Full text of psychologist Thijs Launspach’s talk: How stress is killing us (and how you can stop it) at TEDxUniversiteitVanAmsterdam conference. In this talk, Thijs explores and explains the causes and consequences stress in our lives, and some practical solutions to reduce stress in life.
Thijs Launspach is a psychologist who has written two books: Quarterlife, about the quarterlifer crisis, and The Millenial Manifesto, about the societal factors which lead to the high prevalence of mental health issues among young people.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Thijs Launspach – Psychologist
Fish are remarkable creatures. They’re acutely aware of their surroundings. They can smell predators from miles away and they know the availability of food or potential mates.
And yet there’s one thing fish are not aware of. What’s that? They’re in water, right.
So I think there are certain similarities between fish and us, people. I think human beings also don’t notice some of the important things into our lives. And I want to talk to you about two of those things:
One is: A good life is a busy life.
And the second is: Levels of stress, even, dangerous levels of stress are acceptable and they are normal.
So our lives are getting more busy than ever. And part of this we like, right? We feel productive. We sort of like the frantic pace as well. There’s never a dull moment and we like that about it.
But there are… as a psychologist, I can see a different side of the same coin, which is stress and even unhealthy amounts of stress that are becoming normal for us today.
So let’s do a little experiment. Can I have some house lights on as well? So let me see you. Okay, let me ask you some questions. Yes there you are.
So the first one is, raise your hand if this applies to you:
Are you affected by burn-out, either personally or by someone else close to you? Who among you?
That’s a fair amount.
Okay, so next question:
Does stress have a negative impact on one of the following things: amount of sleep? Who among you.
Wow. That’s a lot.
Okay, Diet? Okay.
Amount of exercise that you have? Okay.
And the amount of spare time that you have in your life? Okay, that’s most of you basically.
So, the next one, the million dollar question:
Who among you would think that they would be a happier person if they’d only be less busy or less stressed in life?
Okay. Wow. That’s a lot of you.
So let us look at another sort of point in this one. Let me walk you through these figures. I think you might know them.
These are burnout symptoms in the Netherlands, like from the Central Bureau of Statistics in 2016. And they’re split by age groups and by sex as well.
So you have the light blue, those are the males and dark blue are the females. And I apologize that they are in Dutch. The age group is 15 to 25, 25 to 35, etc.
So, what you see here… one of the first things to notice is that apart from pensioners and well high school students and sort of college students as well, the amount of burnout is about 15%. This is lifetime prevalence.
And another thing to notice is that 25 to 35 years old, there’s significantly more burnout. So this is a problem.
And this is a problem if you think that most people don’t really even get to the stage of burnout, but are stressed in their lives for years and years and years.
So a couple of the different things that are associated with stress are: a weaker immune system, obesity and other diet related problems, even some forms of cancer; some types of cancer, and even in some studies premature death. So serious, serious stuff.
So, there are a couple of things. Well, for me, the question is WHY. I’m a psychologist. I like to investigate stuff.
So why are we at this frantic pace?
Well, it turns out it’s not one thing. It’s multiple things. It’s a lot of things.
So let’s start by our jobs. It’s one of the most obvious places to look for a work related stress. So our jobs are getting more and more complicated. We work more overtime than ever.
We spend an average of two plus hours emailing every day, often on top of a regular workload.
And the boundaries between our working hours in our spare time are crumbling because we can access our email and our stuff from home. So that’s our job.
Then our daily lives are getting more and more frantic as well. So we suffer from FOMO, which I’m sure you know FOMO – Fear of missing out, which means that we put all kinds of different activities and we try to put it in a limited space of our day, which means that we live on a frantic pace. And that we sort of lack the opportunity to relax in between as well.
Well, to add insult to injury as the previous speaker talked about as well, we are addicted to these things, which take up every spare moment that we do have. So that’s bad stuff.
And also between our ears, we get busier as well. So there are psychological elements at play. For example, the expectations that we have about ourselves. So we need ourselves to be attractive, fit, healthy, financially successful, socially successful and happy all of the time, every day. Or else we feel like losers. So that’s a bad thing.
So our expectations are really playing on us as well.
So let’s take a step back and look at what stress really is because we were talking about this for a little bit.
Stress by textbook definition is an involuntary, physical and psychological response to a stressor.
So a couple of things to notice here, it’s something you don’t choose to be stressed, you just get stressed. It’s something that happens in your body. And it’s something that happens in your head. And it’s always a response to a certain stressor.
Well, what could be stressors?
Well, these things: health concerns, family conflicts, doing a TED Talk; basically speaking in public is up there with the most stressful things. According to some people demanding social lives, work-related stressors and everything it entails.
It’s deadlines, a difficult conversation with clients or customers. It’s your boss. The pressure to achieve, FOMO, we’ve talked about it. Never-ending-to-do lists who has those? Yeah, me as well. Okay.
Devices that continuously want stuff from you, even at times that you are, well, would be unavailable. So these things are potential stressors.
So what happens when you encounter a stressor?
Well, this: Somewhere in your brain, like a couple of centimeters in here and your hypothalamus, a couple of hormones are excreted, which initiate chain reaction, ending here at your adrenal glands on top of your kidneys, excreting both adrenaline and cortisol.
And under the influence of adrenaline and cortisol, bodily changes happen. So like this: Your heart rate starts to rise. Your breath rates goes up. Your muscles tense. Your resources go to your arms, into your legs. You get some tunnel vision as well, and some panicky feelings.
So why would this happen? Does anybody know? Surviving, yes. It sort of prepares your body to do one of two things: Fight-or-flight. This is a famous fight-or-flight response. So this is how we still react when confronted with danger.
So this stems from a different time. This stems from the time when we were not hunting for job opportunities, but hunting for our food. And which we are foraging not for our lunch at the cafeteria, but foraging for berries in the forest.
And the likelihood of encountering a difficult or dangerous situation was way higher than it is now. So the likelihood of encountering, for example, one of these things was way higher: (showing a picture of tiger to audience)
So, this poses a problem because our cultural evolution, sort of, went way faster than our physical evolution.
So in different circumstances, now we are faced with the same system. Only, we don’t meet that many tigers anymore, right. Except in zoos.
But the tigers that we do meet are in these kinds of circumstances. So it’s deadlines, it’s job interviews, it’s conflicts with your bosses, etc. But our body still reacts in the same way; still reacts in this way as if it’s a tiger.
So to add insult to injury here, we stress about different things; about a multiplicity of things. And also we stress for way longer.
And we know that elongated exposure to stress is a really bad thing and it leads to all sorts of problems and it can eventually lead to burnout.
So what’s a burnout?
Burnout is basically one of the definitions is, this system getting damaged. So that’s the things that you would sort of normally wouldn’t find very stressful, you’d now think are very stressful. So that’s the burnout. It’s a bad thing to have. It costs you a couple of months to in recovery, basically.
So that’s the bad news.
The good news is that you can do stuff about this. And I think that being able to deal with stress effectively is going to be one of the most important skills that you have in the workplace later on.
So, what can you do?
Well, it isn’t that difficult basically. So one thing you can do is take care of yourself, which sounds like a huge cliché but it is really true.
One thing you should know about stress is that it often presents as a cognitive problem. So you worry about something. You worry about you being in a certain situation and what you should do.
But actually your physique – how you are physically, has a lot of influence on that. So if you feel fit, you deal with stress better and you feel less stressed.
So, taking care of yourself entails the following couple of things:
Get enough sleep: What is enough sleep? Well about seven or eight hours a night regularly. So at a regular going to bed and waking time.
So the next thing is, take care of your diet, which is eating a lot of veggies and nutrients and not as much sugars. Well have some regular exercise as well, which helps for your stress tolerance.
Be careful with alcohol, drugs, those types of things, because they can sort of influence stress tolerance even in the long run.
And be careful about your intake of caffeine. Who among you have drunk more than say five cups of coffee today? Okay. You’re a healthy group. So that’s a couple of you, okay. Caffeine really, really messes with your hormone balance.
And the last thing is schedule some time in your week out of any activity. So that’s time you schedule to do nothing at all, like veg on the couch. Integrate stuff, think about stuff.
So these are the basic things.
Another thing is this: breathe. So this is a nice place in the presentation because I can hear you all. So I want to do an experiment again.
I want to invite you to close your eyes and just breathe regularly in through your nose and out through your mouth. So what you can try to do is to elongate your outward breath.
And as you’re sitting there with your eyes closed anyway, I’d like to invite you to pay attention to how you are breathing at the moment to your inwards and outwards breath; the way the breath comes into your body and exits. Maybe you can even detect a sort of a rising and falling sensation that goes with that.
So the next thing I want you to do is to shift your attention to how you are sitting at the moment to your bodily sensations. So it’s your feet on the floor, it’s your back into chair. Just notice. And if you get distracted by a thought, just bring back your attention. That’s fine.
So next thing I want you to do is to notice the sounds that are going on, that you can notice now. And to shift your attention to the thoughts that are occurring right now in your head. What kind of things are going around in your head at the moment?
Okay, and then at your own pace, you can get back to the room. Okay, all right.
So, I sort of seduced you to do a small mindfulness exercise. We know that certain types of activities like mindfulness can train your brain to focus more and to be more stress tolerant. So it boosts your stress tolerance.
Mindfulness is one of those things. Yoga is another of those things. Sometimes some types of meditation or deep work types of activities, are ways to train your brain to be more focused.
So again, we’re faced with a choice just like with the last speaker. I think the choice is real and you have to make it, and it’s an important choice. And the choice is this:
You either deal with stress or stress deals with you.
Stress is inevitable in our daily lives, but you can change the way you relate to stress. And that’s really, really important thing. And you can start by doing some of the things I talked about today.
And I think this would be a really, really good plan. Thank you.