Blog Post No. 42
27th December 2016
Copyright © Renata Taylor-Byrne 2016
Renata’s Coaching & Counselling blog: Stress management post Brexit:
How do we become more resilient in the face of bad news?
In this blog, I will briefly describe some strategies which have been adopted by several universities to help their staff handle the disruption and uncertainty around Brexit – the impending withdrawal of the UK from the European Union – and the possible (probable?!) end of research funding for projects which are being undertaken by university staff all over the UK.
Then the effectiveness of these strategies will be considered, and alternative ones described.
Headline: “Dons in distress get Brexit therapy”
This “Dons in distress” statement is the title of an article that was written in the Sunday Times on the 4th December, 2016. The article describes the emotions (of “uncertainty, grief and anger“) that university staff are feeling because of the Brexit vote. Research funding has been disrupted and/or stopped, and in some cases people are totally uncertainty about their future employment prospects.
Nottingham University, the article explains, is now holding resilience workshops to help the staff understand where their huge amounts of stress originate from. This is so they will have an increased sense of control over what is happening to them.
Leeds University staff counselling department and the Psychological Services have created a written guide which clarifies that the feeling of grief, anger, depression and anxiety are stages which are part of the process of handling change.
They explain to staff that if they don’t call a halt to their constant checking of the news, then they will continue to feel bad. “If you receive a lot of news shocks, your body is likely to experience fear”, they state.
In addition to feeling fear, another result of constant checking of the bad news is that the ability of the academic staff to get a decent night’s sleep would be reduced.
As an alternative to anxious worrying, the guide helpfully recommends exercise, resting and eating well. (They could have added that “news fasting”, for long periods of time, would also help).
Offering workshops and printed guides to staff is a very constructive way to help them get a new sense of control over their lives. However, one of the major drawbacks are this approach the fragility of human memory: Because of the way human memory works, only about 20% of the information from the workshops will be remembered on the following day. And then as the days pass less and less detail will be recallable. A special effort to record and retain the information would be needed: such as frequent reviews of the same helpful material, to get it into long-term memory.
The same applies to books and booklets: unless they are analysed, and notes taken and transformed into action steps, then their value is limited, and not fully realised.
The difference between declarative and procedural knowledge
Knowing all about how to handle change and the stresses that go with it, is a good start. And this type of knowledge is called ‘declarative knowledge’. Here’s an example: many heavy smokers are very informed and knowledgeable about the risks of smoking. Does this knowledge help them to give up smoking? Not in the slightest!
To start new habits, or change old habits, we need ‘procedural knowledge’. We need to know how to do something, which is a very different matter. (If you look at my blog on habit creation this will show you a summary of the process).
How, then, do we cope in the face of life’s uncertainties; to manage our resilience levels; and to develop procedural knowledge of the process?
Building our resilience.
One thing that is easy to forget is that we are all human animals. We’ve evolved from our pre-human ancestors, which evolved into our African hominid and human ancestors. We humans originally lived in the trees and then descended from them onto the plains of Africa. Our ancestors lived and raised children in small groups, and were biologically shaped to adapt to an environment in which each day’s food had to be searched for.
Otherwise, as vulnerable humans, we would not have survived as a race. The innate ‘fight or flight’ response – an internal, non-conscious, physiological (appraise and respond) mechanism – kept our ancestors alive and able to flee from dangers, or to try to fight animals that threatened them.
We’ve got exactly the same mechanism within us as our ancestors had, and we have a need to handle threats and dangers through physical activity. Our ancestors dealt with their own problems as they arose. But now the resilience and energy of people is being sapped by a background of continuous bad news, as people try to work, and raise their families in a turbulent world.
Handling bad news
Each day the most distressing news is carefully presented to us, and endlessly repeated, and our bodies register the negative information, and react to it physically. Unless we take action on a daily basis to burn off the stress hormones created by this endless newsfeed, we will get saturated with those hormones.
The Leeds University guide warns against news addiction, and recommends that staff manage their exposure to news. Apparently, according to the article, dons are having news programmes on continually and checking the news in the middle of the night.
Taking action to build resilience immediately
As a former lecturer at a FE college for approximately 35 years, I would like to share with you the three top techniques I used to survive in an educational environment which had a lot of waves of changes and uncertainty. Managing to emerge relatively unscathed, I’d like to recommend these three invaluable strategies for you to try out for yourself; and to experience the benefits of them yourself (assuming you don’t practise them already).
The first and foremost technique, in my opinion, to deal with massive change and uncertainty in the workplace, is daily exercise, which will burn off stress hormones from the previous day’s hassles. And not only does it quickly reduce feelings of anxiety or depression (or implosive anger) – our bodies make sure we find it a pleasurable activity, and release feel-good hormones.
Firstly I would recommend that you give up watching the evening news, and/or breakfast news on television each day, and instead do a bout of dancing, jogging, yoga, Chi-gong or any other kind of physical activity that you really enjoy. This is a great way to burn off the stress created by the previous day’s hassles, and it also releases endorphins, which are happiness chemicals, which lift your mood.
According to Robert Parry (2001) – in his book on Chi-gong – when we do exercise which involves deep breathing, like Chi-gong or yoga, then this type of breathing actually stimulates the parasympathetic part of our nervous systems, which is the part that helps the body rest, and restore; and renew itself through the digestive process. (This is called the ‘rest and digest’ part of our nervous system).
We activate this process by breathing from our bellies, not our chests. (That is to say, we breathe into the bottom of the lungs, which pushes the diaphragm downwards, and the belly outwards).
This means that if we deliberately breathe deeply (from our diaphragm, expanding our bellies) as we do our exercises, we are able to influence our physical state: our body then switches from a stressed state to the parasympathetic relaxed state.
Parry states that: “Tests measuring the electromagnetic resonance of the brain confirm that our brains shift into what is termed the ‘Alpha’ state of relaxation and deep rest during Chi-gong breathing exercises, a state in which not only the digestion but the body’s immune function too can operate at its optimal level. This is why Chi-gong helps us feel more in touch with our emotions and thoughts.” (Page 125).
For these reasons, I strongly recommend that workers need to exercise most days of the week in order to handle stress at work.
The second technique: using assertiveness strategies
In addition to physical exercise, I also recommend assertive communication strategies.
Robert Sapolsky wrote a fascinating book called ‘Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers’, which I strongly recommend. And the reason they don’t get ulcers, fundamentally, is that they can run away very swiftly from predators who want to eat them for lunch.
If we come across predators (or threats) at work, for example in the form of challenges to our sense of dignity and competence (like being insulted, harassed verbally, or shouted at by a member of staff [or told our funding has been removed!]), we can’t really run away. We have to stay in this stressful situation, and handle these sorts of problems, because we need the income to support our families and keep a roof over our heads.
Because we cannot abandon our jobs when the going gets tough, and because not everybody we work with will be charming and gracious, and good negotiators, life at work can become very difficult. People can make our lives miserable if we don’t learn how to handle them skilfully.
So my second recommendation is this: Start learning assertiveness techniques to strengthen yourself in the workplace. Learning specific assertiveness techniques, and using them to communicate with colleagues, will mean that you will develop a strong sense of control over your life. This reduces your stress levels.
But how are you to learn to be more assertive? Some good ideas can be found in books – as in Barbara Berckhan’s book on Judo with Words. Or you can watch videos on assertive communication on YouTube. Or you can go on an Assertiveness Training course, if you can find one.
A more available option is to go to a good coach-counsellor for help. Role-plays with a supportive coach or counsellor (like yours truly) can really help to strengthen you. These techniques can be used immediately to create a better working environment for people, or help them come to terms with a situation in which their options are limited.
With role-play you can get descriptions of the techniques to use; coaching on how to do this; and immediate, constructive feedback on how you are communicating. And it is a very powerful way to help you learn to protect your energy (and your dignity!) For example it gives you practice in expressing yourself confidently, handling requests and complaints, etc., and gives you very useful phrases to use to do your job effectively with reduced wear and tear on your nervous system. You quickly learn to ask for what you want; to say ‘No’ to what you do not want; and how to communicate your needs, wants and feelings to others.
The third recommendation: ‘Daily pages’ or a diary.
The third recommendation is to write daily reflections on how your day went at work, or at home; and how you experienced events. The daily accounts are called “Daily pages”; or “Morning pages”, by Julia Cameron. She uses this technique to unblock creative people who have lost touch with their authentic selves and creative energies. She recommends writing three sides of A4 paper every morning. (This can be stream of consciousness, or deliberate, reflective logs of specific challenges at work, or at home) If this seems a lot, then aim to write at least one side of A4. This daily discipline works for the following crucial reason: our brains are designed to deal with incoming information – we are problem-solving creatures. Ruminating in our minds, without committing our ideas to paper, simply causes us to go round and round the same old track, without learning or changing anything very much.
If we’re faced with challenges which we can’t handle, or need to ‘get (something) off our chests’ then we can write down what happens and our reaction to the events. This is externalising the information, and putting it out there on the page. Once the information is down on paper and out of our heads, we can see it. And because we can see it, our brain can then go into problem-solving mode and slowly a solution will appear from your brain-mind, magically.
Letting worries and fears about the future go round and round in our minds without expressing them in some way, is really bad for us and can affect our immune systems. Writing about what’s bugging us has an immediate therapeutic effect, and there is lots of evidence of its value.
It’s also private, with no financial cost, and it builds resilience in people because it puts them in touch with themselves and helps them learn about their own bodies-minds and responses to outside stressors.
If you wanted more details about the value of writing, then a really good book written by Dr Jim Byrne, details the benefits and research findings which show what a very effective technique it is. You can find it here: The Writing Solution.***
If you want to become more resilient in the face of constant change and challenges, then start to practice these three techniques on a daily basis:
# Physical exercise (preferably something like Chi-gong or yoga);
# Assertive communication skills;
# Daily writing in a journal or diary.
Immediately, and increasingly, these strategies will make you stronger physically and mentally, which is what you need to survive in the face of an incessantly changing society.
Daily exercise, assertive communication and daily written reflections are the foundation stones of self-care. With these three mind-body practices, you hold the key to protecting yourself and your energies in this crazy culture, so that you can survive and do your best for your family and loved ones, and get more enjoyment and relaxation out of the time that you have.
I hope you give them a try and enjoy the benefits!
That’s all for now.
The Coaching/Counselling Division
01422 843 629
Sapolsky, R. (2004) Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers. New York: St Martins Griffin.
Berckhan, B. (2001) Judo with Words: An intelligent way to counter verbal attacks. London: Free Association Press.
Cameron, J. (1992) The Artist’s Way: A spiritual path to higher creativity. London: Souvenir Press.
Byrne, J. (2016) Narrative Therapy and the Writing Solution: An emotive-cognitive approach to feeling better and solving problems (Narrative Therapy Series Book 1) Kindle Edition. Available: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Narrative-Therapy-Writing-Solution-emotive-cognitive-ebook/dp/B01LNE73L0