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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

Apr 2020

Let’s not over-simplify stress

Leaders and coaches need to understand stress with a bit of subtlety if we are to avoid some common mistakes. Here are 5 ways of understanding stress that may be helpful to you, plus 10 practical tips on how to create safety in a coaching conversation.

1 Stressed states are rarely something we choose

We have a tendency in our culture to be biased towards the cognitive. This means we assume that behaviour is rational and that the behaviour we see in others has been actively chosen. The truth is that much of our nervous system functions automatically and involuntarily. Stressful states just happen. It’s unhelpful to deal with someone who is stressed as if they have chosen to be that way and could choose something different through an act of will. A coach and leader should start with being incredibly respectful of the state that a stressed person is in and avoid judgement. A stress response is not a failure of common sense. In fact common sense doesn’t even get a look in against the super-fast autonomic nervous system that controls our state.

2 Stress responses vary hugely from person to person

There can be a tendency, when dealing with a stressed person, to assume that each of us handles similar events in a similar way. The truth is that each individual’s nervous system is primed by their previous life experience. For example, a period of isolation in lockdown could be extremely stressful for one but a pleasure for another. It depends on our history and physiological and psychological make-up. In a coaching conversation, too much focus on the external context and not enough focus on the person’s internal experience of that context is a mistake. A leader or coach should spend most of their time trying to understand how the individual is uniquely responding to their context and make no assumptions.

3 Not all stress is bad stress

Many people are experiencing a level of stress at the moment in response to greater demands upon them. It could be the demands of working from home whilst supervising toddlers or an extremely busy period for a logistics or health team. It can be stressful just getting used to new ways of doing things. But not all difficult times create bad stress. Our nervous systems have ways of keeping us safe even when we are actively mobilised to meet challenging times. A key way we do this is through social support. If we are in contact with supportive people who make us feel loved and valued, we create hormones such as oxytocin which protect our system from the damage caused by excess stress hormones. It’s possible to be in a ‘good stress’ zone. In a ‘good stress’ zone we might not be enjoying the challenge, but we feel sufficiently supported and resourced to rise to it. Our systems can feel mobilised in a creative, sustainable way. Leaders should be interested in the social support that their people have available as a way of keeping stress in the ‘good stress zone’ not the ‘bad stress zone’.

4 There are different types of stress response

We have a tendency to understand stress in terms of the fight/flight response. This is an active responses to stress. In a fight/flight response, our bodies are mobilised for action – fighting or running. This state is likely to be characterised by a fast heart rate and faster breathing, driving oxygen to our bloodstream. But there is another, less well understood, response that is the ‘shutdown’ response. When our nervous system judges that flight or fight are unlikely to keep us safe, our bodies know how to freeze. This response is available to us from our reptilian ancestors and is visible in other mammals – imagine a mouse playing dead in the jaws of a cat. This shutdown response can cause our breathing and heart to slow. It is immobilising and isolating. It is a form of disengagement from reality, from others and even from ourselves. When gripped by this stress response a person might dissociate from their feelings, find it hard to speak, to make eye contact or take any action at all. This system has often been activated in victims of abuse. It’s important not to make any assumptions about the nature of a stress response but inquire into what the person is experiencing with an open mind. It’s also important to remember that, given the prevalence of abuse and trauma in childhood, it is likely that several members of your team have an experience in their life history that may be priming their nervous system to be triggered in a certain way.

5 Creating safety

When dealing with someone who is stressed, a leader’s ability to create safety for the nervous system of the other person is key. Nothing can happen without a sense of safety – listening, problem-solving, learning, even physical health and healing are all compromised if we don’t feel safe.

Many leaders stay logical when dealing with stressed people and go into problem-solving mode. What leaders need to be able to do first, is to appeal directly to the unconscious nervous system of the other person; to create safety before trying to fix problems.

The good news is that most of us know how to do this instinctively. When dealing with stressed people in a professional setting we can make the mistake of staying in a ‘professional mode’. We’d be better off remembering that before we are professionals, we are social mammals wired for connection. I want to give all leaders permission to rely on their basic human skills when dealing with stressed people during this period.

10 things to trust yourself to do

Here are 10 things that most of us already know how to do when dealing with a stressed person. We need to trust ourselves to do them in a professional setting.

  1. Make sure the environment feels safe for a conversation – is it private, can they speak without interruption, are they comfortable? This is just as important on the phone or a video call as in person. If you are physically together, minimise any size difference between you, for example sitting down or kneeling rather than standing over someone’s desk.
  2. Speak calmly and with a soft tone and use your facial expressions to show care and kindness.
  3. Match eye contact, checking how much is comfortable for them – enough but not too much.
  4. Offer a cup of tea or suggest they get one if they are at home (ingesting things can calm our nervous system).
  5. Stay non-judgmental both in words and in facial expression.
  6. Be respectful that this person’s stress response is just their nervous system trying to keep them safe – it is not a conscious choice or a failure.
  7. Show that you are grateful for their trust and willingness to talk to you at this time.
  8. Give the person the option of where the conversation goes – they are the best judge of what feels OK to talk about and what feels too scary.
  9. Gently explore the triggers of stress and try to walk in their shoes; to understand how they have uniquely reacted to those triggers.
  10. Enquire about what they need from you and others by way of practical or moral support without assuming what they need.

If you follow these instincts you have a chance of settling the nervous system sufficiently to make room for coping and learning.

This post is informed by Polyvagal theory (Stephen Porges) and the work of Bessel van der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score).

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