How to Manage Stress [transcript]

Written by Christopher Kelly

Jan. 10, 2020


Christopher:    Hello and welcome to the Nourish Balance Premium Podcast. My name is Christopher Kelly. I'm here once again with Dr. Simon Marshall. Thank you so much for being our patrons. We very much appreciate it. In the last few episodes, we've been talking about your most significant health challenges. One of the things that was conspicuously absent from the topics was stress management. 

    The reason it was absent was because the idea of stress management was woven into all of the things. For example, it's difficult to make good diet choices when you're stressed out. It's difficult to sleep when you're stressed out. It's difficult to find motivation when you're stressed out. It's pervasive in everything that we do, every decision that we make. It's not really a separate topic but at the same time it's important enough that we give it its own conversation. That's going to be the topic of this episode, stress management. How do you go about this from a general perspective?

Simon:    Firstly, I agree wholeheartedly that when people talk about the things that they're struggling, the latent factor there is often stress management. So, when people talk about they're struggling with time management, that really is a stressor. How do I get more done in less time? Or more done in the same time? So, stress management and stress in general is a topic that comes up frequently when I do health coaching.

    What's most interesting is that people have quite fixed mindsets about what stress management is. Most of us know, for example, that there are certain behaviors that help control my anxiety, sort of response to a stressor. Eating and exercise are two that people often use. I think that the first thing is to get into the weeds a little bit about what stress actually is and the types of strategies that seem to work best.

    I think a good entry point for this would be to ask you, Chris, how do you experience stress and the kinds of things that you find that work for you? Because I think it helps if we bring in a real live example.

Christopher:    A lot has changed for me over the past five years. In the beginning I thought it was all about diet. That's one of the main things that's changed for me over the years. I thought if I just made the right dietary choices then I would have great health and great performance. Over the years I've realized there's all these other dimensions to health.

    You have to worry about social support and you have to worry about your stress management and you have to worry about your sleep and you have to worry about appropriate movement and maybe lifting heavy -- and so the list goes on. There's not that many dimensions but there's certainly more than just eating. I realized that up until really quite recently, the last few years, I was not handling stimulus appropriately.

    Something would poke me. Imagine that you poke the monkey with a stick and I would just react without any kind of consideration of what response I wanted to give. And so I would snap at people. I would get angry very quickly. I would get frustrated very quickly. I think the thing that's helped me the most is guided meditation and in particular the Headspace app.

    I had heard of meditation. I'd never tried it and didn't really know where to start and I found Andy Puddicombe and the Headspace app Take Ten tremendously helpful. Like with anything else, it's a skill that you acquire and then once you've got it you don't really need to keep practicing it in order to stay good. I found out -- maybe this is just a me thing. So, for example, I took a seven-year hiatus from kiteboarding and then recently I went back to the beach. Initially I was really panicking a little bit. I'm like, "I don't even know how to attach the lines to the kite. Can you just double check this? I think I might go in loop to loop and then get dragged off to sea because it's just been so long since I've done this."

    But within five seconds of getting on the water, it was like I'd never stopped. It's like riding a bike. You don't forget how to do it. I feel like the same with meditation. The magic doesn't happen during the sitting session. It happens afterwards. Suddenly you realize there's a gap between the stimulus and the response. It's almost like someone has inserted this moment of time in between the two and in that moment of time you get to choose your response. I'm paraphrasing a very famous quote by Victor Frankl here in a fantastic book Man's Search for Meaning.

    That's what I found. It's like, oh, you get to -- I mean, we were talking about this earlier. There's certain things that you don't get to choose the response. I gave the example, when my daughter kicks me in the nuts--

Simon:    I love that you say "when she kicks your nuts" not like "if she kicks."

Christopher:    Yeah, I know. I feel like sometimes she doesn't even know. You don't know. When you don't have that stuff down there, you don't realize that you can't just jump onto daddy's lap with your elbow or your knee or something like that because it's really going to hurt daddy. But, yeah, it definitely happens. In that case, you don't really get to choose the response. It's reaction. It's knee-jerk. Before, that would have pissed me off and then I would have been in a bad mood for a while because it hurt. You get bowlegged for a while. But now I feel like even with that I get to choose my response.


    And, of course, you see this in other areas of your life. When somebody cuts you off on the road you get the choice. Am I going to get wound up by this? Is that helpful? Because sometimes, you've talked about this a lot, that negativity is helpful. That's your trigger that's going to allow you to get better. But sometimes the negativity is not helpful. Maybe you should choose to diffuse it. It's a word I know that you like.

    Another great metaphor that I really enjoy is the idea of a train. The train is coming into the station. The crazy train is coming into the station. The question is: Are you going to get on and are you going to get carried away by it? And usually what happens is it's not as simple as, "Oh no, I'm not getting on the train and going off with it." As you get on to the train, and then just at the last moment before the train leaves the station, you realize you're on the crazy train and you get off. Is that analogy working for you?

Simon:    No. I have no idea what this analogy is doing? Crazy train pulls in, I'm on it and then I want to get off of it.

Christopher:    Yeah. It's the idea of getting carried away with these thoughts and feelings we don't want. I feel like that's what meditation has done for me. It's given me the opportunity to get off the train.

Simon:    Yeah. I think that that speaks to -- that's a category of stress management. It's changing the filtering system, how we experience the fear, the doubt, the worry, the anxiety or even the extent to which our bodies are reacting. The research in stress management, first of all, makes it clear that we need to differentiate between the stressor and the stress response.

    Stressors, things that we think are causing the stress that we can pinpoint. These are usually but not always, certainly, external environmental inputs as it were. They can be things from demands placed on us that we have to cope with, family, work wise, other things, time constraints. But it's something that's somewhat externally imposed.

    And then the stress response, which has been written about extensively, is this cascade or it's a complex psychobiological response that is a mixed of hormonal and adrenal reactions in addition to cognition, thoughts that we have or feelings that we have and emotion. So, the two buckets of stress management strategies are -- the first is what we call task focused coping. Task focused coping is a family of stress management techniques that try and reduce the stressor at its source. This is the whack-a-mole approach to stress management.

    When you try and reduce the stressor at its source, you become better at coping or dealing with what's being asked of you. You improve your time management skills. Example in sport would be an athlete who comes -- and I use this quite frequently because it just hammers home the task focused coping approach. I've got a marathon coming up and I'm worried that I'm not going to be able to run the distance. Or half marathon, whatever. I'm worried that I won't be and it's giving me a lot of anxiety and I'm thinking about it. I've used some meditation techniques and mantras and all the things but none of that really seems to be working. I'm still scared shitless about what happens if I can't run the distance?

    And so you ask someone, "Have you ever run 12 miles or 26 miles before?" No. Let's start there. Can you actually -- A task focused coping approach or reaction would be to improve your skills to do what is being asked of you. Again, not to constantly use sport analogies but folks who are really terrified in triathlon of swimming in the open water or having to deal with big waves or big surf, do you practice getting better at swimming to the surf? Well, not really. Okay. The task focused stress management skill would be to get better at doing that. So, you increase your skills.

    A sweeping generalization, but it does seem to be a general trend that men prefer or they gravitate towards task focused coping skills as the initial response. The other bucket or category or family of stressors is what we call emotion focused coping. This is now you're not really dealing with a stressor at its source. You're not changing your skills so that actually stressor is less. You're dealing with the filtering systems.

    This is where meditation fits in and mindfulness training. This is where relaxation fits in. This is even where to a certain extent exercise might fit in. What you're doing there is you're changing what that stress response, how you're framing it, how you're experiencing it. What we know from the stress management issue, the very good stress copers do both. If you're only relying on one category or one family of strategies you're lightly to come unglued.

    For example, if you're predominantly a task focused coping person, in other words, when the heat is on I work hard, I double down. I do more work. I burn the candle at both ends. I work longer hours. All attempts to reduce the anxiety associated with the stress but you're whack-a-moling the stress. The problem is the stressor n plus one problem. There'll always be more things in your entrée that you can physically handle.


    So you're going to run out. If you're predominantly task focused coping, you're probably more likely to be at risk of burnout because there's only so much that you can tolerate. You'll eventually run out of hours in a day or you'll run out of the time to improve your skills. There's only so many trainings and new skills that you can take on. We know that the emotion focused coping is important.

    And, likewise, if all you ever do is emotion focused coping, you're not really improving your skills to cope with the ever changing demands on your time. You just might be more zen about it. You might just be more calm about all the shit that's being thrown at you. Again, sweeping generalization but women generally tend to gravitate towards emotion focused coping as a strategy. We can play this out in a typical cliché, the argument between -- I don't want you to solve my problems. I just want you to listen to them.

    Someone, when I hear you're having a problem, my task focused gene is saying, "Well, let's try and fix the problem." We're a task focused method. But you're just saying, "I just want you to listen to them. I was cathartic. It helps me feel better." That's an emotion focused coping skill. The two are at odds. They both work. And so what we try and do is sort of the 101 of stress management. We do a little audit of how you currently cope with stress.

    Let's talk through the emotion focused method. So, use mindfulness training. You might do some -- when I feel as though, I'd go for a run and sort of the physical response. It helps me clear my mind or I can get some distraction or something. And then we say, okay, well, the task focused coping skill that you use. You want to have a fairly healthy balance of the two. It's quite clear when you ask someone, "What stuff has worked for you in the past? What do you do?" You find that the lists are grossly unequal.

    Some people have no strategies at all. The attempt would be to shore up one of those other skills, so get better at coping with the stressor itself at its source and sometimes like essentialism. The principle of essentialism is a task focused coping method because you're doing. You're saying get rid of the stuff that is not the eights or nines out of ten.

Christopher:    Yeah. I was going to say is there a third category of things where I've defended my environment such that there's not many stressors get in now? This is why I don't think I'm typically a very good example or case study is because you think about how I changed my life over the last five years. Well, I quit my job at a hedge fund. I started doing meaningful work. I now work from home. I do all of my consults via Zoom. I spend a lot of time programming. I ride my bike. I spend time hanging out with my family.

    Basically, I don't really have anything that most people would consider to be stressors. And that's a very deliberate choice. It didn't happen overnight. I've made these tiny incremental changes to my life over the years that has gotten me to where I am today where I don't really feel like I have a lot of things to stress out over. 

Simon:    So, avoidance or denial and avoidance are task focused--

Christopher:    And it may now be self limiting. 

Simon:    Absolutely. 

Christopher:    People are telling me, "You're not a CEO. If you want to take this NBT thing to the next level, then you need to go find a CEO." I think the thing that's holding me back is the fact that I've reached this okay plateau. I've got to the point where, okay, so I'm earning a pretty good, not great but enough to get by, salary and I don't like the idea of pushing myself out of my comfort zone in order to take NBT to the next level. And so I think it's actually might be self-limiting.

Simon:    From a stress management perspective, what we would say is that avoidance through just culling parts of your life that are just contributing to the stressor is a great effective stress management and if you've got the ability to find out to do that, great. But, unfortunately, is that task management coping methods are very specific. 

    For example, if you are hating your job because of your ability to cope with interpersonal conflict in the workplace, it's not very good. It is driving you into the ground. So, you leave the job. You find something that doesn't have that conflict in. Good task focus, the stressor all goes away. But your underlying ability to cope with interpersonal stress stays because you'll just wait until you're in a new environment and that comes with you.

    You'll become unglued eventually unless you live in -- I'm going to sit in four walls and not leave the house. You'll be in environments where the underlying substrate of that stressor comes back in some other form. Lack of assertiveness, inability to draw boundaries, speak with radical candor. If you remove yourself from those environments, eventually, you'll find yourself, because we have human lives that we have to interact on a daily basis, that ability, and you end up just shying away from those situations.

    The effective strategy is not say stay in a job you hate, just learn to cope better with interpersonal conflict. It's to say that's one great strategy but now also try and add some stress management so in the future you can cope with the underlying elements that what makes that a stressor for you.


Christopher:    I was listening to a story recently on a podcast about a carpet cleaner. He was struggling to make money in his business and, in fact, he was losing money in his business and he had an opportunity to go on holiday with a very successful businessman and he thought, "Well, if I get in with this guy he's going to give me the magic sauce that's going to allow me to turn my carpet cleaning business around."

    What the businessman said to him is, "Is there anyone else in the carpet cleaning business that's making money?" And he said, "Well, yeah, I guess there is. There's these two guys over here." And then he started listing all the reasons why he couldn't do what they were doing because -- And he's like, "Well, you need to figure out how to make money in this business." Because the other time the guy thought, "Well, if I get out of the carpet cleaning business into some other business, maybe I need to be a real estate agent or something, then I'll be able to make money."

    What the experienced businessman said to him was, "If you drop out of the carpet cleaning business now and you go into some other business, whatever it is you're doing that's not making this a successful business, it's also not going to be a successful business in the new thing you start. You better fix what you got now. Oh, and by the way, you're going to throw away all your technical expertise."

    One of the questions he asked him, "Are you technically competent? Do people value your work? Do you get referrals? Are you getting testimonials?" And the guy was saying, "Absolutely. I'm the best in the business. I do really great job at cleaning carpets." "Okay. So, now, you're going to throw away all that technical competence and start again in a new field that you don't know anything about and you still got the problem that's--"

Simon:    Yeah. You're just switching from one fire to the other.

Christopher:    Right.

Simon:    I think when you rely on -- We all know people who when things don't -- The people who are dreamers, they try something, big aspirations, it doesn't work, and there's always a bunch of reasons why it didn't work out none of which have anything to do with their own skill set. It's all about timing and people have been let down and they don't understand what the value and so on.

    These people have been able to use a stress management in an adaptive, or should I say maladaptive, way because it's not helping him become better businessman in the example that you're talking about but they've been able to rationalize. Their filter is so biased that they see, "Oh, it's not me. I'm just going to move on to the next strategy." Their emotion focused coping skills help them bounce from one big idea to the other with seeming ease and never really get out to take some responsibility for the fact that their actual skill set is deficient.

    This is when only relying on emotion focused coping is actually limiting you because you're not actually in front of these. And whether you rely on one, predominantly one or the other, you'll eventually run into problems because that one strategy, that one group of strategy will only get you so far. The interpersonal conflict example. You'll be in a new situation where you have to have these same skills and you don't have them but it's just no longer in this context.

Christopher:    So then the question becomes how do you acquire those skills? How do you acquire any skill through deliberate practice?

Simon:    You learn them, just as you can learn mindfulness training. I always think of mindfulness or meditation training as a stem cell skill. It's a stem cell skill for emotion focused coping. It's one of these, as you correctly identified, it's not something that you think of in the moment to deal with the stressful situation. It's not like if you're a chef and you suddenly, or you're trying to become a chef and you suddenly get a new set of knives, "I can do all this stuff now with these knives."

    That's not how meditation or mindfulness training actually works. It's like you're improving your education as a chef. Now, you don't even notice or say that -- the whole process is better. And so mindfulness or meditation training is doing exactly that, the passive attention training, being able to cope with the intrusiveness of thoughts and not let them get their hooks and take you down the rabbit hole of why this won't work and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

    It's helping you just cope a little bit better in environment. Your filter is becoming a lot better so that you can be in more stressor rich environments and cope so that you could learn these strategies. You can learn progressive muscle relaxation, a stress management strategy I teach athletes because it's more action oriented. It's a sequence of maximum muscle contractions of major muscle groups for three to five seconds and then focusing on sensations of heaviness and warmth as the muscle relax and the post contracted muscle at the electrical excitability that muscle returns to kind of relaxed state that was more relaxed than it was before it was tensed.

    So, changing mobility, changing when it's important, you're standing on a start line and you need to have good joint range of motion, a progressive muscle relaxation strategy is really effective. But these are all emotion focused coping strategies. It might seem not emotion because you're physically contracting things but it's not improving your ability necessarily to swim or to run but you're actually feeling more relaxed on the start line.

Christopher:    You're reminding that the hedge fund finance people typically think of that as a stressful environment. And it can be, I think, for sure especially when I first started. I didn't have very good skills then a trader shouting at you that we were losing money because there was an order floating in the market that he couldn't cancel.


    You'd be panicking. But then after a few years of doing that type of work you start to relish those opportunities. It becomes a little bit of excitement like, "Oh, I got this. This is fun." Like trying to solve these types of problems and it's just because I gained competency like through deliberate practice and experience.

Simon:    Yeah, you got better skills.

Christopher:    And I didn't really think like that at that time, not at all. I just notice that I enjoy those moments when the trader was shouting and, if anything, I became more calm and more relaxed in those situations versus when I first started. You'd be panicking like, "Oh my god, am I going to lose my job because I can't cancel the order either."

Simon:    How do you control what you've -- How does one control your attentional processes, what you pay attention to, how you're able to focus or concentrate under pressure? When we say under pressure we're really talking, really inferring that you're in a stressor rich environment, you're being judged, evaluated, things are asked of you, there are time pressures.

    Getting better at doing that, controlling your ears and your eyes when there's lots of competing extraneous stuff flying at you is a task focused coping skill. Setting goals, doing things in small manageable chunks, segmenting is a task focused coping skill. We want you to have both of those skills. If there's a piece of advice that I would give to athletes, to executives, to people who they feel as though stress management is something that they need to focus on, it's start with audit of tasks and emotions, where are your strategies, what they're like.

    And even if you don't know what categories they are, just write the things down that you do or find yourself doing that seem to help. Some of them will be adaptive. They'll be successful in the long term. Some of them won't be like binge eating or doing things that make you feel good in the short term to change or reduce the anxiety, restore that emotional equilibrium hurt you in the long term for stress management. They help at the moment.


    Write all those down. Start to sift them in terms of are they reducing actual source of the problem or are they reducing my filter? And you'll start to see in almost all cases there's this gross imbalance between how you typically address the problem. You just shore up the other side.

Christopher:    Another thing that I found truly helpful was I think -- was that one of your book recommendations? I think it was one of those books that was recommended to me from about three different people. Clay recommended it as well, for sure.

Simon:    Messy?

Christopher:    No. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.

Simon:    Oh, yes. Mark Manson, yeah.

Christopher:    It was truly enlightening. The basic idea is that you choose your fucks very carefully. I mean, I feel like I couldn't have chosen my fucks very carefully before mindfulness meditation. I wouldn't have had the opportunity to decide whether this was something I was going to lose my shit over or not. I just would have lost it. Whereas now, you get that opportunity. Is this something I should really give a fuck about or is it something I should just let go?

    And he's not saying that you should not give a fuck about anything. That's an important distinction. The subtle art is that's where the emphasis should be. It's a very subtle art of deciding which of the things are truly fuck worthy and which of the things I should just let go?

Simon:    Yeah. And the same goes for suffering or hardship or things that are a struggle. It's an inevitable part of life that you're going to go through tough times and not just inevitable but we actually want them. They're valuable. We respond quite well to those moments. It's how you decide to choose what you're willing to suffer for and choosing to suffer for things that aren't connected to your value system that don't really bring you some other joy, they're the things that you need, in the principle of essentialism, to start cutting out. But the notion that we should be striving for a stress free no suffering life of happiness and bliss is not just naïve. It's actually probably terrible advice.

Christopher:    Yeah. Go into that some more. That's very interesting. There's another book I've just started reading and the reason I've had to read it, and normally I listen on audible, but unfortunately there's no audible version of this book so might as well go old school and read it with my eyeballs. That's the by--

Simon:    Yeah. By Russ Harris, yeah.

Christopher:    By Russ Harris. Do you want to talk a little bit about that book?

Simon:    Sure. Russ Harris has written a book that's based on a therapeutic approach called acceptance and commitment therapy, ACT. Even though it's by Steven Hayes the model has been developed by, it's been used in psychotherapy and clinical psychology for some time in probably the last ten years or so, and it's a little bit of a counterpoint to traditional cognitive behavior therapy which is still seen as a control model of coping with mental distress and that the hallmark is grossly simplified.

    The hallmark of most CBTs that we're trying to confront the irrationality of much of the things that gives us angst. If you deconstruct on some fundamental level the likelihood of things that you're worried about, they may not be actually as likely as you think. And then even if those things do come true then so what? The whole point you're trying to use some sort of facts and logical thinking to ultimately control the bubbling up of the irrational, the thoughts of things that are causing you some distress.

    Now, in converse, ACT therapy is to say, well, maybe the model of control is a bit naïve. And we can talk ad nauseam as well about how much control we have over our thoughts and feelings.


Christopher:    Not very much.

Simon:    And the science suggests that not very much.

Christopher:    Right. And you can do a very easy example. Try not to think of a polar bear right now. It's impossible you can't.

Simon:    Whatever you do, don't think of elephants. And, likewise, memories that you desperately want to extinguish you can't. They'll often find a way to percolate up or enter your consciousness. So, what the ACT model is doing is a coping model instead of a control model. It's saying, listen, the analogy that they give and I love is that our mental distress are the things that cause us angst in life psychically can be represented as a battle between good forces and bad forces, what I want to do and what I actually feel like, where I want my life to be and where I'm actually at.

    And that battle for many people, they think they have to win it to be happy. I need to get a handle on this, extinguish this way of thinking or this pattern before I can actually lead a truly fulfilling happy life. And we know that that's probably never going to happen because, one, I've never met anyone who's fully able to do it. You're always going to have some element of doubt or fear. There's a whole host of reasons why that [0:26:08] [Indiscernible] why that is.

    The coping model, the ACT model is to say, well, occasionally it's okay to try and get some parole from your fighting. In other words, take a day out from the battle. Turn your head away and face a different direction. You could still hear the battle raging on behind you. It will still be there when you get back, don't worry. But occasionally we can choose actions and what we try and focus our thoughts on, on things that are not to do with the battle.

    In other words, we don't have to win the battle to be happy. We just have to learn to live with the battle a bit better. This is the jumping hand in hand with your fear. When you've got something that you're scared of, don't try and get rid of the fear to do it. Just to be more accepting and more comfortable with the fact that you're likely to feel these emotions that are probably negative and down and do it anyway.

    That's the acceptance part. And then one of the core strategies is getting some what they call diffusion or detachment from the way that you think and feel. Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists often, that's one of the biggest challenges that we have in psychotherapy is to say, "Listen, you're not your thoughts and feelings. You are simply the carrying container of your thoughts and feelings."

    That might seem a bit sort of getting you in deep -- when we look at eastern philosophies or Buddhism, we talk about observing mind and thinking mind, we think in words and pictures and when we see a sentence, when we say, "Okay, I want you to think your worst thought, your deepest thought, I'm not good enough, and I want you to think about that intensely." What we do is we think in the sentence. I can see those words. Who's doing the looking down on those words?

Christopher:    Right. So, thoughts are just words in your head like words on a piece of paper that's just in your head.

Simon:    That's exactly right. And we've convinced ourselves, to use another analogy, this is like the story line in a newspaper. The story line, when someone reports on a local burglary in the paper and you're reading it from the perspective of the journalist who wrote it, they were probably not there but they interviewed police and witnesses. 

    You're concocting a story that you then decide whether to believe or not and you hope that there's some veracity to the facts and that kind of stuff. For the most part, it's a proposition that you have to then say, is this actually true or not? All of our thoughts are exactly the same way. They're story lines. Most of us have a -- there's a theme to the things that give us a lot of angst. It might be that you're not good enough. You have to prove yourself. You're not--

Christopher:    It's the voice. I think of a devil sat on somebody's shoulder and -- I mean, it's negative self talk. There's this voice in your head that's saying you're an impostor, you're going to get found out, you're incompetent. It's only a matter of time before someone sees that you're an idiot. In fact, you are an idiot and you're fat and you're ugly. There's all this stuff and it just constantly goes on in your head.

Simon:    And cognitive behavior therapy attempts to deconstruct, are these things actually true or not and what strategies I can do to replace them with more productive thoughts? But what ACT therapy does is it doesn't matter whether it's true or not. It doesn't matter because ultimately we can't really contest or we can't -- we can spend our life agonizing over whether you are actually good at your job or not or whether you are actually unlovable.

    Or whether all this stuff that we don't actually, whether it's true or not is not important. What is important is this belief helpful for you to live the life that you want that's consistent with the value? That becomes the guiding principle, not we need to deconstruct the rationality. But, okay, thinking like this, the actions that you do, is that helpful for you getting to where you want to go? If the answer is it's not helpful, we need to find some strategies to move on. Whether that's true or not is irrelevant.

Christopher:    Right. And in some cases, we see that it's not helpful because it then interferes with motivation which is something else we've talked about on a separate topic, is that when you do make mistakes, you've got this little voice in your head that's saying you're incompetent, you're going to fail, you know you're going to fall off the wagon, it's only a matter of time before you're back on the cereal.


    And then when you are on the cereal, you get this confirming voice that says, "See? I told you so." And then you're like, "What the heck. I'm not even going to try again." That dissenting voice in my head was correct. It was not the terrible voice and it was wrong. You were right. You were right all along. And so what you're saying is it doesn't matter whether it's right. it's whether or not it's helpful.

Simon:    Exactly. And so one of the principles of ACT is to say that we need to make space in our heads for the negativity and the shit that we think of. Trying to expunge it or exorcise it, trying to get rid of it is probably not realistic. We just need to make some room for it and accept that it's part of living. And then we need to use some strategies to figure out whether these things are helpful to us moving forward.

    One of the core techniques is to get this to what they call diffusion or some detachment from that, the story line that you have. There's a whole suite of techniques, some of which sound remarkably silly but they're incredibly effectively. One of them is to, when you think of the story line and you want to write down those thoughts that are giving you a lot of angst, instead of confronting the rationality, you say them back to yourself to the tune of a song, a happy birthday, or you say them in a cartoon voice.

    And you're thinking this is utterly imbecilic. Why would I do this? But what you're trying to do is you're trying to separate the experience. Because when you look I'm not worth it, someone is going to discover me that I don't actually know what I'm doing eventually. When you say that out loud, one, you're getting some detachment because you're now not thinking about it, you're reading them. But even better detachment is if I can look at how it's just a story line and when you sing it you make a silly voice in saying it, it loses its emotive power. That's what you're trying to do. You're trying to disarm the story line.

Christopher:    De-fang it is perhaps a good--

Simon:    Oh, de-fang it, yeah. That's really--

Christopher:    We're got to give a concrete example now. I'll try one. So, something like I am a fat idiot and I'm going to fail. I might as well give up now because I know I'm going to fail. Is that kind of -- it's completely absurd.

Simon:    It feels ridiculous, right. In fact, if you watch some of the Russ Harris, who wrote the book, when he demonstrates this, he does his little Duffy Duck voice. He sings the happy birthday.

Christopher:    It's the Life of Brian.

Simon:    Right. So, you're ridiculing the narrative in your head. That's the point. And when you do that, you see it for what it is rather than just I'm convinced that this is who I am and this is what I can do. Over time, if you do this routinely, you're able to de-fang some of these consistent narratives in your head. It can be remarkably effective.

Christopher:    And he does point out that sometimes it's inappropriate. Let's just say you've lost your husband and it happened yesterday. Singing about it in a silly voice is not going to de-fang that feeling, right?

Simon:    Of course. Really consistent with the philosophy is that the goal here is not to eradicate. It's not to get rid of these unwanted emotions. It's to be able to live side by side with them and not have them control your entire emotional existence, your entire emotional experience of the world. And there are things when they're very fresh or raw that they won't make much of a difference at all.

    But as a general philosophy, if I try in a moving forward what I'm going to try and do is to get some, I'm going to teach myself some skills though I don't always get so attached to the things I tell myself about what's actually true or not, it doesn't matter. It's just not helpful for me to live the life that I want.

Christopher:    Let's think of a couple of examples where it may or may not be helpful. For example, exercise dependence. Maybe I'm self medicating with exercise. Is that helpful or not? How do you help someone decide whether that was a helpful behavior or not?

Simon:    This comes in to how we diagnose exercise dependency. Ultimately, outside of the seven clinical criteria for dependencies, it's really the effects that this is having on your lifestyle. Is it disrupting your relationships? Is it disrupting your body? Are you constantly putting yourself in physical danger or harm by doing this and so on?

    If you're saying my exercise habits are not helpful to my relationship, my exercise habits are not helpful to the longevity and health of my skeletal and muscular system or even my cardiac health then the answers are pointing in pretty much the same direction. But if you're saying this is manageable, my relationships are fundamentally healthy, I've got [0:34:28] [Indiscernible]. I might be training a high volume or that this is a very small period of my life because I'm doing this -- I'm not going to be doing this for chronic exposure for 15 or 20 years. Then the answer might be it is actually helpful at the moment. That's a very individual distinction.

Christopher:    Are there any stresses you can think of that are now pervasive in our lives where the strategy should be just to cull them? I'm thinking about -- I don't want to put words in your mouth but I'm thinking about social media, being constantly connected to other people in a superficial way.


    Especially I'm thinking about children. Before, back in the day, kids were bullied at school and they got stressed out about it but then you went home. And now everyone is connected 24/7 and so people can bully you on an ongoing basis. I mean, that's now a very leading question but can you think of any other examples where there's some stressors in our lives that perhaps we're not well-adapted to and they just almost need to be culled?

Simon:    I think social comparison is a really good one. I know that we don't want to focus only on that but it's an exceptionally potent one.

Christopher:    Constant comparison.

Simon:    It's the constant comparison.

Christopher:    To somebody's highlights reel.

Simon:    Yeah, exactly. Psychologists like to talk about we all do impression management. We try and have an input or curate the opinions that other people have of us and we constantly broadcast information whether it's subconscious or it's deliberate in an attempt to shape what people think of us. Unfortunately, before social media, that was all done on a one on one interpersonal basis. I'm only going to go out of the house when I feel as though I'm physically presentable. I'm not going to have that come out when I'm disheveled.

Christopher:    And even then there's a limit, a hard limit to the number of people that are going to see you.

Simon:    Exactly. The simple exposure to the world is less. With social media, we've been given an opportunity to artificially engineer what the world thinks of us because we can only use some selective disclosure. We only put pictures that portray us in a positive light. And it doesn't have to be as egregious as I'm only going to put pictures where I think I look fantastic. It can be done on a very subtle way.

    An example that we give a lot is that how people -- they used to check in in Facebook, where you're checking in. And I'm at an airport so I'm checking in. I wouldn't usually tell people I'm checking into on a supermarket or I'm down at the YMCA going for a swim but I'm going to check in at the airport. Why? Because the impression management in me is saying, "Listen, everybody, I'm a world traveler. I'm sophisticated."

    This how often happens on a very subtle level. What we do, as humans, our own impression management is that we're social animals and so our first attempt is am I doing, the characteristic traits and abilities I have, what do they mean and are they good? When we try and figure out whether I'm any good at something, whether that's attractiveness, intelligence or athleticism or wits or smarts, we look to the world to see where we sit in that social ladder.

    That's what Facebook and Instagram or Snapchat are doing. Unfortunately, what you're seeing is not reality because everyone is curating their own trophy reel of their lives. We convince ourselves that, "Oh my god, I'm lower on this pecking order than I thought because everybody, this family not only are they all talented and the kids are attractive and they're straight A students, they're also volunteering and they're doing -- They have no problems. And here's me, snot ridden, can barely take care of myself." You don't see that. Where does that leave you? It convinces that I'm not worthy, I don't stack up, and it erodes self-esteem. So, it's a really vicious cycle.

Christopher:    I think you have to be a bit careful. Sometimes I jump to conclusions that are not right. For example, all comparison is bad. As I think you alluded to there, it's not like you can do away with comparisons altogether because that's how we find meaning especially in numbers. 

Simon:    Absolutely, yeah.

Christopher:    I mean, we always go back to the athlete example because that's our background. If you've just achieved a certain wattage for a given period of time, that doesn't mean anything until you compare it to somebody else's numbers.

Simon:    Yeah. We want to know how we're doing. And if you try and stifle that, I often talk about these mean turds, these little images on Facebook, we get the motivational Monday slogan, comparison is the thief of joy, which actually come from a famous book. It's actually not true. It's what we do with that information that might add the thieving quality to it.

    But if you try and, as a basic principle, recommend that you don't compare yourself to others, you're fighting biology. Don't do that. Your brain will bludgeon you until you find a way to compare yourself to. If you think about the most solitary pursuit you can think of, you'll find a way to turn it into a little even a self competition.

    I always give the example of if you ever play pool or play darts, a game that's fun, and you're playing on your own, what do you? You kind of have Words with Friends. You'll assume both sides of a competition. I'm going to play against myself. I'll pretend I'm two players. We want to do this all the time. So, to try and ignore that or to relegate as not important or it's not natural to do is really, I think, more destructive. What we need to do is to be able to get a better sense, to have a better filter of what I'm looking at or what I'm comparing myself to may not actually be a truth or a reality.

Christopher:    You've just made me think about Strava. For people don't know, Strava is a website, an app that cyclists and runners and other athletes can use to compare themselves to other people. That is the core value proposition of Strava.


    The question then becomes what were people doing before Strava? Well, you either have to go to a real race to compare yourself to other people but, of course, that was limited in the number of people who would be in that race so you never really knew how good you were. Or more common, would you compare yourself to yourself?

    Every time I go out, I have to hit a new PR. My ride home from work, I know how long it takes me. If I get these three traffic lights then there's a good chance I can better my time. And you would try and do that every day. And what Strava did was they allowed you to compare yourself to every single person that's ridden that segment before.

    You are not just competing with the people who showed up on that day. You were competing with all the people who had ever ridden that ride. Now, at this point, five years down the road, more than that with Strava now, a lot of people. I used to be in the top ten for some of the big climbs in the Bay Area. I'm not even in the top 100 anymore.

Simon:    Well, Strava, Facebook, it's impression management porn because it enables you -- Strava is a little bit less because it's based at least supposedly on some objective data or performance whereas Facebook isn't.

Christopher:    Right. That's true.

Simon:    That's a whole psychological--

Christopher:    You can't really fiddle the numbers on Strava. You just try really hard.

Simon:    There's a whole psychological literature on how the efforts that we go to, edit messages, pictures on what we post on Facebook to give the perception that we are higher up that social ladder than we actually are in whatever capacity. Strava is interesting. Zwift is another one. I don't know if you've heard of Zwift.

Christopher:    I know what it is. I've never done it.

Simon:    It's an online virtual racing on a bike when you're doing stationary trainer. You can connect to a bigger Peloton, and everyone is racing each other but virtually. Of course, what we know with Strava and with Zwift is that people cheat because there's a way that you can. How do you cheat? You're either going that speed or you're not or you're putting out that many watts or not. But some of the metrics that we use on Zwift, for example, are based on watts per kilograms.

    If you look at the people who are winning some of the races on, some of the Zwift races and you do the -- it's partly based on your body mass and how much watt you're putting out from your stationary trainer telling you how you're doing, to be able to do what they've done in this virtual race, they have to have a power to weight ratio that smashes any Tour de France winner of all time. I don't believe those people are actually out there.

    They're clearly entering their body weight as a lot less and cheating it. The same with Strava. The fact that are you on your bike or are you on a scooter when you're going up--

Christopher:    This guy was in a car when he went up there.

Simon:    Yeah. There's ways of cheating that quite easily and that will happen. Whenever there's an opportunity for impression management, there will be a way and there's a way to engineer your way up that hierarchy, people are going to do it.

Christopher:    Right. Can you think of any other things that really just need to be culled from our environment as stressors rather than coming up with a coping strategy, you just need to get rid of it? You mentioned food. I'll go into a deeper conversation on diet choices with Dr. Tommy Wood in a future episode. But for now, let's say that it's coming in a crinkly packet or a box then I consider that to be a stressor to which we're not well-adapted and our coping strategy is probably not appropriate. We're talking about white flour and sugar here in particular.

    And then also sleep deprivation, I think, is another one. Again, we'll go into that in depth in a future episode. That's not a stressor that I think humans are well-adapted to. Everything is going to seem more stressful the day after a night of terrible sleep. Wouldn't you agree?

Simon:    Absolutely. There's an underlying philosophy here. Should I be putting anything behind that bright line and saying don't touch that, don't have that? There's some psychology for when it comes to eating, the moment that we make things forbidden -- not just eating. The moment that we make things--

Christopher:    The forbidden fruit.

Simon:    Yes, it becomes, it occupies more and more of our cognition and our emotion and we actually may be counterproductive. The moderation message actually ties in far better to this approach than the abstinence. Do you have the coping skills, task and emotion to be able to live in a life of having moderation? That's the challenge. Now, some people, they need to have abstinence and there are some substances that are so destructive or they just -- they open a can of worms that abstinence is really the only thing that you can use to get through it whether that's substance abuse and so on.

    But for most things that aren't immediately toxic to you, I still think that developing skills, task and emotion focused skills, to be able to lead a life of moderation. That's probably going to be more sensible.

Christopher:    And that's going to be very individual, person by person. For me, the things that are totally toxic are not going to necessarily be the thing for the next person.

Simon:    Absolutely.

Christopher:    Okay. So, maybe that's a good place to wrap up this episode. Do you maybe want to summarize some of the things that people should be thinking about to cope with stress better? We talked about guided meditation--

Simon:    Guided meditation. Well, the first step is to do a little stress management audit of your own skill. Write down the things that you currently do, good or bad, that help you manage stress. 


    And that list, don't be embarrassed about writing that you're hitting the sugar at 7 o'clock at night or whatever happens to be, having drinking than you should. It's not about whether that's good or bad at the moment. It's to say let's look at what strategies we currently use. And then we start to put them into these categories of [0:45:18] [Indiscernible]. And then you look at where, which list is both have things that are not ultimately maladaptive. They're not helping you in the long run by binge eating or mostly eating or drinking too much or so on. And then how do we make sure that we've got a nice compliment of the other bucket of skills depending on what you're doing? That's the first step.

Christopher:    Okay. All right. First step then. Simon, could I ask you? Could you create a list of the things that you have? Do the audit. Do the exercise yourself and then post it on the forum.

Simon:    Absolutely, yeah.

Christopher:    And then if you come to and find that thread, I'll make it easy for you. I think there's going to be some show notes for this episode. I'll link it there. But if you poke around on, I'm sure you'll find it. And then, of course, accountability. That's what we're doing right now with meditation. I think that can be really helpful if you're not already doing that.

    That first step, let's do the audit and then I'll do the same. I want to see an example of what it looks like and then I'll be very honest about what my audit. I'll post that too. And then let's see if we can get some people listening to this to do the same and see how balanced our list is. Do we have things on both sides?

Simon:    And the next step is, okay, how do I improve my ability to manage stress by now knowing what I currently do?

Christopher:    Right. That's been awesome. Okay, thanks so much, Simon. I really appreciate you. And thank you, all the listeners, for being our patrons. We really appreciate it. Thank you.

[0:46:38]    End of Audio 

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