What causes stress in your life?
I’ve asked this question of leaders and teams for over 20 years. The vast majority of responses fall into one of three categories: other people (such as my colleagues or my spouse), external circumstances (such as a lack of job security or money, uncertainty about the future or heavy commuter traffic), structures and systems (such as too many meetings or bosses or demands, or an excessive workload). The common theme across all these responses is the belief that ongoing stress is solely caused by external factors.
However, with the exception of genuinely life-threatening circumstances, our ongoing stress is internally generated and both largely unseen and mismanaged. In other words, it’s not caused by these external things; it’s actually caused by our internal expectations and assumptions, our mindset and our unconscious conditioning.
Although our brains are more evolved than those of other animals, under stress we are at a significant disadvantage. In his classic book on stress, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, researcher Robert Sapolsky explains why. When attacked by a lion — a much more stressful situation than we humans typically face — a zebra will launch into flight mode. Triggered by its sympathetic nervous system, its body is flooded with fear-based chemicals to mobilise its effort to escape. But when the zebra has escaped and the threat is over, within minutes it will go right back to eating in a relaxed state, responding to the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the ‘rest and digest’ system.
It’s a very different story for humans because of our mind’s tendency towards negative rumination, meaning we repetitively return to our negative emotional experience to rehash its causes, situational factors, solutions and consequences. In short, we replay both past and future, imagined stressful situations over and over in our mind, thus exacerbating our stress and undermining our mental wellbeing. Almost all of this obsessive rumination is based on a false assumption — that stress is always caused by and therefore always resolved by a change in external factors, rather than a change in mindset.
If you believe that all stress is caused by external factors, consider the example of two people stuck in traffic on their way to work, both of whom will be late unless traffic conditions ease. One is calm and relaxed, knowing that getting stressed or angry won’t make the traffic go faster or help the situation in any way. The second is frustrated, angry and stressed, leaning on her horn and cursing other drivers.
The second driver unconsciously assumes that the traffic is the cause of her stress, but if external factors were the sole cause of the stress, they would create stress for everyone equally. Yet in this example and countless others, this clearly is not the case. While the external world gives us plenty of triggers and challenges, and can be thoroughly unpleasant, the ultimate cause of our ongoing stress is the way we process our experience internally.
Find the fears, attachments and assumptions causing your stress
Let’s explore the example above even further. The stressed driver might begin to shout, grit her teeth, ruminate and panic. This behaviour is an attempt to reduce the short-term discomfort of being stuck in traffic (lack of mindfulness). This behaviour unfortunately works against her core values of calmness and respect.
To remember to consistently cultivate calmness instead, it is very helpful to identify her unconscious fears, attachments and assumptions driving the unconscious behaviour. These might include ‘It’s impossible to be calm in traffic’ or ‘I’m just so attached to the idea that there should be no traffic on the roads’ or ‘If I could just live in a city with no traffic, then I would happy.’
To help people uncover their unconscious fears, attachments and assumptions in an organisational context, typically we don’t explore deep childhood conditioning and trauma. This is the realm of deeper therapy work, and it’s not psychologically safe to explore these aspects in the workplace. Instead, we borrow from Kegan and Lahey’s work on immunity to change, and our second foundation of mindfulness work on clinging, aversion and delusion, and we use the following four questions:
- What do I worry will happen if I succeed at my commitments? (This question is designed to uncover our fear and aversion.)
- What am I holding on to that brings me a sense of security, validity or self-worth? (This is the attachment/clinging question.)
- What am I believing/assuming to be true? (This is the ‘Where am I deluded?’ question.)
- Is it true?
The first question, ‘What do I worry will happen if I succeed at my commitment?’, may seem strange on the surface, because everyone wants to live their values and commitments. However, our mind has countless ways to hide our fears from us and subconsciously hijack our commitments. Imagine yourself succeeding and then consider what negative things might happen if you do succeed. This question can uncover fears, so the body will often be triggered, generating strong emotions and protective narratives.
Let’s go back to the traffic example. Imagine the stressed person’s commitment is to be calm in traffic. I ask her, ‘What do you worry will happen if you succeed at your commitment?’
Her body may contract. Strong emotions such as judgement and resentment may emerge. She might answer, ‘It will mean that I don’t care about being late, and that I agree with the stupid government who don’t look after our roads!’ (By the way, this is a real example from one of my programs.)
Next question: ‘So what are you holding on to that brings you a sense of security, validity or self-worth?’ This is harder to answer, and not necessarily needed.
In this case, she eventually figured out, ‘Being angry on the roads gives me a sense of being a caring citizen, and caring about punctuality. It shows others that I care!’ In other words, it was a very subtle form of image management. She was attached to being angry because she was afraid of being seen as a person who does not care.
Next question: ‘What are you believing or assuming to be true?’
Her eventual answer: ‘Two things — that getting angry somehow shows others that I care, and that traffic is the cause of my anger.’ It’s usually at this stage people can laugh a little. When they state their assumptions out loud, they can sound a little unreasonable, and we usually don’t even have to ask the final question, ‘Is it true?’
This is the gift of shadow work: we usually expose assumptions that might have made sense to a five-year-old child, but in the light of an adult’s compassionate, curious mind, they are seen to be untrue.
Let’s explore this more with a leadership example. Suppose you commit to empowering people more. What do you worry will happen if you empower people? It may be, ‘I’ll become irrelevant as a leader because people won’t need me.’
Move on to the second question: ‘Therefore, what am I holding onto that brings me a sense of security, validity or self-worth?’ With this question, we are uncovering our attachments to fitting into social groups so we can graduate to a higher state of independent thought.
Your answers could include ‘I’m holding on to being comfortable’, ‘I’m holding on to security’, ‘I’m holding on to being right’, ‘I’m holding on to power and control’ or ‘I’m holding on to keeping the peace.’
This question is useful because all suffering has at its roots some sort of clinging or attachment, which is a fear-based response to life. And the more we let go of that attachment, the more open and slow brain–oriented we become.
The third question, ‘Therefore, what am I believing or assuming to be true?’, is critical. The human mind draws conclusions, then views all experiences as evidence of those conclusions. For example, if we develop the belief as a child that we’re stupid, then throughout our lives we will constantly see reasons why this is true. This third question helps us to uncover all that limiting programming that we’ve accumulated over time. We need to complete this question by asking ourselves, ‘Is it really true?’ If in doubt, we can ask people we trust if the assumptions we hold about ourselves resonate to them. More often than not, this will confirm that we need to revisit these long-held beliefs.
The more we realize that relieving stress is an inside-out job, the more capacity we develop to deal with external circumstances and perform and lead with greater internal peace and wisdom.