One of the best books I have read on the topic of stress is called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers; it’s by Robert Sapolsky, a biologist from Stanford University. When visiting Africa, one of my most memorable experiences was an excursion to the Masai Mara in Kenya. Lions were waiting quietly for their prey even when they appeared to be tearing and devouring an earlier catch. We observed zebras enjoying their day as they clustered around a watering hole. Meanwhile, a lion was ready to move towards the same spot, possibly eyeing his next meal. The zebras continued to drink until the very last moment and then, as one, took flight, speedily disappearing from sight. The collective outstripped the predator.
Animals do not anticipate stress in the same way humans do, says biologist Robert Sapolsky.Credit:iStock
Sapolsky, a biologist who writes extensively about the stress response, explains these events in the following way. The zebra manages to get away but continues to spend the ensuing hour avoiding the lion, who may stalk it as he too may be desperate and half-starving, needing a meal. Both these situations are extremely stressful events, but the bodies of the zebras are, Sapolsky writes, “brilliantly” able to adapt to such emergencies: both “Zebras and lions may see trouble coming in the next minute and mobilise a stress response in anticipation, but they can’t get stressed about events far into the future.” That is, they do not get ulcers because they do not anticipate stress like we humans do. It is the anticipation and worry that does the damage to us.
Unlike the animals on the savanna, humans do a lot of worrying. Sometimes it is because of a real or imminent threat, such as whether you will find a job or keep the one you have; at other times it is a less imminent threat, such as whether you will get the next promotion, what will happen to your children when they grow up, whether a relationship will succeed or an exam will be passed or the drought will break, or whether there will be a world disaster. These are some of the endless things (real or imagined) that keep us awake at night.
“Zebras and lions may see trouble coming in the next minute and mobilise a stress response in anticipation, but they can’t get stressed about events far into the future.”
As Sapolsky writes, sustained psychological stress is a recent invention. The body physiology of the zebra is superbly adapted to deal with stressful situations, but humans are in a constant state of provoked stress with worries about mortgages, relationships or fears about the future, and our physiological system can become overtaxed as we subject our bodies to these prolonged fears and worries. Anxieties and worries are the ever-increasing everyday concerns that get us down; and indications are that we are turning for assistance to professionals, or substances, in increasing numbers and with increasing frequency.
Stress can directly and indirectly contribute to general or specific disorders of the body and mind.
It can have a major impact on humans’ bodily functioning. Stress raises the levels of adrenaline and corticosterone in the body, which in turn increase heart rate, respiration and blood pressure and put more physical stress on bodily organs. Long-term stress can be a contributing factor in heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and other illnesses.
Early stress researchers identified and described numerous major life events as stresses. However, less major events can also be experienced as stresses, such as starting a new job, loss of a friendship, missing out on being selected for a team or an event, having an argument with a neighbour, or getting a parking ticket. It is how the individual sees these events and the resources they bring to it that matters.
Resources in this sense can include your own coping skills, personal characteristics such as having a cheerful disposition, life experiences that have given you the confidence that you have done something before and can do it again, and interpersonal qualities, such as social skills and being able to call on the help of others (professionals, adults or peers). For example, peers and friends may help each other.
Culture and context are all-important, but coping theory also emphasises that individuals are not lone operators and that they live within a community, family or tribe. We assess situations according to the reality in which we find ourselves. It is within communities that individuals not only utilise their personal resources and assets but may also be assisted by the resources available within that environment. Families and communities are important vehicles for shaping resilience, and we know they can be important sources of support and care and provide opportunities for shared ways of coping.
Proactive coping is about actively trying to predict events and prepare for them, writes author Erica Frydenberg.
Proactive coping is a useful tool: it is about thinking ahead and making plans and preparations. It results in making investments and building up a stockpile of personal, social and economic resources.
When we cope day by day, from situation to situation, we are generally being reactive. Preparing and anticipating the future is being proactive. Many of our motivations to succeed, to be secure and safe, are about being proactive. We can prepare and anticipate events. We can be future-oriented. We can use our resources to achieve goals.
When we cope day by day, from situation to situation, we are generally being reactive. Preparing and anticipating the future is being proactive.
We often plan for events that are yet to happen: this is known as good risk management. Leaders are often proactive copers, as are employees. We plan for that meeting, that presentation, that function we are organising. The proactive coper takes initiative, links with others, takes the credit for success (while also acknowledging others who have contributed, especially in leadership situations), and does not blame themselves for failure. This approach to coping emphasises the amassing of resources as a protection against future occurrences.
Proactive coping is the process of anticipating potential stressors and acting in advance either to prevent them or to diminish their future impact. Essentially, it is about building personal and financial resources, screening the environment for danger and asking yourself, “What can I do?” This is really similar to the question “Do I have the strategies to cope?” Proactive coping is about actively trying to predict events and prepare for them, and as such it is more helpful than avoidant behaviour.
Some people make a distinction between anticipatory coping, where you anticipate that critical events will occur and invest in risk management, and preventive coping, where you invest effort to build up “resistance” resources to minimise the severity of impact. Proactive coping, in contrast, is about building up resources to achieve challenging goals and personal growth—that is, it is about “goal striving”.
Proactive copers have vision, and for them coping is about goal management. It is self-initiating and about having a vision that gets transformed into action. This is what high achievers do. Successful leaders are proactive copers.
Planning for success: Being a proactive coper
Check out whether you worry about the future or have ways to plan for it, and think about how you can do more of the things that help you to become a proactive coper:
Do I try to pinpoint what I need to do to succeed?
Do I know who can help me to succeed?
Do I work around obstacles? Do I reward myself for success?
When I see a problem, do I try to resolve it?
Do I break things down into manageable parts?
Do I tackle the most important things first?
Do I plan for future events, such as saving for a rainy day or upskilling to keep ahead of my job?
Do I identify people who can help me with difficult problems?
This is an edited extract from Coping in Good Times and Bad by Erica Frydenberg, published August 30 (MUP).
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