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Is Stress Poisonous To The Spirit?

About Time Pressure, Performance Pressure and Available Antidotes      

Yesterday I listened to a podcast featuring an interview with ethnologist and cultural anthropologist Christina Kessler. A sought-after expert in her field, she travels a lot and has conducted countless cross-cultural studies trying to examine whether there are similarities in different cultures’ notions and traditions of wisdom.

Among many others, she made contact with Native American cultures and tribes. In the interview she talked about a Native American tribe she had lived with for a period of time. Members of this tribe view stress as poisonous to the human spirit. They regards stress as something that poisons the atmosphere and shared existence in society, something that is to be avoided at all costs; a fascinating view in my opinion.

Is Stress Poisonous To The Human Spirit?

I think this view is really not so far off. On the contrary, I think that stress as well as the automated, subconscious behavior resulting from it has a lot of negative effects on people. Apart from health hazards it has become a well-established fact that chronic stress weakens our immune system and also causes a number of other problems. We do not seem to have realized all the implications these things have on our health. However, in this post I do not want to focus on the effects stress has on our physical health but on our mental health, our spirit, our emotions, our thoughts and our behavior.

Especially in project management stress is a common phenomenon. In a 2013 study by the Gesellschaft für Projektmanagement (GPM, Society for Project Management), 35 % of the interviewees were at risk of suffering from burn-out related illnesses. As a reaction, my colleagues and I have presented these findings in different GPM areas and discussed possible countermeasures with the participants.

Stress Is Perceived As A Form Of Pressure

In discussions, trainings and coaching sessions as well as in my own daily business life I notice that stress is perceived as a form of pressure, an unpleasant sensation people want to get rid of as quickly as possible. This pressure is created by external factors, e.g. new technologies that require different forms of work and behavior. Just look at how our work life is affected by interruptions caused by telephone calls, incoming e-mails or ad-hoc changes to plans and schedules. And then there are schedules that simply are too tight and impossible to accomplish to begin with.

We are also putting pressure on ourselves by subduing to certain beliefs. We want to achieve a specific result as quickly as possible. We want to be perfect in what we are doing, or at least as good as possible. We have high expectations of ourselves and others.

The fertile soil for this poison is made of fear, anger, rage and helplessness and the actions resulting from it. Ousting these negative emotions does not work, so we seek refuge in busying ourselves with pointless actions. Naturally this only makes matters worse by creating hostile atmosphere around us.

Time Pressure

Time Pressure originates from believing that we are not quick enough in doing something, or in thinking that we do not have enough time to complete a specific task. I know very well how this pressure of time feels. I have worked on a number of major change projects and IT software introductions. In general these projects aim at implementing new processes, technologies and organizational structures in existing organizations. In many cases, the fact that the people affected by these changes need to be made acquainted with new requirements is completely disregarded. All changes lead to insecurity among the staff.

Time schedules are tight and leave no room for extensive conversation, trial-and-error or reflection. Project planning is a difficult undertaking. Unexpected situations can crush your planning at any time, every day, especially in IT projects. Agile methods such as Scrum try address this issue by dividing the project up into small units.

Let us do a little bit of introspection: Most of the time we make matters worse by our own doings, by pressing on no matter what, without ever thinking about alternatives. There is a deadline after all!

Stress is caused by pressure to perform

Stress is caused by pressure to perform – sound familiar?

I want to share something with you, an experience I made in one of my recent projects. My job in this project was to put a somewhat derailed project back on its right track.

After speaking to many of the participants I realized that all of them, all of these highly-skilled experts had a different notion of the project and its results in their head, and that it would cost a great amount of time to clarify things. What do you think happened when I announced a semidiurnal coordination meeting? Well, it triggered a small outrage resulting in open rejection. The meeting was considered a waste of time.

Still, after the meeting collaboration worked much better, simply because the team members got to know each other and were able to define a common solution.
This is the poisonous essence of this pressure of time. We know that things can go wrong. We are aware of the conflicts, aversion and antagonism as well as of the underlying emotions such as anger and frustration. But we still keep on doing what we are doing because we are afraid of negative consequences, of being the odd one out, of not being able to reach our goal.

We are not aware of our anxiety. And believe me, the meeting was not really a pleasant experience, at least in the beginning. But it was the only viable solution and luckily I had the courage to pull through.

Antidote: Pause To Reduce The Negative Charge

This is why the best way to reduce the pressure is pause for a second, to interrupt the steady flow of activities and appointments, to take a break and to be aware of unpleasant emotions such as fear, anger or fury.

The second step is an opportunity to reduce the negative charge resulting from these unpleasant emotions. A simple breathing exercise, the so-called heart respiration might help. It consists of two steps:

In Step 1 you focus on your heart instead of the unproductive thoughts in your head. In Step 2 you create an awareness on your breathing in and out, on your breathing through your heart. Breathe slowly and steadily and do not try to force anything. Breathe a little slower than normal. You might count to 5 while inhaling and exhaling.

It is a proven fact that the heart respiration has instant impact on the body due to the fact that steady breathing brings your autonomous nervous system back into balance. It is in this mental state that you will find answers to your problems.

Performance Pressure

Pressure to perform is a reoccurring and big issue in project work. The study quoted above tells us that 80 percent of the project managers questioned describe themselves as perfectionistic!

High aspirations and the will to perform well is nothing bad in itself. But putting yourself under pressure because you think you are not good enough or are not able to meet the requirements you already have all the basic ingredients for a vicious circle; the fertile soil for the poison for the spirit, the poison made of unproductive thoughts, doubts, fear and speculations. What is it that you do if you think you are not good enough, try even harder?

Which is a dead end street. Trying harder leads to complete exhaustion in most cases, and to even worse results, which is exactly what the above study shows; 35 percent of the interviewees are critically exhausted. In other words, they feel completely leached out, their energy reserves are totally depleted. This results in a state where it is impossible to find sleep or to get up in the morning.

Still, this urge to perform well remains. Again, the fertile soil is made of fear, anger and the feeling of helplessness. Pointless actions only serve the purpose of covering these thoughts and feelings up.

What can I do to disarm the poison?

Antidote: Come To Your Senses And Appreciate The Positive Aspects Of A Situation

Just like before, the first step is to pause and make yourself aware of the situation at hand as well as of the state you are in, physically, emotionally and mentally. We also have to refrain from the deficit-oriented way of thinking, from believing that we are simply not good enough.

The best thing we can do here is to change our perspective and look at the bright side of things. What have you achieved so far? What turned out really well? In one of my coaching sessions a project manager told me that she only regards the big steps. All these little steps just are not worth considering, she thought. This approach is exactly what causes a deficit-oriented mind set. Something’s always missing, so to speak.

Make yourself aware of what you have achieved and note down all the results, insights, positive developments you (or your team) is responsible for. Appreciate the things you have accomplished and be sure to take your time for it, to allow your heart to feel it.

Do not focus on the negative things. According to neuropsychologist Rick Hanson positive experiences need to be felt at least 30 seconds in order to be stored in our emotional memory. Otherwise they get lost very quickly

So – if you are prone to a pressure to perform try practicing this as often as possible for at least 3 to 5 minutes. This will help to avoid a deficit-oriented way of thinking and prevent the poison for the soul, stress, to take its effect.

Martina Baehr is a freelance project manager, trainer and serenity coach. In her work she focuses on supporting project managers and executives in dealing with changes and developing a calm and self-confident mind set.

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