How to get a grip on stress

Once a zebra escapes the lion's jaws, it goes back to grazing peacefully. There's a lesson there.

by Caroline Boyd and Paul Turnbull
Last Updated: 06 Jul 2020

Anyone else finding things tough going at the moment?

It’s no surprise that we may be feeling weighed down right now. Keeping the balls of home schooling, team management and business expectations in the air whilst lacking full control of our circumstances is tiring and stressful.

So is there a way to get a grip of this stress? Could understanding how we respond help us master it?

In his seminal 1994 book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Stanford University Biologist Robert Sapolsky beautifully describes the essence of the problem.  

The zebra grazing in the Serengeti is entirely present in the moment, munching away without a care. 

The instant a lion appears, the zebra’s brain switches to threat mode, its body floods with stress hormones and it runs for its life. There follow three or so minutes of the most intense stress imaginable, during which time the zebra lives or dies.  

If it lives, it returns to grazing peacefully. Like nothing happened. If only life were so simple for humans.

Many of us exist within a continuous state of what Sapolsky calls ‘anticipatory stress’, thinking about being knocked off balance, ruminating about things outside of our control over long stretches of time.  

We have similar survival hormones to the zebra but because we worry too much, our stress response is extended over time even in the absence of a true threat, making us feel uncomfortable and eventually ill.

So how can we be more zebra? More in the moment and less taken over with anticipating difficulty? Here are some thoughts to help.

1. Become aware of the thoughts that are causing the stress response. Pause, breathe and write down all the things that are causing distress. Create some distance from your thoughts to give you a chance to think objectively and take control.

2. Challenge your interpretation of the situations you’re in – is there another way of looking at what’s going on? How would someone else deal with a similar situation? What strengths can you draw on? Who can you turn to for support?

3. Take back control. What is within your control and what is not? Let go of the things over which you have no control. What’s the one thing you can do that will make the most difference? Do it!

Some stress is inevitable and, at the right level pushes us to deliver our best work, but it’s up to us to engage with it, adapt, learn and grow.  

Remember the zebra, save the massive threat response for the lion leaping out of the bushes at you, and take back control of the day to day.

Caroline Boyd & Paul Turnbull are co-founders of The Manager Hub

Image credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

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