Stress is, if not one of the main reasons people come to coaching, certainly something that comes up with almost every client. I once heard the amazing (and now deceased) Dr. Paul Pearsall talk about having a balanced, healthy unstressed heart. His conclusion — it is perhaps impossible in today’s world unless you live on a remote South Sea island.
In neuroscience geek world, we use the term “emotional regulation” for what is basically, the ability to deal with stress. And as I read through the literature, it dawned on me that this is a huge amount of what we do with our clients. We help them not only “emotionally regulate” in the moment of our conversation, but we also help them build skills for more competency in this area. In order words, we help them become more resilient and capable in the face of day to day life.
So let me walk you through what neuroscience seems to show are the most effective tools for dealing with stress, and how we most typically do this through coaching. In order of effectiveness, we have:
#0. Suppression – actively push feelings aside, pretend, “never let them see you sweat.” This one is not effective. At all. When people do this, they not only raise their own blood pressure, they raise the blood pressure of those around them. Don’t do it. All together now: “Suppress Suppression!” 🙂
#1. Naming the emotion. As coaches, this is often how we start when someone is dealing with an emotional challenge — we ask, “What’s going on?” We reflect what we are hearing, often teasing out deeper understanding for the client. The challenge of this strategy (as anyone who has worked with human beings for any length of time knows) is that people often don’t know what they are feeling. As coaches, we help them understand and name through metaphor, by using our own intuition, through body sensations, and basically, any tool we have. Over time, we help people develop competence in this area so that they have more words and understanding of the vague sensations within (I’ll talk about this more when I get to Right Brain/Left Brain).
I want to note that simple naming is far different that what I call “ramping it up,” which is what tends to happen in more day to day conversations, as our friends chime in with their own outrage. “He did that? Really?? You must be so mad!” etc. As coaches, we may allow a bit of venting, but then we redirect to more helpful strategies. I didn’t even put ramping it up on this list because it is faaaarrrrrr below suppression — when we indulge in this sort of dialogue we re-experience the emotion and create an even stronger neural pathway for pain and negativity — see my blog post How Coaching Changes the Brain for more on neural pathways.
Oh, and according to the research, it’s the most effective when you have people write down how they are feeling. A great “off the call” tool to teach our clients.
#2. Controlling the environment so as not to encounter stressor. Interestingly, this may sound bad at first, but it is actually quite effective if you can do it. And we help our clients do this all the time. For example, we might explore options with them to get rid of a 60-minute commute. Or help them see they can make boundaries with an in-law. As coaches, many of us (myself included) have designed our lives for a more peaceful experience. I dislike office environments with fluorescent lights and people asking me for things all day long. So I am a coach and trainer, I often work at home in my pajamas while hanging out with my cats, voila, stressor controlled.
The reason I have this near the bottom of the list when it actually works so well (and some scientists argue is actually the most effective strategy) is that relying on control is probably a losing proposition. We simply can’t (and shouldn’t try) to control everything and everyone so as not to bug us. And the feeling of needing to be in control when you can’t be actually causes more stress. Still, it works great when you can do it.
#3. Values and Purpose – Focusing on personal values and purpose can be a powerful way to shift focus, engage the higher brain, and of course, reduce stress. When we ask a client questions like “What is really important to you in this situation?” Or “What values do you want to honor?” Or even, “what values are NOT being honored here?” they often need to pause to consider. In other words, they can’t answer in an automatic way, but must recruit additional brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex in order to thoughtfully answer the question. This tends to help the brain produce GABA, a factor in reducing stress.
#4. Reframing – finding an empowering way to look at the issue. Yes! A classic tool of coaching, which I have found in pretty much every coaching school. At CTI we call it Balance Coaching and it is highly effective at moving people from a place they are stuck, and often stressed, to a place where they begin to see they have options and choices. The act of reframing (also known as taking a new perspective or reappraisal) also invites the pre-frontal cortex to the party, calming down our stress responses (see Values, above).
#5. Mindfulness – meditation, being present to body sensations, focusing on gratitude/love. The number one, hands down, most effective solution to any neuroscience challenge. Stress, creativity, improving memory, being more emotionally intelligent, I kid you not. In my neuroscience class, we now just wait for it. “And new studies of meditating monks have shown….” again and again.
As coaches, I believe we absolutely help our clients become more “mindful.” Even just a good coaching conversation brings people present into the moment and makes them pay attention to what is going on, rather than putting their attention on regrets from the past or worries about the future. At CTI we have a particular tool we call Process coaching, where we take our clients deep into what they are experiencing, right here, right now. It can be almost like a guided meditation in dialogue, as we walk with them through a metaphor, or help them put their body sensations into words. It’s powerful, and can release old patterns and issues that have been stuck for years, simply by helping people be present.
While any one of these strategies is scientifically shown to reduce stress, we have found that doing them in order is particularly helpful. It seems to be that each one can help bring the brain to a state where it is ready for the next step.