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July 28, 2017, 3:59 pm

It's hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.
Sally Kempton

Life Coaching


Building Focus, Energy & Courage - to Make a Better Life for You

Stress Management
& Life Coaching

by

What Causes Stress?

Stress arises when we perceive situations as (a) threatening us, and (b) largely beyond our control. This combination leads to fear, and fear is what stress is centrally about. It's a very unpleasant feeling, and it can consume lives. Sources of stress can be external - our jobs, our relationships, our environments - or internal - our feelings towards situations, and towards others and ourselves. Quick fixes are hard to find, and often - structural life changes are necessary to remove the major sources of stress. That's easier said than done, but long-term - it's a real stress buster, and that's what coaching does best.

Coaching & Stress

Life coaching is generally pragmatic. We do what works for the client, and that varies a lot, but there are some general ideas to learn from my years in coaching practice, and so I thought I'd lay them out for you here.

  • Coaching usually happens weekly, and in those sessions we re-visit the issues we're working on. That's hardly rocket science, but actually, that weekly focus alone, is a massive improvement on how most of us tackle our lives when left to our own devices. We may get horribly fed up and decide enough is enough. We'll give the problem a kick. But a week later, the anger has died down, and along with it, any enthusiasm for change. Until the next time - which might be a year or more later. So without a coach, how can you get that benefit? You might for example, schedule a weekly meeting with yourself or with a friend. You might write a diary in which prompts you to write on the issues you're working on. You might give yourself a weekly score in specific areas of your life. The thing is to view the issue you're working on as an ongoing project rather than a transient thought.
  • Coaching tries hard to find a complete, intellectually valid statement of what the issues are. We turn vague worry-statements into cold hard facts. This works strongly against stressed thinking, which is often circular and irrational. We stifle the urge to run and hide, and instead we shine a light on the beastie in the cave, studying its true nature, diffusing the fear. Perhaps you can do something similar by writing down your issues. Then read them back - are they absolutely true? Where are the errors and exaggerations? Remove them. It can be wonderfully liberating when you externalise issues in this way, and when you read them back in, you do so with a different, more analytical part of your brain.
  • Coaching is results-oriented. Too often, as human beings, we lament the problem and stop there. But coaching encourages a change of focus from the problem to the solution. Try to do that for yourself. For sure, accurately describe the problem - but see that as the beginning - not the end. What desirable outcome would you like to replace the issue with? You'll feel cynicism and pessimism rise within you, trying to stifle your efforts to see through to a better future, but do all you can to fight those negative forces. Embed a vision of your new future into your physical world in some emotionally-resonant way - change your computer wallpaper, buy a pot plant - do something which will constantly remind you of the new project at hand. Read my article on talismans. Be creative.
  • Coaching provides emotional support when you're feeling low and might otherwise throw in the towel. How can you get some of that for yourself? Friends may be a useful asset (though they may also be a liability - so be careful). Keep yourself well-slept and well-exercised. Of course, stress often disturbs sleep, but exercise will offset that somewhat, and the work you're doing to clearly see and remove the causes of your stress will also give you peace of mind. Treat yourself now and then, and don't push so hard that you rebel. Do what you can sustain; think marathon, not 100 metre dash.

Let me illustrate those principles at work on a stress case from my client files.

I can honestly say that Jack (which isn't his name) is one of the nicest men I've ever met, but he struggled horribly with stress. He found no peace in anything. He worried endlessly about how grim things were, and worried about how things would end up. He slept mostly on the sofa in front of the TV which he used to drown out his thinking. The prospect of a quiet bedroom was terrifying for him.

What were his stressful issues? Well, Jack felt he was too tall and "gangly" and he didn't like his posture, so his self-image was unattractive to him, and - he assumed - to others. In social situations, he was so horribly stressed out that he could barely function. Years of being this way had damaged his self esteem and given him a pessimistic outlook. He'd also acquired some hostility to those who were not suffering as he was. Here's how those general coaching principles above worked for Jack.

  • Weekly focus gave Jack enough time to get some traction. Jack's stressful job, coupled with his overwhelming pessimism and hostility towards the notion of change, meant he would never have allowed himself to "sit in the issue" for 45-minutes each week were it not for our sessions. Enough of him knew he needed help, so he did sit there, but initially it was very tough. There is simply no way that Jack would have invested enough time to do this on his own without the framework of our calls.
  • Dispassionate Issues Statements were not easily forthcoming for Jack. His ego had turned his own problems into a loathing of those without them, and in that process he had to bend reality. He saw people were arrogant and manipulative, though with work we were able to re-label them as confident and outgoing. Jack was also over-generalising. He was not alone in his inadequacy - he existed on a spectrum of other humans; some were highly confident but quite a few had problems of their own, and in some ways Jack was better than most. His issues were not across the board, but were mostly around relationships with women and those men he perceived as more successful than him. We worked out that resentment was a big component of the problem, causing him to be hostile - which worked to keep him away from a better life. We had to keep washing out the irrational thinking from Jack's work, but he came up with six clean problem statements, which was a revelation for him. These intellectually valid statements were very far from the utterances of his worrying mind, and crucially, they involved far more observation about him than about those around him - almost always a very good sign indeed (though seldom a comfortable one).
  • Moving to think about results is often difficult for highly-stressed people, who feel that very high levels of attention are required. They feel that by dwelling endlessly on the object of their worry they will somehow dissolve it. Of course, that's not the case. Jack would keep coming back to his old thinking modes, using negative phrases to describe those around him, and for a time, I had to keep gently inviting him to "phrase more accurately" and "move away from problems and towards solutions". We both knew all about what he didn't want and why - but what did he want? This is often very difficult, because - we're moving from (in Jack's case): "that arrogant pig Steve isn't interested in genuine people like me" - to - "I want to be more like Steve and be his friend". That involves a very large adjustment in self-image and world view - and these can be frightening - they strike at our identity. It also involves admission of major errors in reasoning and "honesty failures" and perceptions which ego will often resist.
  • Emotional support was particularly important in Jack's case. Re-arranging a self-image and a world-view can be deeply un-settling. Everything you knew is being torn down, and it looks like your past was all a big mistake. Hideous stuff. No wonder most of us run in the opposite direction. When we worked on our intellectual issues statements, Jack started jibbing big-time. "Oh great, so now I have a whole new world of ways I'm inadequate, to stress about". Positioning Jack's thinking to stay away from the abyss was a constant challenge. I often use a mental image. There is a lump in the carpet, and maybe a bad smell. You can keep hammering the carpet to flatten it, and you can spray the air freshener - or you can rip the carpet up and see what's underneath. Fortunately, Jack is a very witty man and we were able to share some dark jokes and just enjoy each other's company, and he always knew I was on his side.

Far from easy stuff - if it was easy, then adults would not spend large chunks of their lives in stressful misery. But Jack found wonderful new shiny things on the far side of his coaching, so it's a journey worth making.

So, I've talked about stress and how coaching helps with it, both in theory and in practice. I've also shown you how you can adapt some of my coaching techniques for use with yourself.

If you suffer from stress then I really hope you can find some help from this article.

 

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