It’s a Saturday evening and an instruction has gone out on the family WhatsApp for everyone to be home by 6 p.m. “cos we’re going out”. It’s not an unusual scenario, the kids and I left wondering what’s going on – my wife keeping us in the dark so that we can’t back out… It’s not until we are on the MRT that we discover that we are heading to a cozy theatre in the heart of Singapore for a Playback Theatre.
If you have never heard of Playback Theatre, it’s worth checking out. It’s a form of improvisation where the audience tell stories from their own lives and watch them enacted by a troop of players. It’s a very simple format – a volunteer is called for and is invited to a seat at the side of the stage together with the Playback Conductor. The players, usually four or five of them, stand respectfully and quietly on the other side of the stage and listen intently. The volunteer tells their story, the Conductor asks carefully craft open questions to draw the story out to give the players enough material to work with. Once the story is told the volunteer is asked to select which players they would like to play the characters in their story. The Conductor then initiates the action with the words “let’s watch” and the players begin.
It’s fascinating to watch but it quickly becomes apparent that this is not entertainment. It is something else, something quite different, something cathartic. The stories being told are deeply personal – one person is being bullied at school, another is living with parents who fight constantly, we are hearing and watching stories of abuse, betrayal, fear, shame, and confusion… it’s incredibly emotionally charged, there are tears, there is laughter, there is naked humanity. People are being heard, seen and held with empathy, kindness, compassion and without judgment. It is a rare and beautiful gift that feels like a collective hug.
On the surface, the idea of standing in front of a room full of strangers and telling a deeply personal story sounds awful but the reality is really very different – there is real healing in this process. In his book, “The World is made of Stories”, David Loy tells us that stories are the lens through which we make sense of our world. Everything has a story – from the straw in my cup to the death of my father. Our stories define who we are and what we are to do. We mark ourselves by our stories and get locked in.
David Loy says in his preface “we do not see our stores as stories because we see through them: the world we experience as reality is constructed with them”. If we fail to recognize them or fail to give them a voice, they get stuck and play over and over like a broken record or an open wound – never moving, never healing. It is through the telling and the hearing that we bring our stories into the light and break their spell - robbing them of their power and enabling ourselves to carry forward. We have a deep need to be seen and to be heard but rarely are, and we carry the weight of our stories in our hearts. Playback is one welcome forum to help us lighten our load. What stories do you have to tell?
You won't be surprised that the issue I come across most often in my coaching is stress. We all have it, it’s a natural part of life and our ability to recognize and deal with it is an important life skill. But if its left unchecked it builds, feeds on itself, and can have a devastating impact on our health and well-being. So what are the signs that your stress level is getting the better of you and what can you do to get it back under control.
We kind of know when we are stressed, we can feel it – it hums away in the background of our life but by and large we are able to cope and may even use it to push ourselves to get stuff done. But if we get to the point where we can't sleep, we are eating too much or too little, are experiencing panic attacks or are grumpy to the point where it's really damaging our closest relationships – then maybe it's time to take action... and sooner rather than later. Here are ten simple things that you can do right now to help combat stress:
Ten Tips for Combating Stress
1. Skip the coffee.
If you are suffering from stress, think about reducing the amount of caffeine you are consuming. Caffeine really won't help and could be making things worse. Research conducted by the Mayo Clinic concluded that as little as 500-600 mg a day (that's about 2 to 3 cups of coffee) can lead to insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, irritability, stomach upset, a fast heartbeat and muscle tremors… that's quite a list! Bring the intake down... and remember, there's pretty much as much caffeine in tea as there is in coffee so switching from one to the other doesn't help. Caffeine is also an addictive psychoactive drug and can be uncomfortable to give up so if you decide to stop, you may want to come off it slowly to avoid the aches and pains.
2. Cut out the snacks.
Snacks and junk food are full of sugar, salt, and fat which is why we love them! This is great for perking us up when we need a boost and an easy thing to reach out for but there is of course – a but… The short-term effect on blood sugar means we actually end up feeling more fatigued and in the long run, the additional empty calories can make us fat. This stuff has also been linked to an array of diseases affecting the liver, heart, kidneys… not good! Watch what you are eating, it makes a real difference to how you are feeling. When you get the munchies at work, go for fruit and nuts. Buy some on your way in and have it at the ready.
3. Keep on moving.
We all know that exercise is one of the best ways to deal with stress. The Anxiety and Depression Associated of America tell us that regular participation in aerobic exercise produces endorphins (that make us feel good), helps decrease overall levels of tension, elevates and stabilizes mood, improves sleep and has a beneficial impact on self-esteem. But exercise takes time and if you're stressed because you're busy, that feels like a difficult circle to square.
Don't worry – the Mayo Clinic suggests we shoot for about 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week – preferably a combination of both. That's only 20 minutes a day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk to the store instead of taking the car, cycle to the park – find ways to fit movement into your day.
4. Go to bed!
I remember having way too much to do every day and nowhere near enough time to do it – so my solution was to sleep less. I managed to train myself to be good on five hours a night – problem solved. Big mistake… Tony Schwartz sites an overwhelming body of evidence in his book "The Way We Are Working Isn't Working" that less than seven-hour of sleep lowers immune response, diminishes blood sugar regulation, creates high levels of cortisol (a risk factor for high blood pressure), reduces leptin production (which leaves us prone to weight gain) and negatively impacts memory, attention, and speed of thinking. It also makes us grumpy… Arrange your day to ensure that you get seven to eight hours sleep every night. Sleep will help you combat your stress and probably live longer.
5. Find support.
Some folks tend to suffer in silence, forging ahead with a stiff upper lip and not wanting to talk. It could be the case that your stress is getting you off balance and grouchy and inadvertently pushing people away – we tend to give grouchy people a wide birth. Either way, this can be a problem as it not only does nothing to address the issue, not being heard, understood or supported can be making it much worse. The Mayo Clinic suggests that a strong support network goes a long way toward improving our ability to cope with stress and alleviate emotional distress.
Think about your friends, family, and colleagues and figure out who you can talk to – someone who will listen and won't judge. If there is no one out there - and it can be difficult to open up to those closest to us - consider engaging a coach. A coach will listen, won't judge and will help you figure out where to focus and how to create self-awareness and change.
6. Say no.
Some years ago I was getting particularly overwhelmed and stressed at work and it was getting me down. My boss at the time, one of the best I've had, could see what was going on. I was saying yes to every request that came my way – being too nice, taking on too much and not being very smart! He told me that I needed to say ‘no' more and he held me to it. We worked together to ensure my priorities were clear and whenever anyone asked me to do something that was not aligned with those priorities, I said no – and my boss backed me. It went a long way to settle me down.
Try to find the root of your stress – are you taking too much on? Stuff that really shouldn't be on your plate. If so, why? Could you say ‘no' more? I'd recommend having a chat with your boss – if you're going to say ‘no', make sure they have your back.
7. Technology… Be organized
Technology is increasingly coming up in my coaching conversation as a stressor for people – it can be a real problem. With our technology in our hands all the time, the temptation to be constantly checking email, WhatsApp, LinkedIn… is overwhelming. It's the problem of our times.
We spend so much time on email that we are in danger of not get anything done and the more email we send the more we receive. We feel that we must respond to everything immediately and get anxious when we can't. Being constantly connected robs us of our downtime and distracts us from our friends and family – this is crucial time that we need to recharge and connect.
If technology is a problem for you, try checking email twice a day at set times and let people know that's what you are doing – put it in the email footer. The world will not stop turning. Leave your phone on your desk when you go to lunch. Read a book on the train instead of social media. Charge your phone in another room at night. Take a break from it whenever you can.
8. Clear your mental desk
When our minds are cluttered and there's stuff out there that we know we have not complete yet – and its pilling up – it's a real drain on our mental energy and generates stress. Writing lists is a great way to take the clutter out of our mind and to put it down on paper for safekeeping – where we won't forget about it. It frees our mental space for other things.
Taking this a step further, try writing down everything that is on your mind – it could be a quite a long list. Then go over the list and cross out anything that you have no control over or can do nothing about – literally strike it out, mentally throw it away. This removes the clutter from your mental desk. You can then prioritize the other items and then the most important part, take action – get it done.
9. Connect with nature
This is a really simple and effective way of bringing down your stress level and it's an option that's available to pretty much everyone, everywhere – even when we are on the road. Get out into the great outdoors. This can be as simple or as hard as you like. You can scale the Alps, trek across the Andes or take a walk in your local neighborhood park – the effect is the same. The important thing is to be in nature.
The University of Minnesota puts it beautifully on their wellness page when it says "being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear and stress and increases pleasant feelings." Being in nature eases muscle tension and reduces heart rate, blood pressure and production of stress hormones. The natural light helps to realign our sleep patterns, the exercise releases endorphins and it gives us the chance to unplug from our technology. Maybe consider doing that next round of performance reviews in the park.
10. Learn to Meditate
I learned to meditate when I was 16 and have been studying and teaching Buddhist meditation for the last thirteen years and I'm a huge fan. Even sitting for just 10 minutes a day will create a sense of calm, space and balance. You can think of it as taking a well-earned break from your stress and mental craziness – every day. WebMD says meditation can help you control stress, decrease anxiety, improve cardiovascular health, and achieve a greater capacity for relaxation – I can contest to that! There are lots of meditation classes out there and some great meditation apps so what are you waiting for – learn to meditate!
So what will you do?
So what is your current level of stress and what are you going to do about it. Scan through the list and choose one, two or maybe three areas that you are going to work on – keep it simple, don't choose too many. Once you have made some progress, you can always come back and choose a few more.
I hope this is helpful for you and Good Luck!