‘Stress can give you superpowers’ - if you know how to control it

  • Stress expert Richard Sutton believes stress can beneficial if used positively.
  • The trick is to learn how to switch it off and to adapt to stressful situations.
  • Mindset, meaningful connections and strategic lifestyle changes are important for building resilience , especially in the grip of a pandemic.

"Stress can give you superpowers."

That's according to stress management expert Richard Sutton, who has consulted with top-performing and Olympic-level athletes around the world, coaching them on performance, resilience and stress.

While the world fights a pandemic, there's another one that we've been fighting a lot longer - stress . In 2016, the World Health Organisation classified stress as the 21st century's health epidemic.

So many of today's diseases can be linked to stress and multiple studies have proven how much shorter human life becomes when people are constantly in a state of stress, whether due to work, personal relationships, financial security or trauma.

Covid-19 clearly tipped the scales of stress that were already on the edge of collapse and our coping mechanisms are not keeping up.

The good

But Sutton, speaking during a workshop at this year's digital SingularityU South Africa Summit, doesn't believe we should be scared of stress.

His book, The Stress Code, looks at how stress impacts our health, including our genetics, and how we can thrive instead of just survive.

The fear centre in our brain is activated when faced with a stressful situation, flooding our bodies with adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol. The upside of this is that we become more mentally focused, stronger, more resilient to pain and pumped with an energy boost that's needed to deal with the situation.

Ultimately, it gives us the power to shape our reality.

The bad

The problem comes in when it overtakes the whole system. "Everything is better when we are in this state, believe it or not, but it comes at a cost," says Sutton. 

"This system is not designed to be turned on all the time. It's designed to turn on at very specific and infrequent moments… If we engage with this system too long and too hard, the system that gives us superpowers and helps us transcend our current reality, it moves into a different space.

"That system will eventually start corrupting our entire reality. So instead of the superpowers we were able to tap into, the prolonged and protracted release of cortisol will impact our mood, our physical state, as well as our mental well-being."

READ MORE | Stress from Covid-19 may be hard to shake, even with exercise

Personal experience

Sutton himself is no stranger to this corruption. The biggest turning point for him was when he moved to Beijing to head up China's Olympic team. 

"I moved to this foreign environment where basically every possible stress lever was pulled to its max. 

"It was socially isolating with a very authoritarian regime and no form of support where you weren't valued. You were just a number. It was a very hard existence for a six-month period where I found myself sort of drifting down to a low mood, corrosion of self-worth and [a loss of] optimism."

He then got an opportunity to go to Wimbledon for a month and while outside of the situation, he realised how unhappy he was in China. As his time to go back drew closer, he started suffering from anticipatory stress and dreaded his return. But while he was in a gym with American tennis legend Billie Jean King, complaining about his hardships, she gave him two mantras instead of the sympathetic ear he was looking for.

The first one was that pressure was a privilege: "The fact that you're in this position and [have]  been given this amazing gift to be at the helm of a team that can win at the Olympic games is a privilege and here you are complaining about the circumstances, you're not seeing it for what it is," explains Sutton.

"The second thing was that all champions in life adapt, and what happened was I went into this new culture completely rigid, trying to hold onto a life that didn't exist anymore."

READ | Stress and anger may worsen heart failure

Not a weakness

While it didn’t resonate with him immediately, by the time he landed back in Beijing he had a completely different outlook on his situation. He attempted to learn Mandarin, socialising more and making a concerted effort to connect with the people he worked with. It went from six months of struggle to more than two years of the best experience of his life.

"I always thought stress was about the control, the physical, but stress is very much about the psychological."

Importantly, you shouldn't view stress as a weakness.

"This is not you, it's not a fragility, it's not a weakness. This is a consequence of cortisol, the stress hormone that completely recalibrates our reality."

A business plan for stress

According to Sutton, the best way to manage stress is to approach it as a business plan designed to augment the benefits of stress, yet provide mechanisms that let you switch it off and build resilience through adaptation.

There are five steps to his strategy for managing stress: mindset reframing, behaviour, turning it off, rebuilding and fostering resilience.

READ | Stressful days, worse blood sugar control for people with diabetes

Reframe your mindset

While the first step might sound like something you've heard before, it's something that bears repeating. Your mindset can have a profound impact on not only your stress, but also your health. 

The key is to find a way to reframe your stress into something positive, acknowledging the benefits of this state and recognising the growth potential that can come with a stressful situation.

Changing behaviour

After you get your mind in the right space, you need to follow through with your behaviour, especially when it comes to your social interactions and relationships. 

Throughout history, humans have persevered through crises by banding together, and when we are stressed, we often tend to withdraw socially. You should be doing the opposite. Sutton says that society isn't generally designed to tolerate weakness, but you need to fight this urge to disengage and reach out if you're not coping. 

"Beyond self-care, the second piece of the narrative is our role and our responsibility to others. What we have to understand is that there are people close to us and people under our care that need to be shielded and buffered from stresses and we [as a society] have the capacity to do it."

Create meaningful connections, engage in charitable work and foster your prosocial behaviour to not only the benefit of your community and networks, but to yourself.

READ | Middle age more stressful now than in 1990s

Switching it off

The third step is to learn to switch off the stress when it's no longer needed. This includes stimulating the vagus nerve - our sort of overwrite button that tells the body it's time to relax.

Sutton says the quickest and easiest way to activate it is through four deep breaths, 30 seconds of cold water to the face, 12 to 15 minutes of yoga or meditation, or 15 minutes of swimming.

Rebuilding

After that, it becomes important to rebuild and repair once the stressful period is over, which in turn, will improve your resilience. This is where proper diet and exercise are important for enhancing your well-being. This also includes ensuring you get enough sunshine in your day, regulating your sleeping patterns and spending time in nature. 

Sutton advises starting with small changes. Make one dietary change, like less alcohol or sugar, make one exercise resolution and make time to spend outdoors for at least 20 minutes a day.

Resilience and connection

These steps ultimately lead to building up resilience. Handling stress isn't about being tough but being adaptable and flexible. It remains, however, important that we don't fall into the trap of selfishness.

"One of the dangers is that you might become very self-orientated, focusing on where you are with the exclusion of the rest of the world, like close family members. Your resilience journey must be part and parcel of the collective. Take everyone with you on the same ride, whether it's your spouse or your close friends. 

"The 'I' in this whole equation can be quite destructive as opposed to the 'we'."

Image credit: Getty Images

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