March 29, 2023

00:00:00: Introduction
00:01:24: Books on stress tolerance
Definition of stress
Quotes from the books
Emotional competence
Abandoning positive thinking
The stress of pretending
What narrows your window
00:27:43: The impact of stress
Regulating your stress arousal
The Good Life
Idea for action: contact points exercise
Idea for action: planning your working week
Idea for action: the importance of boundaries
Recommendations for readership
Final thoughts

Helen Tupper: Hi, I’m Helen.

Sarah Ellis: And I’m Sarah.

Helen Tupper: And you’re listening to the Squiggly Careers podcast, a weekly podcast where Sarah and I explore the ins and outs and ups and downs of your world of work, and hopefully share some ideas for action, some things that you can do differently with your development, to give you a bit more confidence and control of whatever might be going on for you right now.

Sarah Ellis: And today is our fourth and final episode in our Squiggly Soft Skills series.  So far, we’ve covered Originality, Critical Thinking, Social Influence and today we’re going to be talking about Stress Tolerance.  So, we’ll follow exactly the same format as we have in the other weeks.  We will talk a bit about what it is, in case you need a quick definition of stress tolerance; share a quote that’s stood out for us from the books that we’ve both read; three things that we’ve learnt; an action that you can take if you want to increase your stress tolerance; and then, who we think should read this book, not that I think we’re particular gurus in being able to give advice on that.  We’re definitely not a book club!  But I think probably from listening to us talk about the books, you get a sense of, does that feel like something you want to dive a bit deeper into.

I’ve also got some other recommendations based on my read today, in case perhaps you don’t feel up for reading a book, maybe you want to watch something, maybe you want to listen to something; so, I’ve gone a bit broader today in some of my recommendations.  So, Helen, shall we share the two books that we’ve read, so that people know where we’ve started from?

Helen Tupper: Let’s!  So, I read a book called Widen the Window, and we’ll talk a bit more about what that means, but the subtitle is: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover From Trauma, and it’s by Elizabeth A Stanley PhD.

Sarah Ellis: And I read, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, by Dr Gabor Maté, who some of you might recognise.  He wrote a book about addiction, you might recognise some of his book covers, he’s done lots of writing and speaking on how the mind and body are related and intertwined, and how important that connection is.  And actually, this is a book recommended by my sister, without even knowing that we were doing this series.  So, she recommended it at just the right time.  At times, it was quite a tough read, so I’m going to blame her for those moments!

Helen Tupper: Mine was also quite tough and when I ordered it, I was like, “How can I find a book?”  We’ve done podcasts on stress before, and this stress tolerance thing was a thing that I really wanted to dive into.  So, I thought widening the window would be a good topic for that.  Anyway, the book arrived and I was like, “Whoa, this is a big book, and I’ve got not that many days to read it and really reflect on what’s the most useful thing for Squiggly Careers listening”.  I sent a picture over to Sarah of the book against my head, and I was like, “It’s really big!” and also, the type is very small.  I was doubly daunted by this book, but I found my way through it, and I hope I’ve found some useful things to share with our listeners.

Sarah Ellis: So, shall we start off with, I’ve actually got both a definition and a quote that I thought might be helpful; shall I start with those?

Helen Tupper: Well, I feel like you’ve top-trumped me, so yes, lead the way!

Sarah Ellis: So, there’s a definition of stress that really stood out to me when I was reading this book, and then a quote as well, so I have actually cheated slightly on our format and want to include both, if that’s okay.  Because actually, this word, “stress tolerance” doesn’t come up that often, but I think it’s really interesting as we explore this topic to think a bit about, what do we mean by stress tolerance.  I’ve now got some quite strong views about whether we should be tolerating stress, or whether we should be just preventing it in the first place, which is probably a better place for us to be, if I’m understanding what I’m reading right, and at times I’m not 100% sure I always was!

But, what Maté talks about in terms of stress is he says, “Medical thinking usually sees stress as highly disturbing but isolated events, such as for example sudden unemployment, a marriage breakup, or the death of a loved one.  These major events are potent sources of stress for many, but there are chronic daily stresses in people’s lives that are more insidious and more harmful in their long-term biological consequences.  Internally-generated stresses take their toll without, in any way, seeming out of the ordinary”.

What I think he’s getting to actually is really interesting.  It’s the day-to-day stresses that perhaps we accept and have got quite used to, and just how detrimental they can be.  Definitely his starting premise is, “Our minds and our bodies are inextricably linked”.  So, if you want to look after all of your health, your brain’s health and your body’s health, we’ve got to think about how do we not only respond to stress, but I do think when we’re talking about stress tolerance, what my conclusions are starting to get to anyway is going, there are things that we can do to prevent ourselves getting to the point where stress becomes a problem for our body because, certainly when you read this book, there are lots and lots of examples of just how harmful stress can be, which I think we intuitively know.  None of us think, “It’s great to be stressed”.  But having read this book, I now take stress much, much more seriously than I did two weeks ago.

Helen Tupper: So in that, there’s stress that’s really obvious and highly impactful and quite immediate and significant, and then there’s almost the accumulated stress that you might not see, but still can be harmful over the long run.

Sarah Ellis: Yes, and I think not “can” be harmful, “will” be harmful.  It is pretty definitive.

Helen Tupper: So, just before you go onto your quote, just because I’m wondering whether I’m at a contrary point of view from the outset —

Sarah Ellis: Oh, no!

Helen Tupper: I know, interesting!  Is he saying, or is your interpretation of the book that you read, that no stress is good stress?

Sarah Ellis: So, I think he would take issue with the fact that there is perhaps something that occurs that’s good stress.  You know sometimes, we do have that thing of, “It’s good to be a bit stressed because it puts us under pressure and it propels us in some way”; like, “I need a deadline and that’s a bit stressful, and that is actually useful for me”, and I actually think I need to talk to him.  I think I need to dive a bit deeper to really understand whether there is such a thing as good stress.

But he mentions it a few times in the book, and he does definitely take issue with people who tell themselves, “Oh, but that’s good stress”, or tell him that that’s good stress, and some of the consequences that then has on people’s physical health later in life, because they almost become accustomed to this idea of, “good stress being okay”.

Helen Tupper: We’ll see what my quote is and how it sits with that.

Sarah Ellis: Do you want me to do my quote?

Helen Tupper: Yeah, definitely.

Sarah Ellis: So, the quote that I picked out, which I will expand on more when I get to what I learnt, so I won’t talk about it too much more now, is at the end of the book, there are the seven As of healing, and one of those As is Acceptance.  I did really like this quote, “Acceptance is simply the willingness to recognise and accept how things are.  It is the courage to permit negative thinking to inform our understanding, without allowing it to define our approach to the future”.  He has really challenged my perspective on negative thinking in a way that I recognise as helpful and useful, and actually in a way that I recognise that I have done well in the past.  I would almost describe it sometimes as pragmatism, but I’ll dive a bit more into this idea of positive and negative thinking, and how some of the assumptions that we might make perhaps are challenged a little bit.

Helen Tupper: You tease, you’re a book tease!  So, as we will see with this book, it’s not short, concise and quotable, so I’ve pulled out a few paragraphs!

Sarah Ellis: I feel like you have gone into some hardcore, academic worlds during this series.

Helen Tupper: Oh, my God, yeah.  This is like a therapeutic book.  So, I’ve got two paragraphs.  They’re not quotes, everybody, but I do think they’re quite important in the context of this book.  And it’s a long book, so two paragraphs is not a lot from it.

So, the first one is actually the thing that I think is counter to what you have read, which I think positions stress as, “can be positive”, so I’ll say it and see what you think, “Optimal performance, conscious learning and effective decision-making are most likely to occur at moderate stress levels, where there’s enough stress activation to keep us alert and focused, but not enough to enter our distress zone.  With this in mind, our neurobiological window of tolerance to stress arousal is the window within which we are capable of adjusting our stress levels upward or downward to remain over time within the optimal performance zone of moderate arousal”.  Discuss!

Sarah Ellis: I mean at this point, I think it is okay to say, “I don’t know”, because I feel like both of our books, from also what you were messaging me about, are based a lot on scientific research.  So, I suspect if we had both of the authors here talking to us, they would then both say, “It depends”, and then cite lots of scientific studies.  So, did what you just described to me make sense and did I recognise it?  Yes.  You sort of feel like actually sometimes, some of those conditions can be quite useful.  I just wonder whether if that was continual, so if we had moderate stress continually day in, day out, which might feel tolerable and copable with, I wonder whether Gabor Maté would argue that would be detrimental over a three-month period, over a year period.

So, maybe it would be okay for a day, but if that was each and every day you’re going into that zone, then what happens.

Helen Tupper: Well I think, and I guess we’ll get onto this in some of our insights, that I think what this book talks about is, stress is unavoidable at work, but people are aroused by stress in different ways, we have different responses to stress; and then, how you manage that arousal is the thing that matters.  So, you can’t avoid stressful situations at work, and it’s more how you train yourself to respond to that that’s important.

But the other thing I really wanted to say, because the whole thing about my book is this widening the window, so I just wanted to talk about wide and narrow windows just briefly, so that the insights that I share make more sense a bit later on.  So, there’s one more bit that’s like a quote, “People with wide windows are more likely to neurocept danger accurately, response flexibly and recover afterwards.  People with narrow windows are more likely to neurocept danger inaccurately and cue defence strategies of default programming, whether or not it’s appropriate to the situation they are in”.

What I interpreted that as is, if I’ve got a wide window, I’ve got a high tolerance, I can see a situation for what it is, I can adapt how I’m dealing with it and then I’m able to recover afterwards, it doesn’t affect me for long; whereas, if I have a low tolerance to stress, I’m not necessarily interpreting it accurately, there’s something triggered inside me, and I respond in a way that I’ve done before, even though it might not be helpful in this situation.  So, I might get defensive, or I might rely on unhelpful coping mechanisms, like anger, or maybe she talks a lot in this book about, say, drinking or other things that we do to cope with situations.

Sarah Ellis: Interestingly, one of the As of the seven As of healing is how important healthy anger is.  That was one of the new things that I learnt.  I think I actually messaged you about that; I was like, “Am I about to find out it’s okay to get angry?”  I quite enjoy getting angry every so often.  And, yeah, it turns out it is.  It depends how that anger shows up, because there are lots of forms of anger that are not helpful.  But he would argue that some anger is actually very good for you.

Helen Tupper: This is all fascinating.

Sarah Ellis: This is all fascinating.  I feel like we’re having a debate here but going, “We’re not actually 100% sure”.  So, hopefully this will get even more helpful as we go through and talk about what we’ve learnt!  So, shall I do one of the things that I learnt, because I do wonder whether, as we were messaging back and forward, and we were both highlighting paragraphs and going, “We’re getting this wrong and this wrong”, this seemed to be one that perhaps we might have in common.

So, one idea that I learnt from this book is about something called emotional competence, and I hadn’t really come across this as a phrase.  Emotional competence is, “The capacity to feel our emotions so that we are aware when we’re experiencing stress”, so you know that’s what’s happening, “to be able to then express those emotions effectively, and also to make sure that we have boundaries”, the boundaries that we need, “to then understand”, I mean, the amount of self-awareness that you need at this point continues to increase, “to understand how you react to that stress, based on where you are today, but how your reactions might also be based on what’s happened to you so far in the past”, so your life so far, because you can’t separate yourself from your environment today, but also your environment in the past.

Then the final one, “The awareness of what you generally need, and need to do, versus what you might do because of the acceptance or approval of other people”.  So basically, you know if you’re a perpetual people-pleaser, or if you say yes to everybody all of the time; or actually, he talked in one of the videos that I watched, because I did actually end up going quite deep into some of this stuff, about how if you’re a caregiver, you’re continually putting somebody else first, and how important it is for caregivers to also look after themselves to then be better carers.  But obviously, that can in some ways feel quite counterintuitive if someone isn’t very well.

He goes on to talk about this idea that when we’re emotionally competent, it is probably the best preventative medicine we can have in terms of stress, so that ability to understand and express our emotions, not repress them or get defensive, or all those other things; and that often, emotional competence is quite a hidden stressor, so it’s not something that we talk about, we should be teaching our kids to talk about emotions, which actually then made me think I have seen quite a lot more books, I think I’ve got some of these about emotions that I’ve talked to my son, Max, about.  And I think trying to have those more open conversations about, you know if someone says they feel sad, I think you might previously have gone to your kid, for example, “Don’t feel sad”, but they’ve literally just said they feel sad.  So actually saying, “I understand you feel sad, it’s okay to feel sad some of the time”, almost accepting those emotions and encouraging people to express them.

I can imagine previously, I hope I’m a bit more emotionally intelligent than I was previously, almost suppressing an emotion because you don’t like it.  I don’t want my son to be sad, so you go, “Oh, no, you don’t need to be sad”, or if they’re scared, “You don’t need to be scared”.  So, you’re basically telling them that their emotion is not okay.  So, the first thing apparently we’ve all got to do is have emotional competence, which I feel like is hard to do and easier to say.

Helen Tupper: In this book, there’s a bit that I highlighted because I love things that rhyme, and it said, “Sometimes people are good at dealing with stuff but not feeling”, so obviously you’re dealing and not feeling; or, “Sometimes people are very good at feeling but not dealing”, and I was like, “Oh, where do you sit on that?”  Then also just a child story, and I can see my daughter looking at me from the kitchen and waving at me now while I’m recording this, I was sat reading this book on the sofa last night and my daughter, Madeleine, was sat next to me and I said to her, “Madeleine, do you know what stress means?”  She said, “Oh, mummy, it’s when you’re unhappy or angry”, and I was like, “Okay, interesting enough”.

Then I said, and this is the bit that made me a bit upset, I said, “What would you do if you felt a bit stressed, if you felt unhappy or angry?” and she said, “I’d go run into my room and cry”, and I was like, “No, darling, talk to me!”  I was like, she should talk to me!

Sarah Ellis: I’m literally reading a book here that says, maybe that’s okay as her first reaction!  Max actually has something at school now which is amazing, where they have a wall chart, and every day they’ve got their own little sticker with their name on, and they can put how they’re feeling, so are they feeling calm or excited or sad, or they’d like to have a chat with somebody, or angry.  And it’s not like good emotions or bad emotions, they’re just encouraged to take their little badge and say how they’re feeling that day.  I was like, “That’s probably why they do that”, I guess, because they know this stuff.

Helen Tupper: Yes, really good.  Ben Williams, who’s been on our podcast before, has written a book called the Commando Mindset, has a business called Loopin where you can do that in teams.  Every day in teams, people can say how they’re feeling and it just becomes a habitual part of how the team works, so it sort of normalises sharing this stuff.  But interesting insight number one.

Sarah Ellis: Insight number two is about abandoning our attachment to what is often described as positive thinking.  I was attracted to read this because I would describe myself as a positive person, so I was like, “Is my positive optimism making me more stressed?  I really hope that’s not true”.  Actually, it’s not.  What he’s describing is the ability to understand and include all of our reality in how we understand the world.  So, he describes it as, “Trusting ourselves to face the full truth, whatever that full truth may turn out to be”.  He says, “It’s almost less about positive thinking and being more positive being, and it means that we’ve got nothing to fear from the truth”.

So, if you are being, for example, positive and that means that you are avoiding confronting hard truths, or things that you wish weren’t true, then actually that is stressful, you’re almost inducing stress; whereas actually, if you are saying, “This is hard, yeah there’s some good stuff”, but you’re seeing all of the world as it is, that actually is better for you than being really, really optimistic, because you would think, let’s say when people are very ill, and there’s lots of case studies of people who are very ill in this book, just as an FYI for people thinking about reading it; actually, the people who are just overly positive don’t do as well as those people who can actually embrace negative thinking.

You know that thing of, “It’s okay not to be okay, and it’s okay to have a bad day”, if you persevere regardless, it’s really bad for you to do that.  And actually in one of the videos, and I was like, “This is quite interesting”, and I do think you can make this a bit more upbeat, but he reads obituaries out and then he talks about how we’re almost valuing the wrong thing in our lives and in our work.  For example, he would read out, let’s say, “Phillipa worked until the last moment”, and he was like, “Well, that’s the last thing that she should have been doing”, but she was doing it because perhaps she was caring for other people.  Or, “This person was incredibly committed and did five different things for over 50 years”.  He was saying, really think about what it is that you are doing, and is it increasing or decreasing that stress tolerance.

I thought about it for us, and I was trying to make it really practical for us at work.  We have found in the past, and it still sometimes happens today, people would describe you and I and Amazing If and they’d be like, “I don’t know how you do so much”.  That should actually be an alarm bell, I think he would argue, to say, “Well, you doing so much consistently is just going to really, really increase your stress levels and make you much, much more likely to have health problems and health challenges”.

So, if you want to stay well and if you want to live a long life, that’s not something you should feel proud of.  What you should feel proud of is having a positive impact, being able to feel like you are spending time with your friends and doing things that keep you fit, all of the balance that we all search for all of the time.  And to our credit, I gave us some credit at this point, Helen, we did actually both intuitively recognise that that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

So, when people were saying it, being very kind, they were like, “You put out so much on careers [or] you do so much”, it did make both of us stop and reflect, didn’t it?  It made us both go, “Is that really what we want people saying about us, that it’s almost volume and quantity?”  Actually, we both recognised that we want it to be about quality.  Now, we might have said that for slightly different reasons, but actually for our own health, it is better for us if that’s not what we’re committed to, in terms of our value.

When you’re thinking about your stress tolerance, almost thinking about that thing of, you know how people describe you who work with you, and I was thinking back to some people I’ve worked with who just seemed perpetually stressed, who never seemed to take a break, who were available at all hours, who were 24/7, you were like, “It’s so bad for you”, knowing that your mind and your body is all intertwined and you can’t separate yourself from your environment?  If you want to stay well, in the fullest definition of wellness, that kind of idea of thinking about what matters most I think is really interesting.  It definitely makes you re-evaluate parts of your life, or how you live your life, when you read the book.  It is quite deep and meaningful, as you can tell!

Helen Tupper: They were quite heavy reads this week!

Sarah Ellis: Yeah, it was quite a heavy read.  Some chapters, I have to say, were a tiny bit too heavy for me.  And then the third area, which actually I have come across before and I really like it as, you’ll have to tell me, is it an analogy or a metaphor; but just how stressful it is to pretend.  I’ve come across this before, this idea of almost our personalities being like a rubber band at rest.  So, when we are just being ourselves, like me and you now chatting, my rubber band is at rest.

Let’s say you add a little bit of stress into the podcast, so maybe I’m interviewing someone I’ve not met before, my rubber band stretches a little bit, but it’s still quite far from snapping.  I probably feel a bit different to when I’m with you, because I’ve known you for such a long time, but it’s okay because our rubber bands can stretch in different directions, and then we return back to the safety of who we are and just being ourselves.

But if we are spending lots of time pretending, that just takes so much from us, it snaps that rubber band.  I was thinking about that in terms of belonging at work, do you feel like you’re having to fit in or be a chameleon in any way; again, just how bad that would be for your stress.  And also recognising, he says, that you can be lots of “ands”.  So, you can be strong and ask for help; you can be powerful and confident in some areas and feel like you’re starting from scratch in others, so not feeling like we only have to define ourselves as one thing.

It really made me consider the “where” of work.  So, there’s lots written about toxic work environments, and we all intuitively get it’s not a good place to hang out if you’re somewhere where you can’t be yourself, or it does feel toxic, or you’re working for someone where it feels really hard.  And I suppose what this reinforced to me is just how bad that is for you, for all of your health.  If you feel like you’re working somewhere where you are pretending, where you’re not able to be yourself, if you feel like that rubber band is snapping and it snaps quite frequently, knowing that you’re making a really good decision for yourself to do something else.

Often, that can feel really hard, because you can feel trapped and stuck and quite lost.  But the best thing you can do is reach out and try and talk to someone else, try and do something else, as practically soon as you can.  If you’re ever on the fence about like, “Will it be worth it?” I sense, reading this book, it will absolutely be worth it, not only in terms of just hopefully enjoying your day-to-day more, but in terms of looking after you and your health.  So, that was my reflections.

Helen Tupper: That’s quite a lot!

Sarah Ellis: It is quite a lot as you go through!  I mean, there were genuinely chapters where I had to re-read paragraphs, there’s still some bits I don’t understand properly.  This is why I then ended up actually down a rabbit hole of watching him deliver quite a lot of talks.  He is a fascinating speaker, and I will make sure we include links to some of his speeches in the show notes, because he did a great speech for the How To Academy; it’s just over an hour long.  If the book’s not quite for you, I think you can hear him talk about the book, the key ideas in the book, and actually he’s really compelling, very scientific, but also funny and gives loads of really good examples.

I’ve enjoyed continuing to dive deeper, so I feel like I’m really, really scratching the surface with what I’m sharing today, but it’s definitely been a good start.  Reading that book, I’m like, “It’s a really good start to make you reflect on stress”, and you definitely would prefer to prevent it than to have lived with stress for too long, because then, I think if nothing else, what the book emphasises is that if you do that, there are potentially some very serious consequences to then your physical health.  Over to you!

Helen Tupper: Over to me!

Sarah Ellis: Are you going to be a bit more cheery?!

Helen Tupper: I’m going to be very practical.  I actually have tried to be practical.  I would say the book doesn’t sound quite as demanding as yours.  I mean, it’s demanding in terms of the content, the amount there is to read.  At times, it’s a bit confronting, like I think I saw myself in a few of the pages, in terms of unhealthy coping mechanisms; I was like, “Great work, Helen!”  But I’ve tried to share some things that are practical, I suppose; you can let me know.

So, insight number one, I just thought in the context of this book being about widening the window, I thought it would be useful to just think about the window we might be starting with.  And there are certain things that narrow your window down, and it might just be interesting.  So, don’t beat yourself up if I say these things and you say, “Oh, I don’t think I’ve got great stress tolerance”, it might just be because your window is starting quite narrow.  So, there are three things that are significant in terms of what might narrow our window.

The first is childhood stress and trauma, very significant.

Sarah Ellis: I read the same.

Helen Tupper: So, you have a lower tolerance for stress if you have experienced significant stress in your childhood.  And Bruce Daisley, when he was on Fortitude, talked about the ACE score that you can do if you ever want to score yourself on that kind of stuff.

The second is adult shock and trauma, basically too much and too fast.  So, you might have had the happiest childhood in the world; but if you’ve experienced adult shock trauma, too much of it too fast, that can very rapidly narrow your window.  So, right here, right now, you might not feel like you’re coping with stress because of that rapid situation you’ve been in.

Or, the third thing is duration, so too long and too often.  So, maybe you had an amazing childhood, maybe you’ve had no adult shock trauma, but maybe you’re in a job that for quite a long time has felt stressful, so lots of disagreements, lots of difficulties, then all of a sudden, that might have narrowed your window down.  So, maybe just have a think through as you’re listening, what has your experience of those things been, and just basically don’t beat yourself up.  If you feel like you’re not coping very well at the moment with what might be going on in work, maybe it’s just because you’ve experienced one of those things, which has narrowed your window down and it’s very normal, was my first insight.

My second is about stress and its impact.  So, I think we often talk about how stress feels and we use words like “burnout” and you have those sort of physical and emotional descriptions of it, which I think can sometimes again feel quite difficult to hear.  Like, when I hear you talk about that book, it almost makes me feel emotional about reading it.  But almost a bit more tactically, what is the impact of this stuff on our work?  I found this stuff quite interesting.

When we are stressed, we gather less information, we become more biased towards the negative, we’re more likely to accept the first workable option, we rely more heavily on stereotypes, we don’t analyse complexity effectively, and we make more mistakes.  I thought it was quite useful just to think about, “Oh, that’s the difference it makes to how I show up at work”.  So, we know what it feels like, it feels hard and difficult and upsetting, and all the kind of words we associate with it.  But okay, so I take the easy option just to get it done; I’m not curious, because I just try and close down; I accept what’s been done before and stereotypes that I might have seen and heard, because it’s just easier; and I found that quite an interesting list to reflect on that, “Oh, when I feel like this, this is how I might show up at work”, I thought was quite interesting.

Sarah Ellis: Essentially, it is almost impossible to be at your best and be stressed at the same time, I think.  So, whether you look at it more from the way I’ve described it, with more emotion and maybe some more deep-seated concepts, or really practically, “How well am I going to perform today?” almost the more stressed you are, the lower your performance will be.  And even if it’s not that day, it will be the next day.

Helen Tupper: Yeah.  And then the third insight was about regulating your stress arousal, which you might debate with me on, based on what you’ve read.  So, if you can regulate your stress arousals, this is how you respond when you’re stressed in a situation, it can help widen your window and rewire your brain.  So, let me give some examples.

I haven’t quite worked out the difference between being hyper-aroused and hypo-aroused, I haven’t worked that out, so just bear with me.  But if you are hyper-aroused by fear or anger, for example, what she recommends you doing is basically you have to release this excess stress that you’ve created for yourself, the anger or the fear, you’ve got to get it out somehow; and she says do it with a high heartrate activity.  So, do some running, do some dancing, you’ve basically got to get it out.  Then you need to down-regulate, with something like breathing or mediation or journalling.

Sarah Ellis: Yeah, I get that.

Helen Tupper: It depends what your natural reaction is.  But I guess if your fear and anger — her point is, don’t go straight from expecting high fear, high anger into mediation; you’ve got to get that energy out before you try to down-regulate.

Then she says, if you are hypo-aroused, and she talks about maybe shame or depression, then you need to up-regulate with something like going for a walk or listening to music or cooking, one of those activities.  And I guess the thing that I took away from this, in the book there’s this Skilful Choices Hierarchy.  I think you need to personalise this, because going for a walk might not be up-regulating for me, but probably listening to music would be.  It talks about, when you become stressed, what are the things that create stress.  So for me, it’s rarely anger, I don’t really get angry, but confrontation, disagreement, too much challenge, that —

Sarah Ellis: Or, maybe you do get angry, you just suppress it.

Helen Tupper: Yeah, maybe, Sarah.  I’ve been suppressing it for a very long time!  It’s very deep-seated if I do.

Sarah Ellis: Maybe one day, you’re going to have an absolutely massive outburst and be like, “What’s just happened?!”

Helen Tupper: “I’ve had enough!”  I think I just get a bit frustrated!  Anyway, you can kind of see; so, less skilful choices.  Also, what are your less skilful choices?  So, mine might be I might go, “I’m really stressed, I’ll have a drink”.  That is a less skilful choice, or whatever it might be.  What are your less skilful choices; and then, what are your more skilful choices?  That might be, go and listen to music or read a book or have a conversation with someone that I trust.

I thought, thinking about the situations that create stress for you and then also, what are your more and less skilful choices, might be a useful thing for people to reflect upon.

Sarah Ellis: I think that sounds sensible.  I have to say, I did simultaneously start reading another book at the same time as reading When the Body Says No, partly because I’d been sent it, and partly because it did feel like a very good counterbalance to the book.  Gabor Maté, he’s a doctor and obviously he’s worked with lots of patients who’ve been very poorly, and he’s done it over a long period of time.  So, I also read The Good Life and I was like, “I can’t just include two books when we’re talking today”, but that is also really interesting.  It’s one of the top ten TED Talks of all time.  So, I’d encourage people to go and watch that.

What I was starting to get to very practically, and this is probably just because of where my brain goes, and probably yours a little bit as well, is I was thinking, “Okay, if you want to increase your stress tolerance”, though I perhaps do have a problem with that as a statement, or, “Just prevent stress in the first place”, I perhaps find a better way of framing it, “what are the actions we should be taking?”  For example, when you read The Good Life, you very quickly get to just how important relationships are, personal relationships, professional relationships, giving back through relationships; and I’ve read that before in Lost Connections, by Johann Hari, and he talks a little bit about how when we lose connection, we lose a lot of happiness and you become more stressed.

So, I definitely haven’t got to a definitive, nor would I definitely be the right person to do this, of going, “What are the five things that we could all do to help to prevent that stress?” but you do start to spot themes and threads, and I think it’s something we’ll definitely keep coming back to is going, at work in particular, and in your Squiggly Career, I guess the stress is inevitable because of the amount of change and choices and the complexity.

So, you can’t probably prevent all stress, that probably feels really unrealistic, but you probably can do some things to minimise some of that stress.  And then, there are probably some things you can do to respond to the stress when it comes your way.  That’s the frame I started to think about, like I say, without having all of the conclusions, but I was trying to get it back to Squiggly Careers and I was thinking, there are some things to proactively do, and then there are some things to reactively do.

Helen Tupper: And so, moving on to actions, Sarah and I had agreed that we would identify one action each, as per the structure for these conversations we’re having, so we don’t ramble all day about what we’ve read.  However, I have two, Sarah; I’m really sorry.  I have two actions and I think they’re really important.

Sarah Ellis: Go on, then, you go first.

Helen Tupper: Okay, so the first action that I took from this book, which I did and I found useful, is called the “contact points exercise”, and it’s all about your personal signals of stress.  Again, the premise of this book is that stress happens and it’s how you deal with it.  So it’s not avoid stress at all costs; it happens, tolerance is how you deal with it.  But if you don’t see the signals of stress, you might not be able to deal with it, or respond to it, as quickly or practically as you could.

So, the contact points exercise is, you sit on a chair and you need to be grounded, so feet flat on the floor, sit on a chair, and then this is the hard bit.  Think about a situation you find stressful, and she does talk about almost a scale of stress, like what would be a ten and what would be a five, and maybe don’t go to the ten straightaway, because you might be re-engaging that situation.  But think about a situation that you find quite stressful and then sit on a chair and basically think that situation through.

I might be like, “An argument I had with Sarah a month or two ago that felt really difficult”, and you sit on a chair and you basically think about that situation, get it in your mind, and then almost assess your body.  Where are you feeling that stress?  Are you breathing faster; is your heart beating; are you scrunching up your hands; where are you feeling it?  So, when I reflected on the situation, I really felt it in my chest.  I was thinking about it and I felt like my upper body had got quite tense and my chest had got really challenging.

Then I thought, and this is what she talks about, I don’t really have that many health problems, but when I’ve had them in the last five years, it’s been chest-related, hasn’t it?  So, she would basically say, if I’m in a situation where my chest is tightening, that is a signal of stress that I shouldn’t ignore.  I thought, whether that works for you or not, even if it works for five people, I think it might be an exercise worth doing if you’re listening, because it definitely made me reflect on that a bit.

Sarah Ellis: I was chatting to someone the other day, and I get migraines, which I’ve talked about before on the podcast, and I’ve always had them, for a long time.  And for a period of time, they were particularly pronounced; so, I got them more frequently and they were particularly bad.  And I was absolutely adamant, I was like, “My migraines are not stress-related”.  I was really dead set against that ever being part of the contribution to them.  I was like, “I think they’re caused by different things, they’re incredibly painful, but I don’t think they’re stress-related”, because everyone goes, “It’s stress”.  I think it’s because I was quite negative about it, I was like, “I feel like that’s a cop out.  I don’t want it to be that, I want it to be something different that you can sort out”.

But when I reflect back on that, and I still get migraines now, so they’ve not gone and I still have stress in my life, but when I think back to when they were really bad, that is probably the most stressful time I’ve had in my life in the last ten years, and you’re like, “Oh, it probably was a bit to do with stress!”  And actually, also having read this book, it really made me reflect on that.  Actually, it wasn’t as he described, it wasn’t one big thing; it wasn’t that I suddenly lost my job or I suddenly split up with my partner, but it was recurring daily stress.  It was a stressful commute, it was the stress of being a new parent, it was the stress of not feeling like you’re succeeding in a job, it was the stress of working with someone who was quite toxic, and it was all of that all at once.

Oh, yeah, surprise surprise, physically you’re in a worse place than you were and actually, though things have still been stressful over the last year or so, the amount of migraines I have had has been a lot less.  So, you start to feel like you can’t — and he talks about chronic pain and stuff; you probably can’t get rid of them, because they’re something I have, but I probably can dramatically reduce them, if you think about your conditions, because you can’t separate yourself from your environment.  So, I’m reluctantly admitting that a few people who might have tentatively suggested that that was a thing were probably right.

Helen Tupper: My last idea for action is about how you can widen your window in your working week, which they did not call it; they call it planning 2.0, but that’s how I read it.  So, there are six things to this which I’ll run through quite quickly and we’ll summarise in the PodSheet so you’ve got them, and it’s really about planning, planning your working week so that you widen your window.

So, number one, make important decisions when you are in your window, not working outside of it.  So, if I’m feeling stressed and stretched, not a great time to make decisions about my career development.  So, think when you’re in your window and make your decisions then.  Number two, build in balance, and she talks about when you think about your working week, it reminded me about that Corporate Athlete article that Harvard Business Review did ages ago.  She talks about building and balance, physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual.  And those words might mean different things to different people, but you kind of get what they are, and think in your working week, “Have I got a balance across those kind of areas?”

Number three, choose your trade-offs.  It talks about the importance of agency and autonomy.  So, I look at my working week and I might think, in order for me to have — if I’m going to build balance, I’ve got to fit in physical exercise, therefore I need to choose a trade-off in order for that to happen.  So, I might say, “I’m not going to have any meetings after 4.30pm this week, so I can build in that balance”.  And the fact that you are choosing those trade-offs increases your autonomy and agency, which is important for stress tolerance.

Number four, create some white space.  So, if you want to widen your window, feeling like you’re completely flat out doesn’t help.  Giving yourself some space within your week, really helpful, so where’s the white space in your diary?  Fifth, it says, “Block out some time to sort the squeaky wheels”.  As an example of what that might mean, they do say that a messy desk, I’m currently looking at a messy desk, but that’s not very helpful.  My squeaky wheels are also just family stuff.  So, “I’ve got to sort out swimming and I’ve got to fix this”, and if that’s on my mind, it’s hard for me to concentrate.  So, squeaky wheel for me is family stuff that needs sorting, so basically block out the time.  You know it’s going to happen and it’s going to create you stress if you haven’t got the time to do it, so put that time in the diary.

Then the last thing is, cluster similar tasks together, particularly in terms of the energy that they need.  So, if you’ve got high-doing activities or high-thinking or high-collaboration, try in your working week to create those things together; it’s just a bit easier for you and your brain to do.

Sarah Ellis: I think that’s really useful.  And it makes think actually that the two books — we haven’t read each other’s books, we always record these having not read each other’s books — they probably have more in common than perhaps we first thought.  As you were listing all those things, I recognised a lot of those themes, but I just wonder whether the books are written from very different perspectives, maybe from different starting points in terms of how they’ve approached stress.  But there were a lot of common themes there just listening to you, and I think that’s really helpful and very practical.

My action was actually to do with something that we’ve not talked about a lot today, or have not dove into, but very practically just the importance of boundaries.  I know we’ve talked about boundaries in a previous podcast episode, but boundaries give you autonomy.  And one of his seven As of healing is Autonomy, so feeling like, exactly as you’ve described, “I’ve got autonomy”, you know the locus of control that we’ve talked about before, “I’ve got some control over my day, over my week”.  And if all of that control and autonomy you feel boundaryless, just how stressful that is.

So maybe my action was, I was thinking what is the one small change you would make in your week that would just increase your autonomy and set those clear boundaries that you want to set that genuinely matter for you.

So, who do you think should read your book, Helen, because you have an incredible ability to make every book sound very practical, you’re so good at picking out this is what we should all do, just listening to you, I don’t know how you do it; but you did describe this to me as a relatively full-on intensive read, so is this a book for everyone?

Helen Tupper: No, I don’t think it is, and I think I did honestly work really hard to find the ideas for action in here.

Sarah Ellis: I thought you did very well today.

Helen Tupper: Oh, thanks, Sarah.  I do think it’s a good book.  I honestly think ironically, I feel like you have to be quite resilient to read it.  So weirdly, if your window is quite narrow, this is probably a book you need to read, but I think it’s harder to read it, because it’s quite confronting.  You see yourself in it, and just be ready.  If you really want to dive into this stuff, and there’s a lot of detail that I haven’t gone into, it’s a really well-informed and well-researched book.  But just feel like you’re ready for it, because it is really quite confronting and it does go into different stories, and it does talk about trauma more than I’ve brought out in the discussion today.

Sarah Ellis: And I would say exactly the same for mine.  So, if you have got somebody who is ill in your family, and I actually do at the moment, I wouldn’t have recommended it.  I wouldn’t have read it if I had realised just how many case studies there were going to be of people who are very, very ill over the long term.  Do you know what I would actually read if I was thinking a bit about stress tolerance, I would read Fortitude, because I see some of the work that Bruce did on bringing together the research on choices and control and autonomy.  He does reference things like the ACE test which we talked about today.

So, I think Fortitude is very readable, and I think you understand from that what contributes to stress, but also what you can do to take it away.  So, even though Bruce doesn’t necessarily frame it through stress, I actually think if you read that you’d go, “I appreciate here how I can look after myself and do good work as a result, in a practical way”.  And he does draw on the research really well.  And I would listen to Sam and Katherine talk about uncertainty on our podcast.  You can also listen to Bruce, if you prefer to listen rather than read.  Also, I would look at Liz and Molly’s work on No Hard Feelings.  Either follow them on Instagram or LinkedIn for all of their brilliant illustrations, or their other book is called Big Emotions, I think.

Helen Tupper: It is, yeah.

Sarah Ellis: I think I’ve got that right, yeah, and they definitely go more into this area that I talked about, about emotions are important and we’ve got to learn to express our emotions; and suppressing them or expressing them in a way that isn’t useful will definitely contribute to your stress, way more than I’d realised before reading these books.  Or watch some of the videos.  I will make sure that How To Academy video of Dr Gabor Maté is part of the links, because I found that really interesting to watch and much easier than reading lots of case studies of people who are very, very poorly.

But it is fascinating and it’s a book I think I will keep coming back to, and it’s one of the few books that has definitely expanded my knowledge, and then has made me search for lots more.  You know when you feel like, “Okay, I have literally scratched the surface here of really understanding stress”.  But I think what you do get to the conclusion of is, your mind and your body are connected and if you are stressed, it is good for you in no ways, especially if you feel that kind of recurring stress, it will only get in your way.  But as you’ve described, I think when you’re in it, it can feel really hard to get out of it.  But maybe you know someone, maybe you can be the friend who can support someone gently through finding their way to the other side and then when you’ve got a bit more space, I think that’s often when you’re in the best position to figure out how you maintain that position.

Helen Tupper: So, what we will do, because I think this is a big topic and we want to make sure that everyone has got the support they need, so there’ll be the PodSheet, so lots of the insights that Sarah and I have shared will be in that PodSheet, the different ideas for action.  I think what we’ll also produce for this week is a podcast playlist, because there are a lot of other resources.  And given that these are two quite very deep reads, they may not be right for everybody who wants some support with stress and stress tolerance.

So, we’ll include all the things that Sarah mentioned and some other resources as well on a podcast playlist, and we’ll put that on our LinkedIn page, so that’s the Amazing If Group on LinkedIn, and we’ll also put it on Instagram @amazingif.  So, if you would like some extra resources, that’s where you’ll find those things.

Sarah Ellis: So, we hope you’ve enjoyed the Squiggly Soft Skills series.  We always like to experiment with different formats, we’re always thinking about how we can make the podcast useful and continue to be relevant to you and your Squiggly Careers.  If you have any feedback, you can email us any time.  We’re [email protected] and we love hearing from you, we love your feedback, we love your ideas, or we just really like you to say hi.

If you have got a moment and you’ve not left us a review or subscribed or given us a rating, all of those things do really help us, so it’s definitely a five-minute favour you can do for us.  But that’s everything for this week.  We’ll be back next week with an Ask the Expert with David Erixon, who’ll be talking about doing by learning.  I interviewed David.  He wrote a brilliant article that really inspired me quite a few years ago, so he has been on my Ask the Expert wishlist for quite a long time, so I was so delighted that he said yes.  He’s a really smart, interesting and insightful guy, so I think that will be a great listen next week.

Helen Tupper: I look forward to listening, but bye for now everybody.

Sarah Ellis: Bye for now.

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