Category Archives: Stress

It’s all about control

A long time ago, I used to work as a lighting designer, specialising in touring with dance companies. I mixed with all kinds of people, and that’s how I met Alison, a professional singer (soprano), working in Scotland.

Even before that, a mentor of mine, (hi Mel!) had explained to me that pressure and stress aren’t the same thing.  No matter how much pressure you’re under, if you can handle it (or think you can!) it’s just pressure. If you don’t think you can handle it, it’s stress. It doesn’t matter how much pressure you’re really under – what matters is if you believe you can cope. Simple…

And one of the things that help you cope is feeling like you’re in control.

Let’s go back to Alison, and I’ll show you what I mean.

On Sunday, I met her in a bar in one of the big railway stations in London. We’d both been working there and it was a convenient place to meet before we caught trains back to different parts of the country to go home. Stressed, anxious and upset, Alison threw her work diary onto the table and ranted about the opera company she was working for…

It’s ridiculous! Look at how much work they’re making me do. I can’t keep it up!  I’m making myself ill and I’m damaging my voice!

She didn’t actually cry, but there were tears of desperation hovering in her eyes.

We talked and one of the things we talked about (other than the silly price of the beer!) was the fact that Alison was about to quit and become self-employed.  And six months later when we met up again in very similar circumstances (different pub but the same idea) she’d done the deed and was now working for herself. This time there were no tears as she tossed her diary onto the table for me to see, declaring

It’s fantastic, look how much work I’ve got!  I can barely keep up!

I looked down at her diary and say – you’ve guessed it – that she was working more or less exactly the same amount, for the same people, doing the same things, as she had been the last time we met.

The only difference was that she was doing it for herself and felt like she was in control.

What can you do, to  get that feeling, no matter how high the pressure of work?


Staying positive.

speed_limit_50I’m 50, according to my Birth Certificate. As my (otherwise lovely) elder daughter just said “How does it feel to be half a century, Dad?!”

Thing is, in my head I’m about 29.

This whole ‘growing up’ thing has come as something of a shock… and it’s been a heck of a year. So much has happened, a lot of it not good, that I’m finally beginning to understand why the ancient Chinese curse of “May you live in interesting times!” is actually a curse!

Until a few days ago I felt a bit beaten up, and very, very depressed. I wasn’t fighting back much when things went wrong – except out of pure stubborn-ness.

Why? Because as I cast my mind back over the year it had been such a bad one – I’d lost friends and contracts.

Fortunately, my wife (who if she’s reading this should be a officially recognised as a saint) reminded me of my year’s log. It’s not a diary as such, just a logging of the good things.

For good evolutionary reasons we’re programmed to remember the bad times more easily than the good, so keeping a log of the good times/things/activities/outcomes/moments helps to balance this tendency. For the life of me I can’t remember the researcher who recommended it (but if I had to guess I’d say it was Prof Martin Selegman) but I’ve found it to be a remarkably useful tool for putting the negative memories in context.

Of course, it’s easier said than done, so here are some tools and tricks to help you do it.

  • A paper diary. It’s easy to underestimate the value of good ol’ analogue. There’s something about writing things down with a good quality pen in a good quality book that feels better than just typing, no matter how cool your computer. I recommend you use a diary that has the days marked off in it, so that if you forget/miss a day you’ll see that you’ve done so. Jot down the good stuff – including (very importantly!) the days when nothing happened of particular significance. These are the days when nothing happened, when nothing went wrong. These are the days you’ll forget about otherwise, remembering only the ‘interesting/bad’ days.
  • A blog. You don’t have to publish it to the world if you don’t want to! What’s more, it’s got the added advantage of being with you everywhere you go (almost) so you can update it easily when you’re traveling etc. The downside is that it’s all too easy to neglect it if you’re under pressure – you might want to consider a plug-in that ‘nags’ you to write an entry
  • Your phone (or iPad). Speaking of nagging, why not just set your smartphone to nag you nag you when you go to bed? That way, you never forget to think about the good things at least once a day… What’s more, there are some handy apps which will help.
  • Children. If you’ve got young children that you put to bed still (bed time stories and ritual) it’s worth considering a good-things-debrief with them.  My kids are waaaaaay too old for this now (I go to bed before them) and I can’t promise it works because I’ve not tried it, but someone on one of our recent training courses recommended it – she said it worked really, really well for her. If she ever forgot, her daughter reminded her in no uncertain terms! :)
  • A simple wall calendar. Ticks and crosses on a calendar is a great visual reminder that the bad days (red crosses) are the odd-days-out when you see them surrounded by green ticks!

That’s it!  I’m sure you guys can think of a better, longer list. Whatever works for you, works!  The important thing isn’t how you record it but that you record it (in enough detail for you to get the idea of things going well and to put the bad days into context.

Online confidence training

online confidence training

online confidence training

Anyone who’s been at one of our in-house training courses will know that our on-line training resources are available for free… but now…

This should have a fanfare or something, honestly! :)

Our set of three confidence modules are available to everyone!

Module one looks at confidence in the day to day: it’s about resilience, emotional robustness and mental toughness. In short it’s about ‘coping’.—resilience/

Module two looks at confidence for the big events – presentations, best man speeches, interviews, meetings wtih the boss….—big-moments!/

Module three looks at how to act assertively and the tools of being assertive (particularly at work but in life generally)—acting-assertively/

Do, please, spread the word! :)

Stress and the book launch!

Okay, okay, it’s late.  But not very late.

Simon’s new book should have been available today but it isn’t – sorry!

So where is it?  It’s out at review… means it’s not far away at all, and that means that if you want to be right at the front of the queue you can let us know and we’ll email you personally when it’s finally(!) released.

The plan is that this short book (it’s under 50 sides of A4) will take a lot of the stress out of designing (and delivering presentations). Of course, presenting will always be a cause of stress, but a lot of the stress-management tools we talk about will help there, too! :)

In other news, we’re also working on an audio of Bamboo and Oak, our big stress-buster presentation. It’s being edited at the moment and should be available over the summer at some point.

In the meantime, enjoy the sunshine (it won’t last!)

Teacher stress – a tool

I talked last post (called with little imagination ‘Teacher Stress’) about the fact that teachers are somewhat special in the way they have to deal with stress because many of the tools that are available to ‘normal’ people can’t be used by classroom-facing teachers.

I’d like to explore in this blog a technique that does work for teachers. The plan isn’t to deal with stress, it’s to make teachers more immune to stress and more ‘emotionally robust’.

Culturally (I’m writing in the UK) we find it very difficult to say “I’m really good at this”. Some people can, of course – but even then not everyone who says it believes it. With teachers’ being judged by external factors so much, this lack of self belief can get pretty serious. We often start to believe that we’re genuinely not good at anything – and feeling like this is a sure fire recipe for being vulnerably to stress… if you don’t feel able to admit to yourself that you’re a good teacher (or good parent or trainer or accountant or whatever!) and then the proof comes in that you’re not, in the form of bad results in this year’s GCSE or Value Added Scores… you can see where this can lead!

So here’s the tool.

Create a table with three columns (a simple sheet of A4 will do, it doesn’t need to be on a computer, or even be neat!) and label the right hand column “Acts”. In it, jot down half a dozen things you’ve done successfully in the last 72 hours. Most people protest that they’ve not achieved anything in their last 72 hours when I use this exercise as part of our stress management training but that’s not the point – it doesn’t have to be something that turns the world around.

In my case I’ve been known to include driving to the venue without crashing or (as far as I was aware) breaking any laws. One client included getting dressed in the morning which seemed to me to be a great example because everyone does it! (If someone else dressed them in the morning they clearly have a far more interesting life than I do!). Leave a bit of space between each of the items on your list and dont’ get stressed if you can’t immediately create six. Half a dozen is an approximate number!

When you’ve listed your successes, label the middle column “Skills”.

Each of your successes is based upon (at least!) one skill so beside each Act, jot down a skill it’s based upon. Don’t take the word Skill too literally – anything that the Act is predicated on will do.

For example, if I get to a training venue on time (a success) it is predicated on an ability to drive (or a could have picked ‘plan’ or ‘navigate’ etc).  (I should add, in case anyone is doubting me, that I have always got to training venues on time, this is just an example! :) )

I suggest taking a break before the next bit – the metaphorical cup of tea sounds like a good idea!

Step three is simple – each Skill is built in turn upon (at least!) on “Fundamental”. Label the left hand column that way and (the obvious bit here!) list a Fundamental for each of the Skills (and hence each of the Acts).

Take another break – there’s nothing worse than getting stressed by the exercise itself!

Now have a look at the list of things you have in your left hand column. These are basic, fundamental, important and timeless things that are

  • about you
  • true
  • positive.

The important thing to remember is that no matter what may or may not go right tomorrow.  If you get stressed every time things like these go wrong you’re going to suffer from a lot of stress! But by drawing attention to the fundamental, positive things about you, you’ve now got a tool to fight that response with.

Just because this year’s value added is negative doesn’t automatically mean you’re a bad teacher and should get stressed! Go back to your list and remind yourself of the important, long-term, robust positives!

If you’re a teacher, your mileage will vary, of course, but personally I use  this technique every six months or so to keep my list fresh and in my mind – or whenever I’m told to use it by one or two of my most trusted friends (who spot when I’m getting wound up long, long before I do!). I realise that training and teaching are different in many ways but there are similarities too: live by the feedback form, die by the feedback form! :)

I’ll look next time at a couple of techniques for dealing with stress using physiological tools for when stress does get to you in the classroom!

You may want to know a bit about our stress INSET for teachers

Teacher Stress!

… can get pretty bad, can’t it. So bad in fact that this week’s TES (Times Education Supplement) is running an article headlined ‘Why do so many teachers kill themselves?’. Fortunately stress is  not that bad for many teachers…

…but it’s still pretty horrific!

The stats are awful and the case-studies about stressed-up, suicidal teachers are shocking: if you want to read the shape and scale of the problem, you can read it here.  What I want to concentrate on here is why teacher’s stress is a special case, why most of the stress tools available to the rest of us don’t work for teachers and what strategy might be a good one for dealing with stress in schools.

Cards on the table first – I’m married to a teacher and I’ve done lots of work with teachers over the last seven years (suffering stress and not) but the only actual teaching job I’ve done was many years ago in a girl’s private school, teaching sixth-formers statistics… (insert your own joke here!)

I believe the main problem (stress-related that is) that plague teachers stem from the lack of control teachers have over their own jobs.

What do I mean?

Success is measured against criteria that change frequently and are largely not related to things that can be controlled by the teacher – grades are a function of many things, not just teaching, such as the pupils themselves, obviously. Pressure without control is a recipe for stress.

Furthermore, the ‘tyranny of the bell’ means that each high-pressure performance is done to someone else’s timing. There’s no time to for a teacher to take stock and regroup: nor can work be re-scheduled or taken slowly if you’re feeling down.  The pupils in front of you can’t allow that, and the classroom timetable pins teachers to a schedule without the flexiblity that the rest of us take for granted to the point we don’t even think about it.

Teaching combines the pressures of management with the strictness of factory-floor work.  When was the last time ‘normal’ people couldn’t decide their own holiday dates? Again, a stress-recipe!

Then… teaching strips away some of the best anti-stress support techniques that we take for granted – being a teacher is, essentially, a solo activity in that there’s no time in the classroom for banter and supportive conversations. As a teacher you’ve got a tiger by the tail and you can’t let go. ‘Normal’ people use support at work as a defense against stress.

In short, teachers have trouble finding time to ‘sharpen the ax’.

All of this means that the tools that work in the ‘normal’ world can’t be (readily) applied in schools. Taking time off, for example, to prevent longer-term damage isn’t an option…

So what anti-stress options for teachers have we got left?

Basically, if tactical tools are out of the window, we’re left with strategic ones. We need to develop emotional resilience rather than coping mechanisms. It’s difficult to put things like this in a blog because, by definition, a blog is more suited to tools, tips and techniques rather than long term tool and superficiality won’t help anyone…

All I can suggest is that it’s really important that teachers – before they begin to suffer from stress! – develop and strong, flexible and robust self-concept… something that’s internally orientated rather than being dependent on external validation.  By the time the symptoms of stress start to show, it’s an uphill battle for a teacher.

That’s easier said than done, I know – but there are anti-stress tools that can be taught. (I know, I teach ‘em!). I have to ask though, why more INSET isn’t given over to dealing with stress amongst teachers, given how big the problem is…!

In the meantime, I’ll outline a useful anti-stress tool that’s suitable for teachers in the next post about stress amongst teachers.


You may want to know a bit about our stress INSET for teachers

Presentation special kit time

It’s only just a week away…. our big Bamboo and Oak delivery day for South Lakeland – and that makes it kit-testing time! :)

With a big venue like this the projector will have to be a long way from the screen, obviously, to get a big enough image for everyone to see easily, even at the back. From our point of view, however, we want our laptop on the screen so we can see what’s coming up and be able to control things better.

That means the projector and the laptop will be a long way apart. Hmmmm… the solution? Our new 25 metre VGA cable. The only downside is the weight! ;)

Bamboo and Oak, by the way, is our large scale presentation on coping with pressure and stress and being resilient – when it feels like the world is out to get you.  Last time out we got feedback like “Sell the Renault and buy yourselves that Porsche!”. Roll on next Friday!

A bit of a brag… :)

Some of you will know that we have up our sleeve a big presentation called “Bamboo and Oak” and you’ll know we delivered it to headline the Norther HR Briefing…… and  the results are in! Here’s the feedback comment section:

Very interesting, good to finish session on a high.  Good techniques delivered and will be tested.

So refreshing.

Different and challenging.

Very helpful, well presented – will try these things.


Some useful practical tools that I will use back at the office.

Some really good hints and tips and I think Simon should sell his Renault and buy a Porsche!

Some useful tools/tips.


Very helpful.

Very applicable.

Best speaker – really enjoyed.

Very useful stress busting techniques.

Excellent delivery and content.  Good use and explanation of tools and story telling.  Very engaging.

Good ideas well presented.  Stimulating and enjoyable.

Uplifting finish – well planned.

Great ideas for keeping sane at work. 

Time to break out the smarties and have a cup of tea to celebrate, I think.  :)

Online training courses

Great new for all you time-short people!

The first three of our online training courses are now available here. There are about half a dozen more to come but for now we’ve got up three courses on confidence, designed to help anyone who needs a bit more confidence in their lives and work or who’s getting stressed about having to say ‘no’, take a bit more control of their lives or cope with the big events.  Enjoy!

Stress and consequences of mistakes

Don’t stress the big consequences

Sometimes it’s the little things that stress us.  As they say in some circles: “It’s not the elephants that get you stressed, it’s the ants!”. We’ve all made trivial mistakes and got away with them (God knows I have). We’ve almost all also made big mistakes and got away with them. (Again, God knows I have!)

I’m pretty sure that we’ve all also made big mistakes and not got away with it – these things stress me but in a sense I don’t mind getting hauled over the coals for that kind of thing… because if I’ve made a big mistake I deserve to face the consequences.

The times I get annoyed though, are the times when I make a tiny mistake and I don’t get away with it – the mistake may have been trivial but the consequences snowball out of proportion, somehow taking on a life of their own.

Putting a stamp on an envelope that doesn’t have enough value to cover the cost of postage is a trivial mistake. If the envelop is addressed to the Inland Revenue and contains your VAT return (in the UK) the chances are also that it’s trivial because the envelop will just travel second class.

But…… if you’ve already left it close to the deadline and you now miss that same deadline, your trivial mistake can have significant consequences.

And in terms of managing our stress, this is a problem.

We beat ourselves up because of the wrong things.

Looking around me in the various places where I get called in to consult and support stressed staff I notice time and time again that people are orientated around the effects of actions, not the actions themselves.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that no one should worry about the consequences of mistakes – just that only worrying about the consequences of mistakes is nothing more than a stress-inducer. Sure there are times when the effects of a mistake are so serious that we’re bound (rightly) to get stressed by them but as a long term stress-survival tactic that’s not a good place to be.

What we should, self evidently, be looking to minimise at a personal, stress-carrying level, is the number of mistakes we make. After all, the consequences of those errors are largely out of our hands. The mistakes themselves are something that we, by definition, can control.

Think of other people as ‘multipliers’. They can be greater than one or less than one but they can only apply to a mistake you make.  If you don’t make a mistake, their multiplier  can’t work.  Multiply zero by anything and you get zero, after all!

If I make a small mistake with a big multiplier because of other people’s actions, the consequences are serious. (Usually we don’t need to get stressed because other people’s multipliers are less than one: one (mistake) times nought point two (the other person barely cares about your mistake) only gives you a total score of zero point two!.

Can you easily(!) control other people’s multipliers? I doubt it. That means the biggest portion of the consequences of mistakes is unchangable from your perspective. Is there any point in getting stressed about that? No.

Can you change the number of mistakes you make? Yes. Is there any point in getting stressed about that? Well no, not really, just try and improve!  But if you must stress about something, stress about your own mistakes, not other people’s reactions.

Let’s take a personal example.

I made a mistake when I read, recently, the cooking instructions on a ready-meal. As a result the food was going to be ten minutes late.  Had my wife had ten minutes spare in her timetable for the evening that wouldn’t have been a problem at all.  As it was, my wife (who’s generally a saint) had real problems finding time to eat her meal before she had to leave the house once more.

Okay, okay, I shouldn’t have had the meal ready ten minutes late, but that was, in and of itself, a trivial mistake.  The stress only arose because of other people’s responses (my wife having booked her day so tightly that she didn’t have ten minutes spare to wait for food).

How stressed should I have got? As stressed as I would because a meal was ten minutes late?  Or as stressed as I would have got if my wife didn’t have time to eat?