& Life Coaching
What Causes Stress?
Stress arises when we perceive situations as (a)
threatening us, and (b) largely beyond our control. This combination
leads to fear, and fear is what stress is centrally about. It's
a very unpleasant feeling, and it can consume lives. Sources of
stress can be external - our jobs, our relationships, our environments
- or internal - our feelings towards situations, and towards others
and ourselves. Quick fixes are hard to find, and often - structural
life changes are necessary to remove the major sources of stress.
That's easier said than done, but long-term - it's a real stress
buster, and that's what coaching does best.
Coaching & Stress
Life coaching is generally pragmatic. We do what works
for the client, and that varies a lot, but there are some general ideas
to learn from my years in coaching practice, and so I thought I'd lay
them out for you here.
- Coaching usually happens weekly, and in those sessions
we re-visit the issues we're working on. That's hardly rocket science,
but actually, that weekly focus alone, is a massive improvement on how
most of us tackle our lives when left to our own devices. We may get
horribly fed up and decide enough is enough. We'll give the problem
a kick. But a week later, the anger has died down, and along with it,
any enthusiasm for change. Until the next time - which might be a year
or more later. So without a coach, how can you get that benefit? You
might for example, schedule a weekly meeting with yourself or with a
friend. You might write a diary in which prompts you to write on the
issues you're working on. You might give yourself a weekly score in
specific areas of your life. The thing is to view the issue you're working
on as an ongoing project rather than a transient thought.
- Coaching tries hard to find a complete, intellectually valid
statement of what the issues are. We turn vague worry-statements
into cold hard facts. This works strongly against stressed thinking,
which is often circular and irrational. We stifle the urge to run and
hide, and instead we shine a light on the beastie in the cave, studying
its true nature, diffusing the fear. Perhaps you can do something similar
by writing down your issues. Then read them back - are they
absolutely true? Where are the errors and exaggerations? Remove them.
It can be wonderfully liberating when you externalise issues in this
way, and when you read them back in, you do so with a different, more
analytical part of your brain.
- Coaching is results-oriented. Too often, as human
beings, we lament the problem and stop there. But coaching encourages
a change of focus from the problem to the solution. Try to do that for
yourself. For sure, accurately describe the problem - but see that as
the beginning - not the end. What desirable outcome would you like to
replace the issue with? You'll feel cynicism and pessimism rise within
you, trying to stifle your efforts to see through to a better future,
but do all you can to fight those negative forces. Embed a vision of
your new future into your physical world in some emotionally-resonant
way - change your computer wallpaper, buy a pot plant - do something
which will constantly remind you of the new project at hand. Read my
article on talismans. Be creative.
- Coaching provides emotional support when you're feeling
low and might otherwise throw in the towel. How can you get some of
that for yourself? Friends may be a useful asset (though they may also
be a liability - so be careful). Keep yourself well-slept and well-exercised.
Of course, stress often disturbs sleep, but exercise will offset that
somewhat, and the work you're doing to clearly see and remove the causes
of your stress will also give you peace of mind. Treat yourself now
and then, and don't push so hard that you rebel. Do what you can sustain;
think marathon, not 100 metre dash.
Let me illustrate those principles at work on a stress case from my client
I can honestly say that Jack (which isn't his name) is one of the nicest
men I've ever met, but he struggled horribly with stress. He found no
peace in anything. He worried endlessly about how grim things were, and
worried about how things would end up. He slept mostly on the sofa in
front of the TV which he used to drown out his thinking. The prospect
of a quiet bedroom was terrifying for him.
What were his stressful issues? Well, Jack felt he was too tall and "gangly"
and he didn't like his posture, so his self-image was unattractive to
him, and - he assumed - to others. In social situations, he was so horribly
stressed out that he could barely function. Years of being this way had
damaged his self esteem and given him a pessimistic outlook. He'd also
acquired some hostility to those who were not suffering as he was. Here's
how those general coaching principles above worked for Jack.
- Weekly focus gave Jack enough time to get some traction.
Jack's stressful job, coupled with his overwhelming pessimism and hostility
towards the notion of change, meant he would never have allowed himself
to "sit in the issue" for 45-minutes each week were it not
for our sessions. Enough of him knew he needed help, so he did sit
there, but initially it was very tough. There is simply no way that
Jack would have invested enough time to do this on his own without the
framework of our calls.
- Dispassionate Issues Statements were not easily forthcoming
for Jack. His ego had turned his own problems into a loathing of those
without them, and in that process he had to bend reality. He saw people
were arrogant and manipulative, though with work we were able
to re-label them as confident and outgoing. Jack was also over-generalising.
He was not alone in his inadequacy - he existed on a spectrum of other
humans; some were highly confident but quite a few had problems of their
own, and in some ways Jack was better than most. His issues were not
across the board, but were mostly around relationships with women and
those men he perceived as more successful than him. We worked out that
resentment was a big component of the problem, causing him
to be hostile - which worked to keep him away from a better life. We
had to keep washing out the irrational thinking from Jack's work, but
he came up with six clean problem statements, which was a revelation
for him. These intellectually valid statements were very far
from the utterances of his worrying mind, and crucially, they involved
far more observation about him than about those around him - almost
always a very good sign indeed (though seldom a comfortable one).
Moving to think about results is
often difficult for highly-stressed people, who feel that very high
levels of attention are required. They feel that by dwelling endlessly
on the object of their worry they will somehow dissolve it. Of course,
that's not the case. Jack would keep coming back to his old thinking
modes, using negative phrases to describe those around him, and for
a time, I had to keep gently inviting him to "phrase more accurately"
and "move away from problems and towards solutions". We
both knew all about what he didn't want and why - but what did
he want? This is often very difficult, because - we're moving from
(in Jack's case): "that arrogant pig Steve isn't interested
in genuine people like me" - to - "I want to be
more like Steve and be his friend". That involves a very
large adjustment in self-image and world view - and these can be frightening
- they strike at our identity. It also involves admission of major
errors in reasoning and "honesty failures" and perceptions
which ego will often resist.
- Emotional support was particularly important in Jack's
case. Re-arranging a self-image and a world-view can be deeply un-settling.
Everything you knew is being torn down, and it looks like your past
was all a big mistake. Hideous stuff. No wonder most of us run in the
opposite direction. When we worked on our intellectual issues statements,
Jack started jibbing big-time. "Oh great, so now I have a whole
new world of ways I'm inadequate, to stress about". Positioning
Jack's thinking to stay away from the abyss was a constant challenge.
I often use a mental image. There is a lump in the carpet, and maybe
a bad smell. You can keep hammering the carpet to flatten it, and you
can spray the air freshener - or you can rip the carpet up and see what's
underneath. Fortunately, Jack is a very witty man and we were able to
share some dark jokes and just enjoy each other's company, and he always
knew I was on his side.
Far from easy stuff - if it was easy, then adults would not spend large
chunks of their lives in stressful misery. But Jack found wonderful new
shiny things on the far side of his coaching, so it's a journey worth
So, I've talked about stress and how coaching helps with it, both in
theory and in practice. I've also shown you how you can adapt some of
my coaching techniques for use with yourself.
If you suffer from stress then I really hope you can find some help from
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