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Renewal is key to combat stress

“To experience peace does not mean that your life is always blissful. It means that you are capable of tapping into a blissful state of mind amidst the normal chaos of a hectic life.” ―Jill Bolte Taylor




Note: This was previously published as an IOC Research Dose


Introduction

In today’s turbulent world, dealing with constant and ever-changing stressors is the norm. Although these are typically not large-scale stressors like death of a spouse or child, or a major trauma, chronic stressors cumulatively over time harm physical and mental health and well-being. Ongoing stress impairs the immune system, cognitive functioning, engagement at work, and makes us more prone to burnout.


It has been difficult to study the cumulative effects of everyday stressors and how to prevent them without a tool for measuring them. The new Personal Sustainability Index (PSI) described and validated in a 2021 article by Boyatzis et al in Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research titled “Thrive and Survive: Assessing Personal Sustainability” can provide that measurement.


The authors note: “there are four types of experiences that activate and exaggerate stress: (a) the degree to which an activity is important to a person; (b) the degree of uncertainty the person is experiencing; (c) the degree to which others are watching or evaluating; and (d) the anticipation of any of these experiences.”


The PSI tracks not only the frequency and variety of everyday stress events but also “renewal” events, such as walking in nature, playing with a child, or meditating, that help to counteract stress events. The article’s authors explain that reducing stress only helps us to survive, while increasing renewal instead helps us to thrive, and that the PSI is a critical tool for helping us get there.


The Stress Response

Boyatzis et al provide practical definitions of both stress and renewal. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), while renewal activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is a network of nerves important in the “fight-or-flight” response and is more active when a person is stressed or in danger. The body secretes adrenaline in response to danger, which increases heart rate, breathing capacity and the availability of energy stores. If the threat continues, the body releases cortisol, the primary stress hormone, to increase sugars in the bloodstream and keep the body primed for action. The PNS, associated with hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin, is the brake that shuts down the stress response.


The fight-or-flight response was very effective at helping early humans evade predators. Once the sudden threat passed, the PNS shut the stress response down. However, in today’s hectic world, where low-level stress awaits at every busy corner or failed internet connection, the stress response remains switched on, with serious consequences for physical and mental health. For example, such chronic stress can increase the likelihood of heart disease, heart attack and stroke, cause sleep problems or weight gain and lead to anxiety and depression.


Because we are so accustomed to these low-level stressors, such chronic stress can fly under the radar. Boyatzis et al describe the problem: “Adapting to life can enable us to adjust to dangerous or dysfunctional levels of stress. The ordinariness of many episodes may deceive us into tolerating stress and not acknowledging or even noticing the strain from the cumulative impact.”


The Importance of Renewal

The authors summarize the current theories on the need for a balance of stress events and renewal events: “…the degree of renewal (parasympathetic nervous system) needed is determined by the degree of stress (sympathetic nervous system) activated in the person during the recent past. The renewal experiences, if sufficient in arousal, can help to return the body to its prestress levels. The result is that the person has resources and energy in relationships, work, and life to feel more engaged, excited, and satisfied.”

Many of the previous measures of stress have heavily weighted major life events like death of a loved one (e.g., Social Adjustment Rating Scale) or focused on posttraumatic stress (e.g., Impact of Events Scale). Other scales were meant to measure recovery from stress, such as unwinding after work (Recovery Experience Questionnaire), or coping with it, as for example by venting of emotions or seeking emotional support (Multidimensional Coping Inventory).


Unlike these scales, the PSI focuses on the cumulative impact of everyday stressors and measures the events that not just reduce stress but that activate the PNS to shut it down. It inventories 16 renewal and 17 stressful everyday events, which were gleaned from the psychological and medical literature on chronic stress. In the words of Boyatzis et al, “Renewal is not assessed as low stress but as actual experiences that invoke the PNS.”


By measuring not just everyday stressors but also renewal events, the PSI provides an important tool for better understanding and managing chronic stress.


What the researchers found

Using structural equation modeling to analyze the survey results, investigators found that depressed or anxious people may be less likely to engage in a variety of renewal activities. Subjective well-being, work engagement and career satisfaction were all significant positive consequences. Variety was a stronger determinant of these relationships than frequency, though frequency often but not always moderated variety’s effects.


Boyatzis et al summarize the findings as follows: “To use the analogy of dosage from the pharmaceutical industry, a person would feel and function better if they had more episodes of renewal each week than stress, as well as a greater variety of types of renewal experiences each week.”


Conclusion

The PSI is an innovative tool for measuring everyday stress and renewal events. It helps us appreciate how low-grade stressors contribute to chronic stress and how renewal events can build resources and resilience. The PSI can be an informative tool for measuring how well a client is managing stress. It could also support the optimizing of stress management and improving the coaching experience.

Takeaways for Coaches

Using the PSI directly or being inspired by its principles, coaches can:

  1. Develop a list of renewal events (e.g., coaching, volunteering, showing compassion, exercise, nature, yoga, breathing, reflection, meditation, prayer, play, laughter, enjoyable meal) building on those inventoried in the PSI.

  2. Brainstorm on renewal activities with clients to counter their stress.

  3. Suggest that clients do a renewal activity just before or at the beginning of a coaching session to help them engage more in the growth process.

  4. Incorporate renewal activities into the coaching session to help clients integrate the skills learned.

  5. Encourage clients to track and manage their everyday stress and renewal activities.

  6. Help clients understand the importance of renewal activities not only for themselves but also for others at their organization.


Citation:

Boyatzis, R. E., Goleman, D., Dhar, U., & Osiri, J. K. (2021). Thrive and survive: Assessing personal sustainability. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 73(1), 27.



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