The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about the lack of a work-life balance and significant change in individuals’ circumstances, which has caused the amount of stress felt by the population to increase. Trying to navigate that stress is overwhelming, and it can be difficult for people to find a place to start. I talked to Emilie West, an Expert in Business Coaching, Career Growth and Speaking Engagements, and Laurence Knott, a Leadership Coach and Consultant, about how stress affects our well-being and the techniques we can use to manage it to help find a healthy balance in our lives. 

Hi, Emilie. It was lovely to speak with you recently about why unhappiness is helpful. Can you briefly remind us of your background and introduce Laurence to readers?

Thank you, it’s great to be talking to you again. I started my career in Investment Banking in 2002 where I built my expertise in Leadership and Marketing, at the same time I developed a fascination with health and qualified as a Nutritional Therapist. I now work as a business and career coach helping organisations and individuals achieve their goals and take care of their wellbeing.  Laurence and I met as fellow members of The Conduit community in London and immediately connected over our approach to coaching.

Laurence Knott is a leadership coach and consultant who is passionate about helping people tap into their innate capacity for change and insight. Laurence works with leaders and entrepreneurs to achieve healthy high performance and greater balance in their lives.

Over the years Laurence has also run a Cognitive Hypnotherapy practice in Harley Street and has worked at the Body Holiday resort in St. Lucia as the life coach in residence.

Stress currently pervades almost all areas of our lives, especially after the pandemic. How do you think stress affects our wellbeing and mental health?

EW: The Covid pandemic presented us with an unprecedented level of change and uncertainty and this naturally increases our stress response. Psychologically and physically we need a certain amount of structure and routine and constantly adapting to change takes its toll and affects our body through the affects of the stress response. When we feel stressed we produce more cortisol and adrenaline, and in the long run, overproduction of these hormones can have a huge impact on physical and psychological wellbeing, ultimately depleting our energy, immunity, fertility and leading to disease and shorter life expectancy.  The good news is that we are incredibly resilient and able to endure a lot of stress and still recover afterwards, with sufficient rest and a healthy diet and lifestyle.

LK: People often assume a stress-free life is the best life, but a healthy dose of stress can motivate us. Getting out of our comfort zone gives a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction and builds our resilience. Often, I will work with a client who has been promoted or has taken on a great workload to reframe what they perceive as stress is actually a sign of success, and that the fear and uneasiness they are experiencing is simply a ‘growing pain’ as they take on new responsibilities with their business.  I help them grow into the new identity and state of being that represents their growth and evolution. I’ve also had clients who had to really dig deep to save their businesses, and it is their passion and commitment for what they do that has helped them persevere.  As Friedrich Nietzsche said: “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

We will certainly need a period of recovery after the challenges of the pandemic, but in the long run a lot of people will find they are more resilient from overcoming the difficulties of the past 16 months.

Overcoming challenges can also cause breakthroughs in our thoughts or in our creative expression.  The key is to work your way up with incrementally harder challenges, rather than overwhelming yourself.  We all react to stressful conditions in different ways and have more choice over this than we realise. Learning to manage your internal state under pressure can make a huge difference to how stressed you feel.

From a physical perspective, research on intermittent fasting has shown that certain amounts of physiological stress can also increase our longevity.

What are the main causes of stress for your clients? 

EW: Generally, our clients are feeling overwhelmed and worn out.

Broadly speaking the challenges fall in the following areas:

– a lack of certainty and feeling overwhelmed by change in the last 16 months 

– a lack of work-life balance and insufficient time to relax

– a lack of boundaries between the different areas of our lives, with work and home overlapping it becomes hard to relax in your work-space, and hard to work in your home space.

– Other people’s stress. We can easily pick up the stress of those around us and also exhaust ourselves trying to care take for those around us.

– Environmental stress. Toxicity, noise, light, not having a relaxing place to sleep and work. The constant interruption/stimulation from devices and social media are also leading to overwhelm– our brains can’t handle the level of information we are receiving. This ‘always on’ lifestyle is leading to long-term anxiety and hypervigilance as well as poor mental performance.

LK: When we feel stressed we tend to grasp for some temporary relief, for example through alcohol, drugs, social media, shopping, gambling, in an attempt to numb or distract ourselves. This may work temporarily but longer term we can damage our wellbeing and lose our resilience. This can also lead to an accumulation of unresolved stress that leads to burnout.

Can you share some stress management techniques?

LK: I really like the technique of going into peripheral vision, this tells your brain that there isn’t an immediate threat.  To do this find an object to look at, then take attention to the whole room just using your peripheral vision whilst still aiming your eyes at the object. Take a few slow breaths. You will immediately start to feel calm.

Deep breathing in general is a really powerful and underused tool for stress management. I like a few styles, but find the 7/11 technique is really helpful for feelings of overwhelm and anxiety.

Butterfly tapping is also a great technique to quickly calm the nervous system.

EW: Here are some of our other favourite techniques:

If you have 5 minutes:

Journaling – write down how you are feeling and what you are grateful for

The Dread List – Write out a list of everything you need to do that is causing you stress, then schedule 15 minutes the next morning to get two things done off the list before you read an email or start work

Laughter – laughing out loud lowers our stress hormones as it tells the body we aren’t in danger. Just 5 minutes of watching funny clips on YouTube can take you from stressed to serene!

If you have 10 minutes:

Go for a walk – getting out in nature is a great de-stressor, as is doing something physical. It can help us stop overthinking, getting out of our heads and back into our bodies.

Have a power down – just like restarting your computer, sometimes your brain over-heats and we need to give it a break. Shut your computer, put your phone away and for 10 minutes just sit quietly in a chair. You may want to try a meditation app like HeadSpace or Calm, or you can just sit in silence and daydream about being somewhere relaxing like on a beach.

Can we prevent stress? 

LK: Stress is a normal part of life so we shouldn’t be trying to avoid it at any cost but we can take steps to make our lives less stressful and at the same time learn how to handle stress so we have less of a physiological response to stress. 

The first step is regularly checking in with ourselves and becoming aware of what state we are in.  If we are stressed then identifying what is causing the stress and making small changes to reduce this can prevent things escalating. It’s worth asking yourself how have you contributed to this situation? What choices are you making that perpetuate stress in your life? Can you make different choices?  Is there something you can stop doing or eliminate from your life that would help? Setting healthy boundaries in our relationships and in our environment is also an important way we can reduce the stress we experience.

Then we should reflect as to how we respond to stress, for example, we may tend to overreact or get into a panic. When we respond to stress with strong emotions, these are actually an early warning system to alert you that you are becoming overloaded.  The trick of course is having the self-awareness to be able to notice when stress is getting the better of us. The psychologist Susan David suggests that the strong emotions associated with stress are there to help us, and we can use them as an invitation to pause and take stock. There is always another point of view or perspective available to us for handling life and when we take a moment to step back, we can assess what is really going on, what is actually most important to us.  

EW: As well as mindset, our lifestyle choices can make a huge difference on our experience of stress.  Having a diet high in caffeine, sugar and refined foods increases our production of stress hormones so we naturally feel more stressed and anxious, whilst alcohol can reduce our resilience by depleting us of important B vitamins.  Starting your day with a coffee and croissant is priming yourself for stress whereas if you start with a green smoothie with magnesium rich leafy vegetables, such as kale and spinach, and B vitamin rich oats you are more likely to have a smoother ride.

Exercise is a great de-stressor, it’s all about finding something you enjoy and developing a regular exercise routine that works for you. If you are feeling worked up after a busy day at work go for a 15-20 minute walk outside to get yourself grounded again and help you switch off and relax in the evening.

A healthy balance in life is all we are looking for now. Have you found this balance yourself? 

LK: For me a healthy balance is about living in alignment to my values, being clear on my purpose and making time for me.  I also want some challenge and growth and recognise that being uncomfortable is part of the growth experience.  In general I think people need that challenge and simulation, but we work best when we grow and work in sprints, rather than always pushing ourselves.

As coaches it’s really important for us to take care of our wellbeing first and foremost, showing leadership in the conversation and acting as a role model for our clients. We’ve also witnessed the benefits of self-care and dangers of not doing this in our clients. I think coaches tend to be more self-aware and therefore are more in tune of the warning signs so we can correct and top ourselves up earlier. 

EW: My own experience of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in my early twenties was a real lesson in finding balance. I learnt to identify when I was in a passive or active mode and to balance these within a day and also over the course of a week so I didn’t get over tired.  This means the more mentally active I am, the more I need time to switch off later in the day and if I exercise a lot then I need more sleep to compensate.

I also agree with Laurence about working in sprints. There are points in your life where you have a goal you’re going for or maybe a stressful period you need to get through, so you may have to endure a period of stress and push through it, but it’s vital to plan some proper down time afterwards to recharge and recover. It’s just like being an athlete, a key part of training is rest and recovery.

This is where self-awareness is really important, check in with your body every day, if your energy is running low or you are feeling regularly annoyed or anxious, then you need to schedule time for a break.

When I’m teaching teams about wellbeing I share the analogy of a fuel tank, you need to check-in if your resilience tank is running low and make sure to top it up regularly.

A really important aspect of this is to not try and be productive every second of the day.  Jordan Peterson spoke in a recent interview with Lewis Howes about the importance of having some hobbies that aren’t challenging. Our ancestors weren’t trying to be productive 16 hours a day, but often we see downtime as a waste of time. As a result, we have lost the art of daydreaming and having unstructured time.  Try setting some time aside each week for nothing in particular, try having a day without any objectives, this allows for proper rest and may even bring you new and unexpected ideas. 

Can you recommend any reading for our clients and where can they contact you or follow you on social media:

EW: I recommend The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer as one of my all-time favourite books. It taught me so much about letting go and not creating stress by resisting everything.

LK: I love The Inside Out Revolution by Michael Neill which provides a simple but ground-breaking understanding of how the mind works that helps us not only be more resilient to the ups and downs of life, but to live life with a greater sense of freedom and possibility.