Relax! Can Actually Cause Stress

The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another. –William James

Bill may have been right.

But what happens when you are given thoughts?

The Irony of Trying to Relax

We’re living in exceptionally stressful circumstances right now, and the workplace is hardly an exception. No doubt we’ve had someone suggest cavalierly, “Oh, just relax.”

Sometimes that helps; sometimes it doesn’t. There’s a reason for both.

It turns out that the order to “relax”  can produce everything from anxiety to insomnia as a result of stress.

SkinTwo studies conducted by Wegner, Bloome and Blumberg found that “intentional relaxation under conditions of mental load or stress produces ironic increases in skin conductance level (SCL).

Note: Skin conductance  can be described simply as sweat gland activity. Using electrodes placed on two fingers of one hand, one can measure the tiny changes in the electrical activity of the sweat gland cells located in the deepest layer of the skin. Sweat glands are activated through inputs from several areas in the brain including the frontal lobes. Skin conductance is associated with arousal, mental activity, stress, fear, and positive and negative affect, which makes it a relatively simple yet informative psychophysiological measure.

The experiment was rather simple.

1. Participants in one group received progressive relaxation instructions.

2. Then they were told, “Now I’d like you to remember a number, and this is an important part of the experiment, so I’ll keep repeating the number until you memorize it.”

3. Participants in another group weren’t given the relaxation instructions, just the task.

The outcome: Those instructed to relax under the high load of rehearsing a long number had higher SCL than those under a high load without instructions to relax.

What This Means for Business and the Business of Life

Mixed messages breed stress.I once watched a very well-intentioned manager start a team meeting by saying, “Here are the results of the 360 team feedback. I know some of the information may be thought-provoking, but just relax.”

Had the statement only included the informational part, the immediately observable level of anxiety may not have occurred.

Multi-tasking as part of “Quality Time.” Telling your spouse that you are going to relax while putting together your financial presentation and watching a DVD together is a lie. You may have sensed it before–now you know it’s a scientific fact. Just hope (s)he doesn’t have a polygraph with a couple of those finger electrodes nearby. If so, you better hope the gift shop is open late.

Telling someone to feel good may have the opposite effect. Hopefully, we all know that it is fruitless and even demeaning to try changing how someone feels by telling them how they should feel. According to the implications of the study, we can actually make someone feel worse (stressed) as a result of trying to get them relaxed while their minds are at work. This applies to managers giving performance feedback, parents disciplining children, and coaches working with clients. Healthy people are designed to live and learn by living and learning through the depth and breadth of their emotions. Attempting to alter the truth of what someone is experiencing will inhibit their process. And you won’t be seen as helpful.

So, just relax. If you feel like it.

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Steve has designed and delivered leadership and communication programs for some of the world's largest organizations, and has more than 30 years in training, development, and high-level executive coaching. His Roesler Group has created and delivered leadership and talent development internationally for corporations such as Pfizer, Minerals Technologies, Johnson & Johnson, NordCarb Oy Ab, and Specialty Minerals--Europe. Steve is currently involved in the latest update of his Presenting With Impact program, a cross-cultural presentations workshop that has been delivered on five continents to more than 1,000 participants representing nearly 60 nationalities.


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