• Wali Muhammad

Harnessing the Creative Forces of Stress

During my "Thriving on Stress” workshops, participants have commonly reported stress to be:

  • A major deadline tomorrow and still a ton of work (A sales manager)

  • Principal called yesterday; my son is being disruptive again. (A mother)

  • Afraid of growing old, alone, and getting sick. (A retired army officer)

  • Too little time, too much to do. (An undergrad engineering student)

  • Presentations make me a dumb tongue-tie. (An art school student)

  • “It’s all a mindless repetition of days… kids, school, groceries, cooking, cleaning. I wonder if I am alive anymore,” (A single mother)

Stress is a commonly used term to describe a cluster of negative feelings combined with edgy physical sensations on one side of the continuum and virtually no enthusiasm at all on the other.

People dread stress, would do anything to escape it. “I always thought that my job with a telecom company was too stressful and teaching at a university would be much more meaningful until I switched on,” an electronics engineer confided to me. Switching jobs is off course not an option for everyone, but removing ourselves mentally or physically from stress-arousing situations is something we do all the time, which is certainly less displacing but no less debilitating.

Then there are ways to deal with stress via the excessive use of alcohol, all sorts of drugs, and all about getting comfortably numb!

I am quite used to seeing dropped jaws and raised eyebrows when after listening to the devastating stories of people I tell them that stress is the best thing that happens to us.

Stress– the best thing?

A second thought to the above-mentioned complaints would be sufficient to point that the beast is not a situation itself, but our “assessment” of the situation. Two different individuals assess a same setting completely differently. A negative assessment leads one to be overwhelmed; a positive evaluation could help create the "let me fix the things up" drive.

But wouldn’t that be lying to assess a negative situation positively?

Absollutely not! Remember Frank Abangale Sr. in the movie Catch Me If You Can: “Two mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse, wouldn't quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out.” Yes, it’s all about being the second mouse– about seeing the glass half full.

Assessment matters, physiologically.

Body responds by preparing itself for dealing NOT with a situation, but what we tell it about the situation. For a negative telling, brain triggers a complex chain of neurochemical reactions resulting in changes in the physical and mental state, experienced through symptoms such as sweating, tension in muscles, rapid heartbeat, nausea, dizziness, fainting, indigestion, high blood pressure, confusion, and lack of concentration. Collectively, these conditions are called strain.

People know they are stressed only when they experience strain. The perpetual vicious cycle is: negative assessment to strain to changes in performance to further strain and so it goes on and on.

A good friend of mine told me long time ago the trick to make a positive assessment of a negative situation. “Just substitute the word problem with OFG (opportunity for growth),” he said– the mindset of the second mouse.

The jaws drop even lower and the eyebrows rise even higher, when I tell people to embrace not to escape stress.

Embrace stress? But how at all could one even think of doing that?

Optimal performance depends on maintaining oneself on optimum stress level– the midpoint between two extremes: the edginess and the dullness. This is the point where the creative forces of stress begin to work to our advantage, where brain activates the experience of alertness, enthusiasm, and wellbeing. Remember the “excitement” of being in control of a situation?

But how could we maintain an optimum stress level?

First things first: Remember: situations appear to us according to the light we throw upon them from our minds. Brain is a funny thing; it takes whatever you feed in it for example, to always see the glass half-full. Sure the brain would resist for a while, but then it will come to believe what you tell it persistently.

There is, however, one hurdle that is most likely to impede you seeing the glass half full: mastering one’s physiological reactions– the strain symptoms, which are only partially under conscious control. Good news is when one begins to notice and recognize the difference between experiencing the states of being “edgy, dull, or enthused, one can get a handle on the stress meter to make conscious efforts to stay on optimum level.

More good news is that there are ways to control our physiological reactions to prevent us from seeing only the “stressful” side of the story.

Deep muscle relaxation: To experience it right now: clench your fist as tightly as you can for five seconds, and then slowly open your hand. See how you sense the feeling of relaxation? You have just allowed your mind to feed into your physiological memory the difference between strain and relaxation. For a proper session, sit down on a chair and repeat the same process by straining and relaxing, one by one, your toes, feet, calves, upper legs, buttocks, arms, hands, shoulders, and finally the facial muscles. Repeat the entire exercise three times a day before bed, after the alarm goes off in the morning, and once in the afternoon. Your muscle memory will assimilate the relaxation response in a week and will emulate it at will when you need it.

Relaxed breathing: For five minutes slow your breathing rate to five deep breaths a minute. In other words inhale for about six seconds and exhale for about six; combine it with deep muscle relaxation.

Do nothing: Take one or two, ten minutes breaks during the day for thinking and doing nothing. It may be very boring in the start but gradually your body will learn to appreciate stillness– something one needs to do when under a nerve shattering stress attack.

Burst in laughter: Do it often during the day. To accomplish this task keep something handy, a joke, a text message, or remind your self of a scene from a movie, etc. Laughing is the quickest way to strain and relax your facial muscles.

Face it easy: Before venturing a task that causes you to stress, just see if you could find some time to face it easy by listening to soothing music, or thinking about something nice, but please don’t smoke!

Positive Payoff: To deal with lack of enthusiasm and lethargy observe your behavior for four days and note down any activity that you enjoyed doing and felt pleased about such as, reading a book, watching a TV program, going for a walk, talking to a friend, reminiscing a past event etc. Plan to use these activities, as pay-offs to doing things that lay heavy on you, for example attending to boring official e-mails, doing a work or academic assignment, etc. Practice it regularly; it will surely spruce up your routine.

Remember: stress is the best thing that happens to us; we are the second mouse; we see the glass half-full!


Wali Muhammad

​Director, The Behavioural Skills Company

During the last eleven years of his professional career, Wali has partnered with corporations and non profit organizations in South Asia, Far East, Europe, and North America. He has designed behavioural skills trainings to help a diversity of participants effectively deal with a broad range of issues.

Some of the areas in which he has worked with corporations are leadership, team-building, interpersonal communication, decision-making, conflict management, and stress management skills. He has helped managers master behavioural interviewing techniques including interpreting body language during the interviews and in day to day situations.

Wali has conceived and conducted workshops to prepare young people, civic and religious leaders to promote intercultural and interfaith harmony demonstrating his committment to the non-profit sector.

As visiting faculty, Wali has instructed grad/undergrad courses of Cognitive Psychology, Industrial Psychology, Environmental Psychology, and Consumer Psychology.

Wali is proficient in four languages, has an M.Sc. Psychology from the University of the Punjab, Pakistan and a Master of Peace and Conflict Studies (MPACS) from University of Waterloo, ON Canada.

#Stress #ThrivingonStress #PhysiologyofStress #Strain #DeepBreathing #DeepMuscleRelaxation

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