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  • Writer's pictureHugo Menard

Stress: what you don’t know

We all understand what stress is at a basic level. But you’re likely missing information that can make a big difference in how you manage stress for yourself, and how you lead others through stressful times. This lack of information is hurting many of us without our knowing it. The following insights are drawn from the work of Dr Gabor Maté who has written and spoken on how stress can be hidden, and affect us in much greater ways than we often imagine.

What even is stress?

Stress is not simply a subjective frenzied feeling. It is in fact measurable whether you’re conscious of being stressed or not. These are objective measurements that can be seen in the body, hormones, immune system, brain and many other organs. This objective stress can occur in situations we might not consider “stressful”. Fore example: having to adjust ourselves around other people or staying quiet when we should speak up, can induce stress. Over time, these little stresses accumulate and compound to have much bigger effects. And because it happens slowly, over long periods of time, we often don’t notice it.

The feeling of nervous tension can be a part of stress, but you can experience stress without nervous tension. You can also have nervous tension without being stressed. Surprisingly, stress reactions can be produced in people who are under anaesthesia and unconscious. They can be produced in cell cultures that are outside of the body. In fact, stress reactions have even occurred in plants (they don’t even have a nervous system!).

One of the most common responses that we develop after encountering the insane levels of stress in the modern world, is shutting down or blocking it out. We essentially numb ourselves to it. While this means we don’t feel it subjectively (or at least not as much), it’s still happening objectively. Shutting things out can mean we end up having unmet needs. For example, shutting out a social life means you’ll have social needs that aren’t met. These unmet needs carry their own stress. So in effect, the act of protection (shutting it out) seems to cause more damage. Suppression causes stress.

Maté writes that “Stress consists of the internal alterations—visible or not—that occur when the organism perceives a threat to its existence or well-being.”

The three components of stress

Understanding how we experience stress can help us manage it better. Here are the three components:

  1. The event: this is the real, outer world thing that happens. It’s the car coming towards us, the boss or client yelling at us, the never ending emails that need to be attended to in less time than we have.

  2. The processing system: for humans this is the nervous system, and more specifically the brain. We interpret the event, we make a meaning out of it.

  3. The stress response: this is our reaction, both what is seen (eg: jumping out of the way), and what is unseen (eg: changes in hormones and brain function).

The second component shown above is an area where we have more control and a greater ability to adapt than we think. This is where much of our stress comes from. For example, imagine a young man named Tom who is the sole breadwinner for his family of four, and living paycheck to paycheck. The loss of his job would likely be devastating and highly stressful.

But if Michael, an older executive who is about to retire, has a good portfolio and substantial savings, is given a golden handshake, he may experience very little stress.

However, it’s not always that obvious. Michael may have his self esteem tightly wrapped up with his position. Whereas Tom may see the loss of a job as an opportunity to make an exciting career change.

This shows that the causes of stress are subjective. There is no single event that will inherently cause stress in all human beings. We all have our own unique past experiences. This shapes how we see the world today, which determines what we find stressful.

Though obviously, many of us have some very similar stressors. A loud and unexpected noise would make most people jump. But even things like an oncoming car would create a different response between someone looking forward to the weekend, and someone wanting to commit suicide. For the later, the realisation that they are about to get hit could be a source of relief rather than stress.

Although no external event is universal in causing stress, the research literature shows there are three perceptions that universally cause stress. They are:

  1. Uncertainty

  2. Lack of information

  3. Loss of control

This is useful information to help you and your team work more effectively. Seeing as the research strongly suggests that stress causes poor performance, it would be wise to minimise these three factors. Here are some questions that might be helpful for you to consider:

  • What are some ways that you can provide more certainty or remove uncertainty for your team members and/or yourself?

  • What are some ways you and your team might be able to deal with uncertainty?

  • Could you provide your team with more information?

  • Would gathering more information about how to complete a project be beneficial when compared to the time it would take to get it done? This could be something to experiment with.

  • Is there a way that you could give your team more control?

Keep in mind that this is not the only point of view. For example, uncertainty can help the creative process, to think outside the box. Nevertheless, with this deeper understanding of stress, you can see why simply trying to “get on with things”, “rise above the situation” or “putting the problem to rest in the past” doesn’t truly work. You can fool yourself at the conscious level, but that won’t affect the real, biological reality of stress.

The importance of boundaries

It’s not uncommon to think of boundaries as things that are only needed for weak, insecure people. We often want to be the person who can handle anything, the person who isn’t bothered by the little things, the person who is always there and never falls. Yet research shows that if you don’t have clear boundaries you will live with stress. A lack of boundaries causes stress. And ironically, this stress will make you weaker, not stronger.

The overarching idea throughout Maté’s book is that if we say “yes” to everything, if we take on more than we can handle, if we never learn to say “no”, if we don’t speak up when we need to, if we avoid setting boundaries… our bodies may end up saying “no” for us. This, he shows, can take the form of disease which forces a person to say “no”. After all, if you have a disease and aren’t allowed to work for more than a certain number of hours (on doctors orders or because you physically can’t), you have to say “no” to taking on that extra workload - work that you otherwise might have taken on despite feeling resentful, due to an inability to say “no”.

If we keep saying “yes” when we don’t want to, this often means we’re repressing parts of ourselves. We repress our resentment, our anger and the self care that our bodies ask for. Repression is a major cause of stress and significantly contributes to illness. Yet if we continue to always say “yes”, if we continue to have our needs unmet, we eventually no longer experience it consciously as stressful. “Stressed” ends up feeling “normal”. Thus, we work in such a way that stress erodes our health and we’re not even aware of it.

It’s often uncomfortable saying “no”. We would much rather acquiesce and not face the tension that might come up from putting up a boundary. But if you understand the importance of boundaries, it may make things a little easier, and may put things into perspective. From a health perspective (which is also good for your performance and productivity at work), it is better to choose guilt than resentment. Ie: it is better to feel guilty for not taking something on, than to feel resentment for taking on more than you can handle or want to handle.

The importance of emotional competence

What to do about all this stress? Maté writes that developing emotional competence is key. This is essentially being able to deal with our emotions in a way that is helpful (rather than the common tactic of shutting them out and causing undue stress by doing so). The elements of emotional competence included:

  • The capacity to feel emotions. That way we can know when we are experiencing stress. If you’re not aware of when you’re distressed, there isn’t much you can do about it.

  • The ability to express emotions effectively. This helps us set boundaries, and neither repress emotions (causing stress), nor flaring up (causing unnecessary problems).

  • The ability to distinguish between reactions that are appropriate to the present situation, and those that are coming from unresolved things that happened in our past. Otherwise we will see things inaccurately. We will perceive threat and loss when there is no threat and no loss.

You can change your perceptions

Seeing as the majority of the stress we experience comes from our perceptions, it is an extraordinarily powerful thing to change those perceptions. Specifically, to change them at the subconscious level - because even if you’re able to change how you see things consciously, the stress that’s below the surface, that’s happening at the subconscious level, that’s present in your nervous system and your body as a whole, will affect you negatively.

This is where the majority of the work I do comes into play. It’s removing the stress that continues to affect us today, and changing subconscious perceptions (ie: beliefs). As you remove the accumulated stress in your body, you’re better able to respond appropriately rather than being triggered. As you change your perceptions, you’re setting yourself up to succeed.

We can’t always control everything that happens externally. Nor are we likely to become so enlightened that nothing causes a disturbance within us. But we can work at it and get better at it, so that we can do a better job, have more enjoyment, and be better prepared for when the worst day of our life comes around.


When the body says no: the cost of hidden stress by Gabor Maté

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

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