Blog | Monday, May 13, 2019

Between stimulus and response, there is a space

Stress is one of the epidemics of modern day living, especially work-related stress. At a basic fundamental level, it's just simply a chemical reaction. Your adrenaline and cortisol levels shoot up in response to a stressful stimulus, the primitive “fight-or-flight” response kicks in, and your brain and emotions go into overdrive. The problem with this acute response, is that it tends to lead to illogical thinking and an inability to really find solutions. Research also confirms that having chronically elevated stress hormones is very detrimental for your long-term health and linked to a number of medical comorbidities.

For many people, it's a repetitive cycle of what leads to stress in our lives. In the workplace, it could be that difficult colleague, demanding boss, meeting, or email that sets us off. We all have our own unique hot button issues. I know for me personally, certain things like administrative group meetings or getting a surge of patients coming through the emergency room, would always lead to that familiar feeling of uneasiness and feeling on edge. I've got a lot better over the years at handling these acute situations by trying to take a pause at the moment that feeling of stress hits. Usually the first thing that changes during the fight-or-flight response, is your breathing pattern. Focus on taking three to five deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth (this doesn't have to be noticeable to others). Then, it's just a case of letting those stress hormones settle down so that you can think with improved mental clarity. What works is highly dependent on the individual. For some people, taking a walk may work (a great strategy). For others, listening to music or practicing mindfulness for a few seconds (obviously you need to be able to get away for a moment to do this). It's worth experimenting to find your best way to bring about a more calm state.

Keep in mind that stress is not necessarily always a bad thing. We are all human, and it's normal to feel worked up and passionate about certain things. What is harmful is when this becomes unmanageable or leads to frequent outbursts or an inability to cope in the acute moment. If you can channel stressful energy into something more positive, directed at solutions, that's a good thing! As is having a sense of perspective. Rarely is the world ending, and things are often not as bad as you think, once you are able to take a step back.

There's a quote from the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, which I absolutely love (I'd highly recommend his book, Man's Search for Meaning, which focuses on his life during the Holocaust. It's difficult to read, but an amazing piece of literature). His quote goes like this:

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space, is our power to choose our response. In that response, lies our growth and our freedom”.

Read that again. Because it hits the nail on the head. If you are able to break the repeated patterns which produce that surge of adrenaline and cortisol—whether in your work or even personal life—you are heading towards more freedom and happiness.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician, author and speaker. He is the founder of DocSpeak Communications and co-founder at DocsDox. He blogs at his self-titled site, where this post first appeared.