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Changing your thinking about stress: a conversation with Dr. Bill Howatt (part 3 / 6)

Published on April, 12th 2018
By Greg Wells

This Q&A was adapted from my podcast conversation with Dr. Bill Howatt that aired on March 8th, 2018. You can listen to the interview here: As Chief Research and Development Officer at Morneau Shepell, Bill is an internationally recognized expert in mental health who has spent 25 years helping employees, patients and leaders achieve their potential. Bill has a PhD in Organizational Psychology, did post-doctoral training at UCLA, has developed programs with organizations like the Conference Board of Canada and the University of New Brunswick, and is author of numerous books and articles, including regular contributions to The Globe and Mail.

Dr. Greg Wells: Bill, I am often asked about strategies for coping with stress. You have a unique way of seeing stress that turns conventional thinking on its head. Can you tell us about it?

Dr. Bill Howatt: Lots of folks see stress as a bad thing. In reality, there are two types, stress and distress, which are two related but different states. In general, I see stress as positive and distress as problematic.

I try to point out to folks that they experience stress when there is a difference between what they want and what they have. When that happens, there are really two ways you are going to deal with it. One is to take a problem-focused approach and say, “Okay. There is a difference between what I want and what I have. This is a problem. This is a challenge. This is a stressor. I just need to lean into it and deal with it.”

The other direction you can go is to feel so overwhelmed that you shut down and end up moving into coping exclusively from emotion, where you can get stuck. The longer you stay in emotional coping, the more you start to move away from good stress into distress. At that point, people tend to gravitate toward anxiety and either start to speed up and feel more anxious or shut down and feel depressed, sad, and blue. Both of those states are a reaction to getting stuck. Even when the effects of stress have really built up for someone, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a mental health issue or a mental illness. It just means they are under pressure and this is how they are coping.

GW: What happens for people when the stress isn’t alleviated?

BH: Good question. What happens when the stress has frequency, duration, and intensity? The longer you feel overwhelmed and can’t process the emotions, the more your mental health is at risk. What you are dealing with might not be overwhelming on a particular day, but it can accumulate and become chronic. So if you wake up every day and aren’t paying attention to it, you can start to get into distress.

GW: Tell us about that shift.

BH: Think about it this way: people don’t suddenly go from a 36-inch waist to a 44-inch waist. What happens is that they slowly normalize behaviours that contribute to their weight gain. Without realizing it, they end up in a situation where their doctor is saying they have metabolic syndrome or risk for cardiovascular disease or Type 2 diabetes. It happened through small daily changes.

From a neuroplasticity perspective, it happens the same way with stress. We can reset our norms every day. As the stress starts to accumulate, it starts to impact our physiology. For example, if you’re under a lot of stress, it increases your cortisol levels. You live in a heightened state of fight or flight response, which grows a little bit every day. Eventually, it starts suppressing your immune system. That’s the stress trap that people can get caught in.

GW: Your approach to coping with stress is really about changing how we think about it.

BH: The biggest thing I try to let people know is that stress is not their enemy. You just need to work at paying attention to when you are under stress and knowing when you are stuck in emotional coping, so you can acknowledge that you don’t know how to find relief.

I try to teach people three simple steps. First, try to resolve it yourself. If that doesn’t work, talk to a trusted friend. Then, if you are still stuck, step three is to talk to someone who knows how to help people get out of coping from emotions.

GW: I have really noticed that stress is chronically elevated in most people. They haven’t figured out how, or aren’t giving themselves permission, to take a break and unplug, downshift, and activate the parasympathetic nervous system by meditating, connecting with family or walking without their phone. I really feel that’s a huge challenge that people are faced with. We just don’t give ourselves an opportunity to recover and regenerate between periods of stress.

BH: True. What I would add is that what you are saying relies on the presupposition that a person is aware they are under stress. One of the biggest barriers for people in addressing mental health issues is a lack of awareness that they are actually experiencing them. They just normalize feeling stressed. They become comfortable being uncomfortable. Being able to realize that you are under stress is a critical ability.