With all the upset and worry caused by the current Corona virus, it was a bit of a holiday to have something to celebrate. On 9 July 2020 my second book, The Stress Workbook was published. It’s been very heartening to receive so many congratulations from people. It’s particularly special to see people holding your book and getting ready to read it.
All my life I have looked for meaning and ways to work with my habits in order to live more harmoniously. It’s been a natural progression from that to write about things that are relevant to peoples’ lives. My blog aims to pick up on issues that impact wellbeing and offer ways to work to increase your own. So, when it was suggested to me that I should write about stress and show how compassion can help to work with it, I jumped at the chance.
1.We’re going through challenging times
There’s no doubt that the last few months have been extremely stressful. Worry about the virus is one thing but then there is all the fallout to deal with as well. Lockdown and all its ongoing effects have changed our lives in ways we could never have imagined a few months ago. Conversations with friends are opportunities to share how we are trying to manage the strangeness of the situation.
I had a significant birthday in June and had planned to celebrate the passing of another decade with trips to the UK to see family and friends. Obviously, the plan is now on hold. My eldest niece had her first baby during lockdown and as her mother is in the vulnerable category she had to go through the whole thing without her mother’s physical support. One of my nephews has lost his job because of layoffs and the other one had to celebrate getting his PhD in a virtual ceremony. All over the world people are struggling to cope with loss, upheaval, financial hardship, anxiety and uncertainty.
2. Stress is something we all need to cope with
Stress tends to get a bad press. When we talk about feeling stressed, we generally mean we don’t feel well in ourselves. That’s not surprising, as stress can make us tired, irritable, and generally uninspired. However, from an evolutionary point of view, our stress response was designed to keep us away from danger and safe enough to reproduce and raise our offspring. The trouble is that our modern lifestyle is very different from the one our ancestors led. The stress response that was designed to help us run away from danger, or to stand and fight it when we had the chance, nowadays is triggered by traffic jams, lost keys, crowded supermarkets and so on. Our sympathetic nervous system is chronically over-stimulated. We’ve become exhausted by our own reactions!
Although it is only natural to want things to go well in life and for things to turn out as we want, experience has shown us that life a series of ups and downs. We all face frustrations and disappointments. The Stress Workbook aims to show how stress is an inevitable part of life. We can learn to work with it in useful and productive ways that will benefit us.
3. The Stress Workbook points out our unhelpful habits
Of course, as we go through life, we adopt all kinds of coping mechanisms to help us get by. Some of these strategies work well but some of them can stop us being able to understand more about how we are coping.
For example, when we experience stress our tendency is to try and make it go away. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable, so we turn away from it. Sometimes we distract ourselves with a holiday, or TV, or by buying something new. Maybe we try and comfort ourselves but all too often it’s with an extra glass of wine, or more chocolate.
Another habit we have is that we don’t pay attention. Research has shown that for almost 50% of our waking hours we not thinking about what we are doing at that moment, but our mind is wandering off and thinking about completely different things. Have you ever driven home from somewhere and when you arrive, you have almost no memory of the journey at all? Or been in a meeting where you zoned out for large sections of the discussion and when it was your turn to speak, struggled to find the thread? The thing is that this does make us happy but rather stops us from being fully present for our experience.
Both of these habits are example of habits that get in our way and prevent us from moving forward. We need to replace them with beneficial habits—ones that will build our resilience and enhance our wellbeing.
4. We can develop new, useful habits to improve how we cope
With regard to stress the new habit we need to develop is that of leaning into our stress. This doesn’t mean to indulge in stress but to quietly allow ourselves to explore what is happening for us and how it is affecting us. We can begin to notice where in the body we register stress, and how it makes us react. Over time, we can learn to see what triggers our stress and even how to avoid these triggers. Instead of distracting ourselves we become curious to see how this all works and to find new ways of coping.
The best way to work with our wandering mind is through mindfulness meditation. With mindfulness we can learn to be in the present moment. Instead of going over something that has already happened, or worrying about what we’re planning to do next, we can simply be present. When we are present, we can bring so much more energy to what we are doing. We’re more focused and effective and our attention is sharper. That means we can notice what is going on for ourselves and others, so it’s a good strategy in working with stress.
5.We don’t necessarily see compassion as a means to work with stress
If we’re asked how we cope with stress, it’s likely that compassion is not the first tool that springs to mind. However, developing compassion for ourselves and other people helps to widen our perspective. Our focus on our own problems is lifted, as we take into account what is happening for other people. When we’re going through hard times, it’s all too easy to wonder, ‘why me’? Compassion teaches us to see that everyone, whoever they are, has difficulties and worries. We are not being singled out for special punishment. It’s just how life is.
Going on from this, we can take a fresh look at our reactions to events that cause us trouble. Let’s take an example. Say you had a work meeting that went badly and left you stressed and depleted. The event of the unsatisfactory meeting is one thing, but our tendency is then to pile on our reactions. We feel responsible for the meeting going wrong, while also feeling some anger towards those who did not agree with your point of view. So, we blame ourselves and blame other at the same time. Then we feel even more stressed and miserable. Learning to work with how we respond to difficult situations is an important act of self-compassion.
6. The Stress Workbook is packed full of practical, workable advice
Because this is a workbook, it’s full of reflections, exercises, worksheets and meditation scripts. The Stress Workbook is designed to flow as a continuous story and so the exercises are embedded into the text. This means that you can read the theory and then quickly put it into practice.
I have also included many stories from the workshops that I have given. They’re a great way to see how other people manage stress—where they get stuck and how they resolve it.
In theory you can begin at the beginning of the Stress Workbook, take your pencil and work through everything step-by-step. I suggest pencil because you might want to erase stuff and write something different. It means that you are evolving a set of strategies to work with stress through the power of compassion from the beginning of the workbook.
Do let me know how you get on. I always love to hear!
I have had one major incident of job loss in my career. It was messy and painful. Although it happened years ago, I can still wake up in the night and wonder what on earth happened. I wasn’t fired but made redundant, although the difference felt like semantics. The experience left me feeling disorientated, lonely and inadequate.
For most of us, losing a job means a scramble to find another one as soon as possible. The bills that need paying do not stop with job loss. My own solution was to become a solo entrepreneur, which involved a steep learning curve. There is very little time left to care for how wounded, low and discarded one can feel.
Here are some of the issues that I tried to work with while setting up my new business.
Who was I after my job loss?
My job had been in senior management in an international non-profit. I travelled a lot, I had teams who answered to me—I was a boss. When it was over there was a short period of time where I was completely disorientated. For so many years I had worked very hard and focused my energy on my work. Without it I was not sure who I was.
It took me a while to consciously disconnect myself from the job that I had had. I needed to remember why I wanted the job in the first place, and to re-connect with the motivation that led me to carry it out for so long. Slowly, painfully it became possible to remember interests that I had dropped through lack of time before my job loss. My meditation practice, which had become minimal during the busiest times, flourished again. The space it helped to open up enabled me to process what I was feeling in a way that was healing.
Struggling with a sense of shame
Brené Brown describes shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of live and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
That seems pretty accurate. I certainly felt that I had failed and become somehow lesser in people’s eyes. Indeed, by not being able to avoid job loss I had failed in my own eyes. However, much worse was the idea that people would think that as a failure I was not someone they would want to know. Not being able to explain to myself what had gone wrong made it very hard to explain to other people. I felt defenceless.
That was the place from which I set out to build the next phase of my working life.
Major cracks in my self-confidence
Perhaps it is inevitable that when you suffer a job loss you are precipitated into an intense period of self-examination. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good idea to take time to reflect on your work habits and how you are coping with your working life.
The trouble comes when, hurting from the shock of losing your job, you forget all about how to be kind to yourself. I have had friends who have been made redundant or lost their job who have turned to me for help. I have never subjected any of them to the tirade of judgment and criticism that I poured out to myself.
Self-compassion was not so well known at the time that I lost my job. As part of my work now I have studied it quite thoroughly and wish that I had known more about it at the time. Learning how to tame the sharp voice of my inner critic and to change oneself through kindness would have helped me enormously. Understanding that my job loss was not something that only happened to me but was happening to many other people at the same time would have taught me a great deal.
Fear of what my job loss meant for the future
Underneath everything else there was the constant worry of not being able to get more work. The threat of financial difficulties was a constant drain on my energy. Working with that fear became a priority because when it got too intense, I froze.
Fortunately, we often have more resilience than we think. As much as I could, I used the fear to cut through my feelings of inadequacy and to spur me on.
The loss of community
One thing that I had not anticipated was how much I missed the people that I had worked with. People that I had worked with for years and seen every day simply dropped out of my life. Gone was the flow of ideas and the shared camaraderie.
When you work with other people there is a ready-made social network. Of course, you are joined together by the work you are doing but you also share all kinds of other things. You hear news of what is going on in other people’s lives. There is an audience for you to share what is going on in your’s. You accompany each other through all kinds of moods, challenges and accomplishments.
With a job loss, all this is gone in a moment.
Struggling with the sympathy of friends and family
My friends and family were kind and sympathetic, but I found it hard to be the one needing support. I am more used to offering it. Too often I found myself putting on a brave face when actually I felt really low. In fact, it was a journey for me to allow my vulnerability to show and to accept their support with gratitude.
However much we may need to move on after a job loss and find new work, we need time to grieve. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and it takes time but without it we are denying ourselves the opportunity to learn from what has happened to us. In order to move on in a good way, we need to be able to make some sense of what has happened. How we heal the pain of our loss will depend on being able to take the time for reflection, and evaluation. Job loss is one of the most stressful experiences we will face but it is also a time of opportunity. We need to give ourselves the gift of that time.
I hope you enjoyed this post. I am currently designing an online course to support people through job loss. If you could fill out my survey it would help me to gather data for the online course. It will only take you 10 minutes. Thank you so much!
We Brits say ‘sorry’ all the time. In most cultures you only say sorry when you believe you have done something wrong. In the UK it is used as a communication tool. We say ‘sorry’ when we accidentally bump into someone or need to squeeze past them. If we want someone’s attention, we tend to start out by saying , ‘sorry to interrupt’, or ‘sorry to ask but…’It’s partly to do with wanting to be polite but it is also part of our difficulty in being direct. Living in the Netherlands, as I do, I have had to unlearn the habit because people find it irritating. Dutch people are very direct.
Being able to say sorry authentically when you know you’ve behaved in a way that was harmful is a wonderful and important skill. Apology has the power to repair harm, mend relationships, soothe wounds and heal broken hearts.
So why can it feel so hard to say sorry?
Let’s look at a few possibilities:
• When we don’t think what we did is such a big deal, so it’s not worth apologising for.
• If we have trouble seeing things from another person’s perspective, we might not see the need to say sorry.
• The truth is that is very uncomfortable when we do realise that we have something to say sorry about. Sometimes we just cannot manage to admit we’ve done anything wrong.
Saying sorry as a gift to yourself
To overcome these obstacles, we need to think a bit more deeply.
We might think that saying sorry is all about giving to the other person. Of course, that is an important part and we will come to it soon. However, it is important to realise the benefits for yourself too.
Often when we know we have hurt someone we feel guilty and ashamed. It can cause us stress. Depending on how serious the circumstances were, it might even keep us awake at night. The whole experience is painful and distressing. When we say sorry, we are healing our own feelings of regret and remorse.
Having to dig into our actions and realising that we did not behave well is a humbling experience. It’s hard to admit we hurt someone and makes us feel vulnerable. Perhaps we can be less inclined to judge how others behave when we reflect on our own behaviour.
It can also become more possible to forgive ourselves. It puts us back in touch with our own basic goodness and reminds us that we are worthy of forgiveness and it is alright to ask for it. If we are open and willing, we can also learn from the mistakes we made that got us into having to say sorry. That’s a bonus going forward.
Saying sorry as a gift to other people
Research shows that receiving an apology has a noticeable, positive physical effect on the body. An apology actually affects the bodily functions of the person receiving it—blood pressure decreases, heart rate slows and breathing becomes steadier.
If someone tells you that they are sorry, it helps you to feel better. The ball is now in your court—you have the ability to forgive the person who hurt you. We can move from seeing them through anger and bitterness to seeing them as a fallible human being. The wrongdoer becomes more human, more like ourselves and we are touched by this. Then we are more able to access our natural empathy, and forgiveness becomes possible.
Apologising re-opens the lines of communication after the hurt has closed them down. It can even be that going through these difficulties together brings people closer and deepens the trust between them. When you go through something difficult with someone and come through it together, it inspires confidence in the strength of the relationship.
Things to be aware of when saying sorry
The most important thing is to mean it! It’s no good saying sorry just to smooth out a situation. People can sense it when you are pretending. It can do more damage that not apologising.
In the same way try to avoid saying sorry and then adding a ‘but’. This can happen when you are trying to apologise for your part in a difficult situation, but you want the other person to take responsibility for their share. You might say something like, I am really sorry that I shouted but you shouted at me first. This is tricky. Of course you want to explain yourself properly but I find that this is easier if you go all the way first.
The more open-hearted and direct we can be the more space opens up for dialogue and exchange.
Maybe Elton John was right, and ‘sorry’ does seem to be the hardest word. When we manage it though, the benefits for ourselves and others are very nourishing.
Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.
We all know that Christmas is a big opportunity for stress. The combination of having to appear to be having fun, while coping with all the frustrations and extra work can be a real downer.
One of the things we need to know about stress is that it closes things down. It’s hard to feel joyful and enthusiastic when you are stressed. We tend to close in on ourselves and set up a kind of survival regime to get us through. Maybe it does help us to struggle along but it does not help us to care for ourselves, to open our hearts to others, to learn anything about the habits that lead to the stress in the first place.
Let’s take a look at some ways we could set about making connections this Christmas instead of going into survival mode.
Connecting with yourself as the basis to overcome stress
Do you ever feel like the people in this snow globe at Christmas—all in your festive gear but not able to communicate how you are really feeling? The holidays can be a strangely lonely time, even when you are surrounded by people.
As the lead up to Christmas gathers pace, why not take some time to check in with yourself and see what you are hoping for from the holidays.
Whether you are religious, or not you can ask yourself what is important to you about this holiday. Is it having family around and lots of good things to eat and presents to share? Or is it about having a few days off from work and routine in the middle of winter. Whatever it is, it will help you to set an intention for yourself—a kind of inspiration for the holiday.
Then at the other end of the scale, try to see what it is that triggers stress for you.
Take a moment to sit quietly and then ask yourself these questions:
At what times do I experience a high level of frustration over relatively small events?
How does it feel in my body?
What do I do about it?
Going through this exercise will help you to identify the times when stress can creep up on you, so you can prepare for it and hopefully, avoid it. Allowing yourself to use your body like a stress barometer shows you the effect that stress has on you. Spending time thinking about how you deal with stress helps to get you off the survival treadmill and really consider how you can ease your stress.
Connecting with the present moment
So often when we are busy our minds are just rushing away with us thinking ahead of all there is still to do. That’s particularly sad at Christmas when there are so many enjoyable rituals in getting ready—like making the cake.
So one way we can ease a feeling of stress is to connect with the present moment. For example, try not to hurry with making the cake. While you are mixing it, don’t think about making the mince pies, a present for grandma and whether you have enough wine in the house. Instead, try focusing on simply sorting your ingredients for the cake, weighing and adding them in the correct order and mixing it all to a delicious consistency. Take time to smell the fruits and the brandy. Allow yourself to enjoy the texture of batter. Remember to make your wish and just be with the making of the cake. When it is in the oven, you can go on to the next task and approach it in the same way.
Connecting with a sense of enjoyment and celebration helps to dissolve stress
The more we can get our stress into perspective, the more chance we have to enjoy some of the magic that there can be around Christmas. We said earlier that stress closes things down and one of the first things to go is any sense of enjoyment and celebration.
Allow yourself time to look around you and see the things you enjoy. I am a big fan of Christmas trees both indoors and out in the open. There is something about all the lights and glitter on a dark winter evening that just says home and love to me.
What is it that you enjoy most at Christmas?
Connecting with family and friends
Probably if we are honest, one of the biggest sources of stress is how the family is going to manage together over the holidays. It can get complicated with all the in-laws and the extended family. We all know that awful tense feeling that can come when uncle George manages to come out with the opinions that we know will drive our teenage daughter to distraction. Or when grandma insists that we don’t know how to put on a Christmas like they did in her day. You dread the moment when your sister-in-law, who always manages to make you feel like bargain-basement wife, arrives for dinner looking as if she just stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine, along with her two immaculate children. You, on the other hand, hot and bothered from the kitchen feel less than glamorous.
Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind while the family dinner is underway:
Everyone around the table wants to be happy—just like you do.
None of them want to be anxious, or worried, or miserable and yet, inevitably they all have times when they are—just like you.
Chances are that each one of them have their own insecurities about the family gathering—just like you do.
Perhaps some of them are even intimidated by aspects of your behavior–what a good cook you are, how you juggle family and career—who knows?
It can help so much if before your irritation arises you can put yourself in the shoes of the person irritating you—perhaps they are more like you than you think.
Connecting with the rest of the world
As well as closing things down, stress makes us lose perspective. Whatever is going on with us seems so much more important than anything else that is happening in the world—which in the scheme of things, really does not make sense.
During the holiday period you can counter-act any tendency to feel that getting the lights working on the tree is more important than, say, global warming by consciously allowing yourself time to think about what is going on for everyone else in the world. Many millions of other people are celebrating Christmas around the world, with traditions that may be very different from your own. There are also millions who are not celebrating Christmas and it is just another ordinary day for them. Then there are the millions who whether or not they wish to celebrate Christmas are not able to because of poverty, or war, or persecution. Keep them in mind also.
So, a very merry stress-free winter holiday to everyone!
Take a moment to think about your workplace. Would you say it was a kind workplace? Is kind behaviour encouraged, or considered important?
All too often kindness is simply seen as a ‘soft skill’ and not considered to be necessary for navigating the complexities of work. This is a shame because focusing on kindness provides tremendous strength and flexibility to any workplace.
Stress at work
There are lots of quite worrying statistics about stress and its effects in the workplace. First off – stress is expensive. When people are stressed they are not functioning at their best and they tend to get sick.
The statistics bear this out. The Health & Safety Exec states that in 2017/18 15.4 million working days were lost in the UK as a result of stress. Across the pond, the American Psychological Association estimates that more than $500 billion is siphoned off from the U.S. economy because of workplace stress, and 550 million workdays are lost each year due to stress on the job.
The effect on staff
Moreover, engagement in work — which is associated with feeling valued, secure, supported, and respected — is generally negatively associated with a high-stress, cut-throat culture. It people do not feel valued and respected at work, then they tend to disengage and this has consequences.
In studies by the Queens School of Business and by the Gallup Organization, disengaged workers had 37% higher absenteeism, 49% more accidents, and 60% more errors and defects. Similarly, in the UK it is estimated that disengaged employees are costing the UK economy £340 billion every year in lost training and recruitment costs, sick days, productivity, creativity and innovation.
This also affects staff loyalty and the rate at which people leave to look for new jobs.
Increasingly consumers are more alert to companies’ ethical positions. With Statistics from recent consumer polls by Edelman, and Young & Rubicam, show that 87% of UK consumers expect companies to consider societal interests equal to business interests, while 71% of people make it a point to buy brands from companies whose values are similar to their own.
Looking at this sample of statistics, we can see that the environment of a workplace definitely has an effect on the people who work in it. If the atmosphere is not healthy, there are strong repercussions. So, maybe a kind workplace culture could turn out to be much more of an investment for employers that they thought.
What is so special about kindness?
From a Buddhist perspective, generating loving kindness is a way of wishing people happiness. It is an antidote to anger. If you think about it – it’s hard to be angry with someone and do something kind for them at the same time.
Kindness also makes us happier because we feel good when we are kind. In his research with volunteers, Allan Luks identified a Helper’s High that people experienced when they volunteered due to the release of dopamine in their brains.
It is also good for the heart because acts of kindness are associated with emotional warmth. This produces the hormone oxytocin which has an effect of causing blood vessels to dilate and so eases blood pressure.
We all like to be around kind people. Kindness reduces the emotional distance between people, and we feel bonded. So, kindness helps us to connect and improves relationships.
A great thing about kindness is that it is contagious. When we see people being kind to each other—we don’t even need to be directly involved—we feel good ourselves. Then we are more likely to go on to do something kind for someone else.
So, a kind workplace would be one in which employees were happier, geared to helping each other and healthier. It would also mean an improvement in relationships between staff but also with suppliers, customer and clients.
How would a kind workplace be?
Here are a few thoughts on some basic elements that would assist in ensuring that kindness is valued in a workplace. It’s by no means exhaustive.
• Staff would not need to assume a persona to succeed
It’s a strange fact of our lives but we spend more time with the people we work with than our friends and family. We see them most days—whatever is happening in our lives and however we feel. The thing is that all too often we feel that we need to wear a mask at work. A mask that says that we have ourselves together and are not affected by emotions.
Actually, it’s a pity if we feel this way. To begin with, it’s not true. Of course, we are affected by emotions and the things we need to cope with. By hiding this at work and pretending to be something else, we are cutting off a source of connection and even empathy.
Naturally we are at work to carry out a job and to do it to the best of our ability, but this does not mean that we have to behave like machines. We can be honest about how we are and how we are doing.
• People would be willing to lend a helping hand
With that kind of honesty in a workplace, it becomes much more possible to offer support to colleagues when they are struggling. If someone is having a hard time they don’t need to feel like a failure, or that they are letting anyone down. Knowing that it is alright to acknowledge struggle and to ask for help when it’s needed can be a tremendous source of relief. It opens the possibility to deepen relationships and to learn and grow together.
• Blame would not be a fallback response and mistakes could be forgiven
How easy it is to blame someone else for the inevitable mistakes that occur in any workplace. This tends to happen more in a work environment that is particularly competitive and aggressive.
Managers have a big role to play here. They need to create a culture where mistakes are understood as opportunities to learn, rather than failures to be punished. Staff could be encouraged to experiment and take reasonable risks. Managers could provide support to increase their confidence. Knowing that you will be blamed if something you are working on goes wrong increases stress and decreases improvisation.
• The meaningfulness of the work would be a priority
Generally speaking, we all look for meaning and purpose in our work. We want to know that we are using our time well and contributing to something bigger than ourselves. The very process of developing kindness in the workplace is itself connecting staff to a greater purpose.
Managers can enhance this by encouraging kindness and by sharing stories of how this connects to the company’s values.
• People wanting to inspire one another at work
A workplace based on kindness would function as an interdependent unit. There would be a holistic view of the workforce. In such an environment, individuals would realise that just as they need encouragement and inspiration, so do other people. So, it would be natural for people to want to inspire and encourage each other.
• People could treat each other with respect, gratitude and integrity
Learning to respect other people’s opinions is not always easy – especially if you disagree with them. A kind workplace would take respect as a foundation for difficult conversations and working through challenges. Allowing people to express themselves and to be heard is a mark of respect. Dialogue and exchange will go more smoothly in such circumstances.
Appreciating the efforts that people make and being grateful for their contribution is also fundamental to a kind workplace. It does not have to be a big thing. It can be simply being grateful for a friendly greeting, or the offer of a cup of coffee. Showing your appreciation makes the other person feel seen and respected.
This is the first of a series of posts on kindness in the workplace. I would love to hear your response and your ideas about how to bring this into action.
If you have found the ideas in this post interesting you might like to look at my new online course, How to Make Kindness Matter at Work. You can find out more here.