How to reduce your stress levels 

By  Alan Cox

Susann’s experience

I’ve been a psychologist for over 20 years. I have my own private practice. I have a business where we placed psychologists into GP clinics across Perth. So I’ve worked across government and not for profit agencies and across a number of the health sectors including adult mental health, child mental health, disability and child protection.

So quite a varied range of experience. And one of the things that I found over the 20 years that very often, um, I’ve had walked thousands of conversations with people in my working role. And very often there is a common theme or a link going through the conversations to actually connects them together.

So whether I’m talking directly to my clients when I’m talking to the parents of the young people that I am supporting or even to the business owners that have been networking with over a number of years, very often the conversation revolves around stress.

So again, and again, I hear people telling me that they have a lot of stress stress in their lives. They’re feeling overwhelmed by stress. They’re finding that they can’t balance general life stresses, family stressors and work stress.

So that’s been something that’s been really important to me of the last number of years. So when Lorraine and Dean said, Hey, do you want to come along and talk to a group of business owners I’m thinking, wow, great. Yeah, I’ll talk to business owners because I am a business owner and I know that we carry extra loading of stress. 

We have the family stressors, we have the life stressors and then we have the business stress, which is quite overpowering for people. So I’ll take you back a little bit. About two years ago my life was really really stressful.

I was involved in three different companies. I was running a private practice. I was employed by a fostering agency to support foster carers with trauma and attachment issues. And I was to mother of two teenage children. I still am actually. So there’s a lot, a lot of stress in my life at that stage.

So I was going to find a way to deal with this because I was reading the headlines and I knew that um, stress was really, really bad for you. It was impacting my mental and my physical health. So I was going to make sure that I could beat this.

I’m an academic, so I hit the books looking for, and the answer is because that’s where I always get my answers in the box. I was going to dissect stress. I was going to understand, I was going to find it.

I was gonna know exactly what the stress was doing, how it was impacting on me scrolling, no exact stressors in my life. And I was going to find a strategies that were going to stop this from happening. Didn’t quite work that way. But I did find a lady called Kelly McGonical . I came across her work. Kelly Mcgonigal is a health psychologist in America and she has spent a good portion of her career looking at stress. So she has talked to thousands of people about stress, what it’s impacting, what it feels like, what’s happening in their lives. She’s also collated information from around the world, lots of different research, um, to help us get an of what’s going on.

Kelly McGonigal

Most of the information I’m presenting today is based on Kelly McGonigal’s work published in her book called the Upside of Stress. I can’t recommend it enough for everybody to be reading it.

Okay, let’s go forward. I’ve got to start by doing, having a little bit of audience participation. Look at  stress levels. Go up in the room when I asked for audience participation.

Okay, we’re not doing role play or anything like that. Like will psychs do like role play I’m going to give you a break today. This is just a show of hands. Okay. So I have a couple of questions to ask you

How much stress have you experienced in the last 12 months. I want to show of hands from people who say, yeah, mild levels of stress only in the previous 12 months. Okay.

Okay. So a couple of us have had mild levels of stress. This is going to be a great group of brilliant. It’s terrible when everyone says mild level. All right. Who many people have had moderate levels of stress in the last 12 months

Okay, so a couple of more people and hands up now the people who have had high levels of stress in the last 12 months, yes. I’m talking to business owners, I should’ve known this was going to be the way it was. Okay,

Second question. Do you think that this stress has had a negative impact on your health Hands up. Who thinks the stress in their lives in the last 12 months has had a negative impact on their health Okay.

75% negative effect: Because quite a number of people and you’re in good company because in 2016 the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that year on year people

are reporting increasing levels of stress in their lives. 75% of the people in this survey believe that stress adversity affects their physical health. While 64% believed that a stress adversely affects their mental health.

You see, we’ve all seen the headlines, haven’t we Stress as a killer. So we need to be reducing it in our lives. It’s the common enemy. We need to get rid of it. It’s linked from everything from the common cold to cardiovascular disease. So most of us know this. That’s what we’ve been told. Okay.

 I’ve had conversations with people who are stressed because of the stress in their lives. Yeah. So just knowing that, knowing that you’re seeing it all over all the time, you open up Facebook or it’s they’re telling us that it, it, it’s killing us and we need to get rid of it. Okay. I’m going to come back to that.

Does the perception that stress affects health matter?

The question is, does the perception that stress affects health matter or does just believing that stress is affecting our health. Does that matter Yeah. All right. So she’ll be back in clever people in the audience.

Kelly McGonigal’s research

So Kelly McGonigal’s talks about a research, um, study that was carried out in the University of Wisconsin. Um, they surveyed 30,000 adults and asked them the exact same questions that I’ve just asked you. How much stress have you had in the previous 12 months.

Okay. Put your hands down. Now that’s, that’ll do. Yeah. Yeah. I know. It’s, it’s quite shocking isn’t it You’re gonna leave here more stressed. Okay. Just listen closely to what I say. Okay. But they had actually trolled through the death records over an eight year period when they were doing this study. Such a dreadful job for anyone to have to do. But there you go. I’ve gotten the information they needed. So 43% have an increased risk of dying. That really is stressful, but it was over the caveat, isn’t there Otherwise I wouldn’t have said it. That increased risk only apply to people who also believed that stress was damaging to their health.

43% increased risk of dying

And do you think that stress has a negative impact on your health So what they found was, can I have a show hands of people who had high stress levels again, please hold off for while I say this, what they found was that if you had reported having high stress levels in the previous 12 months, you had 43% increased risk of dying.

So people who had high stress levels but didn’t believe that stress was damaging their health, had no greater increased risk of dying than people who didn’t, who had very little stress and who believe they had very little stress in their lives.

So over the eight years of that study, while the researchers hypothesized, 182,000 Americans had died prematurely  because of stress and stress related illnesses. But because they believed that stress was damaging to their health, that’s quite a huge finding and something that we really need to be sitting up and listening to and taking count of .

 Are we saying that if you change your beliefs about stress, you can actually be healthier and happier

Science is now telling us that the mindset we have about stress has a major impact in our lives, in our health and in the way that we engage with life. So how you think about stress affects everything from your cardiovascular health to the way you find meaning in your life.

The word stress has become a catch all phrase for us in society. It describes everything thing that we don’t want to experience what we think is wrong with the world. From the traffic jam. I was caught in on the way here to the death of a loved one.

That all all is encompassing of stress. We say we’re stressed out, we’re feeling anxious and we’re feeling pressured and pressured home or feeling threatened. We talk about stress. We describe what’s going on internally. How we feel, how we think, what the physical reactions are inside of us. So everything from trivial irritations in life to more extreme mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

The upside of stress

The way we think about stress has a profound impact on how we experience life. So we can change the way we think about stress. We can have a profound impact on how we deal with minor irritations to how we deal with the, and a big stressors that we all have to face. There is never volume in it. If we live, we face challenges.

And there’s where I was putting my focus when what it was was it was showing me that I had meaningful life, that there was things in my life that meant something to me and I had value in my life. So if you have a meaningful life, you’re going to have to understand that it’s going to be stress involved in that as well. Okay,

A new way of thinking

So a different mindset because that’s what we’re talking about. So the first mindset that most of us have, because this is what we’re taught that stress is harmful and shall be avoided, reduced and managed. I think most people would have had that and they walked in here because they thought it was actually damaging. What I’m offering you as an alternative, just open. It’s only an opening of your mind

that there’s a possibility that there is another mindset that you can have another way of thinking about stress. Okay So I am going to define stress by saying it is what happens when something you care about is at stake. We don’t get stressed out about things that we don’t care about.

So there’s always a value or a reason for us to be stressed. So the important truth is that stress and meaning are inextricably linked. Now. When I found this out two years ago, it was like a light bulb mama for me. Here I was putting all my energy into reducing and eradicating stress, and I couldn’t because it was caused by the two teenagers and I can’t get rid of them anyway, so it was never going to happen. 

People will talk about how stressed they are is that’s the thing because we use stress, the word stress to describe so many aspects of our life. So the best way to manage stress, it doesn’t to avoid it or it isn’t to get rid of it. It’s to rethink it and embrace it. Socially. I’m not here today to tell you to reduce stress down, what to tell you. 

You should be getting rid of it because you’ve heard that so many times as had I and it’s not really possible. I am here to say if we rethink stress, we change our relationship with stress and we actually embrace it. We can be healthier and happier in our lives. Okay. See where I’m up to.

So stress is helpful and it should be accepted, utilized and embraced. Yeah, quite radical isn’t it Cause it’s not the kind of stuff that we hear very often. In order for me to sell this idea of this could be a possibility. I have to talk to you about some of the positives that are in stress. You know, most of us know that we have a stress response. Yeah, we’ve all heard of this. We’ve all been told about fight or flight responses.

 The one that we know that we have a lot of research on and people are most familiar with. So what is the fight or flight response? It’s when chemicals are released into our body and the sympathetic nervous system gets kind of mobilized and does lots and lots of good things to help us rise to the challenge of what’s coming towards us.

It mobilizes energy and and it gives you a, it helps you perform under that pressure.

It increases your motivation cause m you’re getting increased sense of confidence and power and it’s making you more willing then to pursue your and heightens your sense so your pupils dilate and you get more light in and you’re hearing sharpens and also focuses your attention. Cause I mean you’re either fighting or fighting for your life here. 

So it heightens your attention, your brain processes the information that you’re perceiving much more quickly. Mind wandering stops. Your concentration is really, really focused and sharpened. So really good stuff going on into flight, flight, flight flight response. The problem is we don’t really want this response unless we’re being physically threatened. Yeah, we don’t want to be thinking of fighting a flying unless we’re physically threatened. And most of the stressors that we have in our modern life are not really, there’s no real need to be fighting or fleeing for them.

The two top things that people say are causing stress in their life are juggling their family’s schedules and the other is listening to our politicians. 

So we can’t fight or flee from either of those. So this stress response, the fight flight one is not really helpful in those situations. It was great in the, in the caveman times when you were trying to run away or to fight them a tiger, but ain’t going to help you with the politicians that we have today. Now if we were still, if that was the only stress response we have, we have a mismatch. We having problems, okay. But we really adaptive creatures and we have grown and adapted hugely since caveman times and we have more than one stress response and this is the issue we don’t really hear about the other ones.

The media loves the fight flight when because of grabs attention, you know, stress as a killer. That sort of stuff grabs attention. Yeah. I want to talk to you about another stress response that we have. Called challenge response.

Fight or Flight

So this response is very much like their fight or flight one. Okay. We have hormones running thrillers. We get the energy, we perform really well under pressure, but there was a slight difference. So let me give you an example.

I’m standing up here today. Am I stressed You Bet. I’m stressed. I’m talking to a group of business owners. They’re videoing me and then they tell me they’re doing Facebook live as well, so hey, hey to everyone out there, am I having a stress response? Yes. Is there chemicals Adrenaline on trauma, body Yes. I’m breathing faster. My heart rate, I’m probably speaking faster as well that I’m trying not to.

The challenge response

The difference is from the fight-flight response, I’m focused on, I’m not fearful, and that’s the difference too. The challenge response and the fight-flight response.

Our peak athletes are under stress when they’re performing, yes, yes, they’re under stress, but they’re not having a fight, flight response to having a challenge response. They’re getting increased confidence, enhanced concentration and peak performance.

It’s that real flow state. You know when you’re into something you really enjoy and you just highly absorbed in what you’re doing and you’re just going for it. That’s your challenge response coming through. You still stressed, but you’re having a different response.

Another the part is the challenge response, I’m not even going to try and pronounce that word because that would stress me out.

So we’re going to call it DA. Okay. Which is why that’s the short version of it.

That is a neurosteroid. Yeah, an actual steroid. What that does when that’s released into our body during a stressful situation, it actually makes our brains grow. We grow and we learn from stressful experiences.

It speeds up wound repair, enhances immune function, and is linked to reduced levels of anxiety, depression, and heart disease. Everything that we think of is linked with stress. So this stress hormone is actually really, really good to have in your body. The 10


Another one is Oxytocin. Have you heard of the hormone oxytocin? Most of us know oxytocin as the cuddle hormone or the love hormone because it’s actually released from your pituitary gland when you get hugged.

Hugging is brilliant. So the next time I talk I’m going to do a talk on hugging.

I was going to ask people to turn around and hug someone but I won’t do that here either. What does oxytocin do if fine tunes The brain’s social social instincts

It builds and strengthens social bonds. It gets us to start connecting in with other people. It creates a craving for social contact. We actually reach out to other people when we’re feeling this kind of stress response. It makes the brain better able to notice, understand what others are thinking and feeling. It makes us have more empathy and intuition and you’re more likely to trust and have the people you care a bout.

It’s pretty good and it’s pretty powerful. It is a stress hormone and most of us don’t even know that. We know adrenaline and cortisol, but we didn’t know about, well, I didn’t know about oxytocin.

It’s also called the chemical of courage because it dampens down the fear response, so it suppresses the instinct to fight or flee, but it’s still actually released during a stressful situation.


Now the great thing about oxytocin, it’s actually a built-in mechanism for resilience. We have a natural built-in mechanism in our stress response for resilience around the heart. We have specialised receptors that are just there for oxytocin.

So when oxytocin floods our system during a stressful situation, it links in around the heart. It strengthens the heart, it repairs the heart and it makes it stronger. 

That is such a different message than what we’re always being told about stress being bad for her heart. Now I’m not saying there aren’t times that you could have a hugely elevated stress response with major amounts of adrenaline being dumped into your bloodstream. That is going to be bad for your heart. I’m saying that’s not what always happens.

Oxytocin cells help the blood vessels relax which will be a very opposite way. I’m kind of profile to what you would be having if you’re having difficulties with your heart. Okay, very quickly I want to tell you about a study that Kelly McGonigal outlines in her book again.

So in 2018, the financial crisis in America, really bad time. They went in and they did a study in a financial and the largest financial institutes over there and people were on their major stress.

There was a high levels of anxiety, depression, increased levels of suicide. People were losing their jobs everywhere. 

Because the stock market was crushing, there was money being lost everywhere. So people were very, very stressed. They went in and they offered a stress management program to the employees about 360 you said, Yay, we’ll go for it. They brought it up into three to three groups. One group got no intervention, bad luck. ‘

‘They didn’t get helped. Second Group, actually the set group were even worse because they did get intervention and what they were told when they were told all the negative stuff about stress, stress as bad few stresses, a killer stresses really you do not perform well under stress.

People struggle under stress and all of that sort of stuff was fair to the second group. Third Group, they were told, um, stresses, positive stresses or has a positive affects you perform better. They were showing videos of leaders who performed well and thrived under stress. So they were given that message. 

They go back three weeks later and they do testing around all of the people. The two questions they want to ask, first of all, when people were on their major stress can you change a person’s mind about stress 

The answer is yes, you can.

The second one is the mind shift associate with any other changes. So when they went back into this company, did they see any other changes apart from the fact that the people might have thought that stress is not so bad. What they found is that the people who had had the positive intervention, they had less anxiety, less depression, fewer health problems like back pain and insomnia and You’re all business people in this room. Tell me that you wouldn’t like more focus, engagement, collaboration and productivity and that’s going to help any, any business.

A healthy way of thinking about stress

What we have just done here today, because I have shown you and I’ve offered you a different understanding or a different mindset around stress is similar to the intervention that they did in that financial institution. I don’t have two, three hours to have because they wouldn’t give it to me in district 32 but what I’ve done is condensed it very short for you. So what we’ve done is just presented. There is another mindset that you can have in order to have that mindset become more embedded, you have to practice it. Okay Three very, very simple steps to practice.

When you’re feeling stressed, acknowledge it, acknowledge that you’re experiencing stress, you know what it feels like. So acknowledge to yourself this is a stressful situation. 

Recognize that the stress is a response to something that motivates you, something that you care about. I’m stressed because I’m in a traffic jam. It’s because I can’t check my kids from school. So there’s always look for the what’s motivating that stress, what’s behind it, and then

try to make use of the energy that stress gives you instead of wasting. You’re trying to eradicate stress from your life.

So the most high health and mindset that we can have for stresses when it’s flexible, you don’t have to abandon your belief that stress can be damaging in certain circumstances because of course it can. I just want you to have a more balanced view and maybe see the upside of stress as well. So seeing the upside allows you an to hold a more balanced view that if fear stress less to trust yourself, you can’t handle this. And to use stress to engage more in your life, in your business, in everything that you’re doing. Okay, I’m going to finish. 

That’s Kelly McGonigal’s book, the upside of stress. Eh, completely recommend her because she’ll give you lots more information about how stressed at helpful I am. And that’s it. Thank you.

Alan Cox

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