8th October 2020

Do-It-Yourself Stress Reduction

15th May, 2018

Aidan Walker MA (Cantab), FRSA

Timely that this is Mental Health Awareness Week, because it’s official – we’re all stressed. Well, 75% of us, anyway. And 26% of us have been diagnosed with at least one mental health problem. That’s three out of four adults in the UK suffer from stress, and one out of four will experience some form of mental ill-health (let’s not call it illness), borderline or otherwise.

Stress, stigma and statistics

The Mental Health Foundation has just (May 2018) published a report – ‘Stress: Are we coping?’ which brings those frightening figures to light. Mind, the mental health charity, has the one in four statistic. So, looking at some of the other stats on the Mind website about mental health problems and how common they are, it’s no surprise to see they are increasing.

One in four? That was four years ago (the figures are from 2014). Where are we now? And where, specifically, in the workplace are we when it comes to stress?

 It’s true to say that the stigma around mental illness has reduced, and companies, chiefly in the major corporate sector, are paying a great deal of attention to these issues, and in some cases – the Lego group for instance, as described by Sophie Patrikios – you can actually see compassion beginning to show signs of adoption as a management style. Forgive me if I suggest you don't hold your breath just yet.


Competition and Compassion as Corporate Styles

I’m grateful to Claire at Mad World Forum for giving me a chance to air my own particular take on these issues, because I am by no means the standard management consultant type.

 I haven’t worked in a company since 2007, and by now I’m pretty much unemployable, mostly because I’m old and ugly enough not only to spot superficial or badly understood management jargon at 100 yards, but actually to challenge it.

In my opinion, there’s an underlying culture in most companies, of whatever size, and especially in sales, that to be successful you have to be tough. You get the next guy before he or she gets you. It’s called competition, and it’s the pervading fundamental philosophy of capitalism. No room for the weak or shaky.

In the context of mental health, that means to open up, confess or admit to any kind of problem would at the very least isolate you when you were already feeling desperately alone. It’s a display of weakness.

Encouragingly, there are signs of change. What is also personally encouraging, in this new atmosphere of growing awareness, acceptance and understanding, is that my own peculiarities, which I have kept quiet about for 25 years as an editor and editorial director, are now beginning to look like assets.

I have meditated and done hatha yoga all my adult life – even written a book about them – but have always kept that very separate from my professional life, for fear of being branded ‘hippy dippy’ and not serious enough. Now the professional landscape is beginning to show interest and acceptance of my ‘woo woo’ stuff – because everyone is talking about mindfulness. 

Mindfulness – the new recruit in the Productivity Army

It’s a very good, unthreatening route into the touchy-feely, emotionally intelligent, compassionate territory of which we speak – not too outlandishly woo-woo – which is why it’s been taken up so enthusiastically in the corporate world. People may scoff at the ‘raisin exercise’, but mindfulness has profound implications for self awareness, self control and self management.

 It’s also, arguably, self defeating, at least in the modern context of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, the programme created originally in the 1980s by University of Massachusetts Professor Emeritus of Medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn. For all the benefit that his work has brought so many people, it has also been possible for corporations – even the US military – to hijack it in the service of productivity. If you’re well and happy, you’re more productive than if you’re stressed and anxious.

This is where I become a little uneasy. It was the Buddha, after all, who first spoke about the mind being under the protection of mindfulness, more than 2500 years ago. So, it’s by no means a new thing, but harnessing it in the service of productivity is. And it doesn’t feel quite right to me, somehow. If people are suffering from stress, fear, anxiety, alienation or any kind of mental anguish, then I’d say it’s our job as colleagues and managers to help them – because they need our help as fellow human beings. Not because we have to keep our department’s top rating in the intra-company productivity tables.

You are your own stress buster

But never fear, even this comparatively enlightened attitude is beginning to take hold in the world of work. Psychologist, author and organisational mentor Professor Derek Mowbray, creator of the ‘Wellbeing and Performance Agenda’, has this to say about personal responsibility, self-help and resilience: ‘Individuals, as well as organisations, have a part to play in the prevention of stress. Individuals must look after themselves psychologically. This means:

 • Working out what are the particular ingredients for your own psychological wellbeing, and pursuing anything that helps you feel psychologically well;

• Learning how to be resilient against events and behaviours that will, inevitably, arise at work (even in the best organisations!);

• Developing yourself so that you understand yourself better, which, in turn, will enable you to tolerate and understand others better;

• Acquiring skills to deal with physical interruptions, and situations of chaos, without experiencing any stressful sensations personally;

• Knowing how to handle challenging behaviours, without feeling any stressful sensations;

• Knowing what to do if you feel unwell, or out of control, and knowing the techniques that help you to get back to feeling normal.

However, for the above to be effective for the individual, the conditions in their place of employment need to be right (a supportive, warm-hearted culture with leaders and managers who understand how to bring out the best in their people and a working environment that provides the opportunity and incentive for individuals to perform at their peak). Get the conditions wrong, and leaders/managers are actively preventing both individuals and the organisation from realising their true and full potential.’

Minding your mind

Definitely encouraging, but still aimed at organisational improvement and efficiency. My particular take on this is that we can only ever be responsible for ourselves; no one and nothing else. Clearly senior managers of companies large and small, or parents, or ships’ captains or pet owners – or almost anyone - are responsible for much more than that, but right at the heart of the matter, in the dead of night or alone in a traffic jam, there is no one but you, and you alone, to look after yourself.

Petra’s story, also on this site, brings the problem right up front: ‘I experienced intense anxiety if I sat alone with my own thoughts.’ It’s your mind that’s doing you in. Your thoughts rush and wander hither and thither, from past to future and back again, but almost never in the here and now. ‘I wonder what he meant?’; ‘I should have got milk’; ‘When is this bloody light going green?’; ‘Just a few more slides to sort out for my presentation tomorrow’; ‘What will I feed the kids tonight?’ – your mind is a part of you, so how and why does it control you and your happiness? Would you let your feet go wherever they wanted? You’re in control aren’t you?

Takeaways: It’s all in the tongue

 No, obviously. You’re not. And the more uneasy, anxious or stressed you get, the more difficult it becomes to take that control. Well; here are two things you can do that will show you it isn’t all that hard after all. You can generate calm in the midst of panic and focus in the midst of chaos. And it starts with the physical – no woo woo stuff to swallow.

If you do yoga, pilates, T’ai Chi or any of those alternative physical disciplines – or indeed if you go to the gym, run, play football or do any exercise at all – you are aware of what’s happening in your body. These techniques ask for no more than that same awareness. You do need to find a quiet-ish place, at least until you’ve got the idea anyway.

1.     Focus your attention inside. It’s amazing how few people do this. Close your eyes and pay attention to what’s going on in your head. Now listen to your breathing, and move the ‘point of contact’, if you like, of air in the nasal passage to the bit where the snoring sound comes from (see pic). It’s at the top back of your nasal passage, or the pharyngotympanic canal, to be precise.



Make sure you make that sort of echo-y noise, listening to your breath move in and out. It slows down, and lo and behold, your mind quietens. Keep your chin slightly down and your back straight, but relax – let go. 

2. Now for the more difficult part, but it’s only difficult because you never do it. Relax your tongue. What? Relax my tongue? Beg pardon? Yes, it’s possible when you are awake. The tongue is a large lump of muscle that occupies most of the space in your mouth and jaw (pic again). As your mind quietens with your breathing, let your tongue go. Don’t push it or force it or tell it to relax; just let it go. Let go your jaw, your neck muscles, your cheeks, everything round there. And as your tongue finally relaxes, it shrinks and stops making saliva. You’ll notice your mind is even quieter. If it wants to run and jump to other thoughts, ok; let it, but bring it back gently, kindly. Don't force it, don’t beat yourself up. Just. Let. Go. 

Of course we need help. But it’s a revelation to know you can help yourself in this way. And from that, many benefits – to others as well as to yourself – will follow. I guarantee.

Aidan Walker MA (Cantab), FRSA

Aidan’s MA in History from Cambridge University was a highly appropriate education, he claims, for his ‘first career’ in furniture design and cabinetmaking – itself an admirable preparation for 20 years of writing for, editing and directing design magazines. As Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and director of Aidan Walker Associates, he now creates, curates, presents and chairs conference and seminar programmes such as ‘Art for Tomorrow’ for The New York Times and the content programmes for the Global Design Forum, Design Shanghai and Grand Designs Live. Aidan has practised Hatha Yoga, including a spell teaching, all his adult life, and in his 20s spent six years as a fully dedicated member of the Brahma Kumaris, living and teaching the principles of Raja Yoga – 100% celibacy, 4am meditation 365 days a year, ‘in the world but not of it’. This led to the publication of his book ‘The Ecology of the Soul – Peace, Power and Personal Growth for Real People in the Real World’. His new book ‘Mindful Design – Principles and Practice’ is currently in preparation, combining his experience in the creative and professional world with a lifetime of meditation and mindfulness – long before it was fashionable. Aidan lives in rural Sussex with his family, his dogs, his Ducati racing motorbike and his guitars.

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