to be honest, some days it is.  But, if we can re-frame those struggles and also be sure to take the time to find the good in each day, it becomes much less depressing.  It allows us to not just live for those exciting days off in the distance where we know we have a vacation planned, or something special coming up.  It allows us to transform the day to day into something that feels more sustainable and even mildly enjoyable.

One of my favourite quotes about life was brought to my attention by Dr. Brene Brown, a phenomenal expert on vulnerability, courage, shame, and worthiness.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.  Theodore Roosevelt

This paints a vivid picture in my mind of what a great life might look like.  It is not remotely close to Facebook perfection.  It is not someone who looks composed, well put together, with perfectly prepared and well balanced meals, exceptional study habits, impeccable parenting skills: someone who says and does all the right things at the right times, who is loved by all, and admired for his/her restraint and humility.

In fact, this great life, looks a bit more like I do at the end of a day:  holes in my leggings, some sort of food spilt on my shirt, my hair tangled, the kids complaining about dinner, and lunch, and likely breakfast, someone at work claiming that I didn’t do something I was supposed to do.  Then there are those kind words that someone says to me; I went for a walk with a friend;  I totally destroyed (with three stars) that next level of candy crush; I shared a laugh over a stupid you tube video about a dog that bites his own foot and I told someone that I appreciated them;  I made a student feel less hopeless, less ashamed, less like a failure. . . and there it is! My own small triumph. So, no matter how messy or unworthy of a post to my Facebook feed I can see that behind the dullness of the day, the sun was shining the whole time.  I just needed to look for it.

If it were not for the complaining, I wouldn’t appreciate the compliments so much.  If it were not for the less than perfect image, it wouldn’t feel as good to take the time to dress up and do my hair. If it were not for Kraft dinner and hot dogs, those well prepared fresh meals would not taste as good.  If it were not for clouds and the rain, the sun would not feel like such a blessing.

 

 

What you seek you will find

March 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Broaden and Build Theory

What you seek you will find – If you are looking for problems you will find them.  If you are looking for positives you will find them.

I see every day the instant impact that positivity or negativity has on individual and collective outcomes and trajectory.  I frequently coach my students to frame goals as something they want to achieve rather than something that they are hoping to avoid. For example: “I hope I master this course content and get a good grade” vs.  “I hope I don’t fail.”

By focusing on the positive you can feel your entire body change.  A student when talking about possibilities tends to sit up more, make more eye contact, smile more, and  has a visible energy.  That same student when talking about his/her fears becomes not just mentally but also physically closed off.  He/she will slump down more in the chair, has a harder time making eye contact, sometimes I even see nervous twitching like legs shaking etc.

Dr. Frederickson talks about the amazing impact of positive thoughts in her Broaden and Build theory.  This theory illuminates exactly what I have witnessed in others and what I feel in myself when faced with a challenge.

In order to ensure that you are supporting a work/study environment that promotes creativity and innovation, it is important to work hard to protect and encourage positive emotion and perspectives.  One way that I do this is ensuring that when we are working as a team on resolving a problem or improving a service, that we focus first on un-analysed idea generation.  By protecting the brainstorming process from the negative emotion that can result from instant analysis, we are helping people to feel safe in sharing ideas, broadening the thoughts and actions that we will consider, and generating an upward spiral of energy and creativity that is more likely to result in multiple good options.

I recognise that, particularly in a university setting, there can be a strong desire to analyse and critique everything as soon as it is put on the table.  However, if the desire to point out flaws, impracticality, budgetary constraints, etc. can be delayed until a second stage of consideration, then you are allowing for a cross pollination of ideas, and for people to feel open to sharing. You can reassure all involved that we will get to the analysis stage; we can look at all the data points you like, but just not yet.  Furthermore, this focus on the positive not only assists in the short term idea generation and problem solving, but also ensures that as a team we have longer term success, well-being and resilience.

Can you think of a time when you were sitting in a meeting and you or someone else had an idea that was instantly shut down?  “Well we tried that last year and it didn’t work” . . . “We don’t have the budget for that” . . . “There is no way the administration will approve that” . . . . How did you feel?

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