‘Modern man’ is afflicted with an almost constant source of stress in their daily lives. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is predicting that ‘stress’ will be the biggest ‘killer’ this Century and in the UK it is estimated that stress is the greatest cause of absenteeism in the workplace.
Thousands of years ago ‘man’ was used to a very different way of life; his brain was hard-wired to deal with infrequent, but sudden, extreme situations where stress was generated as the ‘by-product’ of the survival functions of flight or fight; the inevitable consequence of having to take action in adverse or demanding circumstances. Notwithstanding this, normal and routine tasks were given little thought and considered only ‘in the moment’ thereby not anticipating or fearing a situation where stress might be generated.
Today, the hard-wired brain that experienced extreme stress as a consequence of imminent danger in the past, still persists. However, the knowledge now used to formulate the learned instructions that trigger the chemical reaction preparing the body to respond to danger, are seldom informed by instances as extreme as our forebears had to face. Instead today’s ‘imminent danger’ is informed by a constant source of pressure, frustrations and thoughts of inadequacies that create that “stored knowledge” and become the default trigger for the chemical reaction resulting in stress. Conversely, our ancestors paid little attention to these relatively routine ‘stressors’ since they weren’t life threatening.
These modern-day “adverse or demanding circumstances” are brought about, in part by the plethora of tasks we now have the ability to carry out; something that has increased exponentially over past decades, frequently enabled by rapid advances in technology. Add this to man’s inherited ‘herd instinct’ that encourages people not to be singled out and so, by default, comply with the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Furthermore, Michael Formica in ‘Psychology Today’ suggests that, “The brain was never designed to think of more than one thing at a time …..contrary to popular belief, human beings cannot multitask. What we are capable of is handling a number of serial tasks in rapid succession, or mixing automatic tasks with those that are not so automatic. That’s one of the reasons that the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB a US government investigative agency responsible for civil transport accident investigation) reports that texting while driving is the functional equivalent of driving with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit. You just can’t effectively attend to two things at once – even the superficially automatic ones.”
Research now concludes that with the ever-increasing number of tasks required of us, the stress induced, reduces our ability to focus on any one thing at a time. Michael Formica continues, “The first thing we need to recognize is that, try as we might, we really can only do one thing at a time, so we ought to do that thing wholeheartedly. Most of our time is spent in the past or the future, rather than the present moment. What we end up doing is passing through that moment on the way to somewhere else and, in doing so, we miss the moment. That’s how life ends up passing us by – we do it to ourselves.”
Meditation has been part of Buddhist teachings for generations: used as a practice where an individual focuses his or her mind on a particular object, thought or activity to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state. Now scientific research has confirmed the benefits of “Mindfulness”. Indeed the UK National Health Service (NHS) recognises “Mindfulness” as a very practical and effective therapy for reducing stress following the development by Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Therapy (MBSR). The plethora of evidence from modern cognitive psychology and neuroscience point out the positive effect of meditation on the brain and our ability to focus with a purpose.
Willie Horton, a Coaching Psychologist argues in a recent paper that focus is the key to being Mindful. He further suggests that unless we are ‘Mindful’ we are ‘Mindless’. When we are being bombarded constantly with ‘low level’ stressors we adopt the default state of mind; one of mindlessness, a lack of focus resulting in a cycle of events which often leads to illness and death.
In his paper, he asserts that if we can learn to focus we enable ourselves to be ‘mindful for a purpose’; something greater than simply a stress reducer; more a state of mind that enables greater and more effective achievement, much like a sprinter before a race focuses on the job in hand blocking out extraneous matters that get in the way. Once the race is over the focus can shift to the next important matter.
It is interesting to note that many people in positions regarded as ‘highly stressful’ do not succumb to stress related illnesses in the same way as those who simply live ‘stressful lives’. It may be argued that this is because these people have adopted our ancestors’ behaviour of being more ‘in the moment’ for routine tasks while retaining the ability to respond to situations that require the proper chemical trigger to deal with a difficult ‘highly stressful’ situation for a short period of time.
Willie Horton suggests that there is a need for leaders everywhere learn how to properly focus though Mindfulness-Leadership Development, because if you can focus, all other matters become clearer and more manageable. The responsibility for ensuring this happens is the Coach !