Managing stress and change – controlling the controllables

Stress affects us more than we might think. The American Institute of Stress recently reported that over 80% of workers feel stressed at work at some time, so understanding what stress is is important. Stress occurs when the demands of a situation exceed your perceived ability to deal with them. The more that we perceive we can control, the less stressed we feel. Today’s podcast is about managing stress and change and controlling the controllables, so that you can stay on top of stress and stay at your best.



My name’s Dr Paul Brewerton, the strengths guy. I podcast at the start of each week to tee you up for your week ahead, giving you strengths-based tips, thoughts and ideas that will help you get the best from work and from life. So let’s get to today’s topic of managing stress.

What is stress?

One of the earliest definitions of stress as a psychological phenomenon comes from Hans Selye, from around a century ago, describing stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. Stress is highly subjective. What’s seen as stressful for one person, is going to be exciting for another. So when we’re facing any kind of change or unusual event, it’s good to recognise that whatever we’re experiencing may not be the same for everyone around us.

It’s also important to know that good stress – what is sometimes called ‘eustress’ – is necessary for us to perform at our best.

Stress is positive when you feel stimulated and able to manage a situation. This positive response prepares the body for action and activates the higher thinking centres of the brain. A positive response to stress can provide the energy to handle adversity, meet challenges, and excel.

Stress is negative when you feel threatened and NOT in control of a situation. These feelings instigate a powerful reaction – affecting both the brain and body in ways that can be destructive to physical and mental health. Incidents of stress-related illnesses are rising globally – examples include heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, Alzheimer’s – in fact, The American Institute of Stress has found that over 70% of healthcare visits in the US are due to stress related conditions.

A reflection question here for you then is: What can you do to take more control over any negative stress you experience in your life to turn it to positive stress? Examples might include: identifying your strengths and then using these more of the time to build a greater sense of confidence or control; getting support or help from other people; exercising; eating well; or maybe delegating to other people if workload is an issue. I’ll come on to more tips in a little bit.

Before I do, I’d like to share with you a few words and thoughts about managing stress in times of change, many of them taken from the great Brene Brown – check her out if you haven’t already. In short, most things Brene says or writes are worth paying attention to. These particular thoughts have been paraphrased by one of my colleagues at Strengthscope, Paul Mehra, as a handy ‘how to navigate the right now’ summary:

Firstly, in a change situation, it is ok not to have a clue what to do.

Or how to react. It is ok to be scared, and uncertain or intrigued, or curious. What is important is that you name and own what you are feeling and recognise that it is ‘normal’ to be like this in a change situation, and to understand that you have what it takes to survive and come out the other side with new information, new learning and skills, and be stronger. And with any change once you normalise it, name it, recognise it for what it is, you have the power then to work with it and use it to your advantage.

Secondly, try to see the current situation in perspective.

Things won’t be like this forever. There will be more change and however you are feeling and reacting at the moment does not have to be a permanent state – you may be deep in it at the moment but you can move through it and get through it. And again, it is ok to make mistakes as you try to deal with it, and to feel a whole range of emotions, but you have the capability to get through, to rise above.

Thirdly we are in it but we are all in it.

It’s a good idea to share thoughts and feelings and ideas with other people and support each other, and listen to each other.

Controlling the controllables

Now let’s move on to considering more about controlling what you CAN control – this is the 50% rule. We typically can control 50% of a situation. Factors that are outside our control include market trends, technological developments, decisions made by senior leaders, company reorganisations, traffic jams, other people being ill, major global events with macro-economic impact, that kind of thing.

Whenever you exercise control over what you CAN control – be it a thought, your breathing, choosing your words carefully or making more time for what you need, you literally change what is happening in your brain and body – in simplistic terms, you are bringing in more safety and calm that allows you to access higher thinking and problem solving in your Neocortex, the information processing centre of your brain.

Dr Sharon Melnick talks about the importance of being ‘impeccable in your 50%’ – therefore, attempt to control only what you can control but take 100% responsibility for it

A useful way of using control to reduce stress is to remember CIA – Control, Influence and Accept.

  • Control what you CAN control (and only what you can control);
  • when you can’t control it, raise your self-esteem to best Influence others;
  • and Accept that which you cannot change, like traffic jams.

Now, here are three stress shifting options you can use:

1. Change how you view a problem

Take a step back to gain perspective on your situation just by focusing your efforts on listening to your emotional brain (your subconscious mind), and allowing your rational (conscious) brain to put a positive perspective on this – so your emotional brain might be saying ‘I’m really bad at change and uncertainty’ but your conscious brain might come in to say ‘last time I was in a challenging situation, I managed to come out of it pretty well.’

2. Take specific action to deal with the problem

Take time to think rationally and identify the best course of action. In times of change, that might mean deciding on the most useful steps you can take right now to make things more certain…if you’re aware of your natural strengths and energy, find ways of leaning on these to tackle the problem. For example, if you’re naturally efficient or strong at critical thinking, you might find it helpful to write to do lists or break your problem into smaller steps. If you’re more relationship-oriented, calling someone you know who can help or give advice may be a good option. By leaning on your natural strengths, your problems become easier to tackle.

3. Change your physiology

Take a walk, go for a run, breathe, do yoga, meditation, drink calming teas; all of these things actually change your physical state and will make things feel more controllable.

So some tips on managing stress:

  • use the Control, Influence, Accept model (or CIA),
  • change how you view a problem,
  • take specific action to deal with the problem,
  • or change your physiology.

That’s it for this week, I hope you enjoyed today’s topic and that you feel you can put some of that advice to work straight away to get any stress you’re feeling under control. Have a strong week.

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