Understanding and Managing Stress: the Wick and the Candle

In the year 2000 the World Health Organization – WHO – declared stress to be one of the three most lethal diseases of the 21st century. Heart diseases and cancer occupied the top spots. In recent years it is widely perceived that some 50% of these two diseases are stress-related. We are at a point where five year olds are displaying stress factors that do not belong to this age, a fact of life anecdotal to the condition of humanity.

Pre-note: No method in existence can completely rid us of undesired stress, as some forms of stress are necessary and arguably healthy. The aim is to reduce it to manageable levels.

Candles occupy a special place in human affairs, from the practical to the mystical. The best made candles have a slow-burn quality, lasting for days on end. If life is like a candle, how we live our lives and our quality of being can be likened to the burn quality and rate which can be slow or fast; almost still to alarmingly rapid. The task at hand is to create in and around the candle of our life the kind of atmospherics and energetics that would allow for a maximum quality of slow, steady, flicker-less burn that lights our way. Balance is the key: The doing and the being; the giving and the receiving. How we lead ourselves and others create the conditions that either lead to eventual burn-out or to a state of enhanced inner glow.


The age range of most Fulcrum subscribers is somewhere between 25 and 60. Many of you have been reading the Fulcrum for over a decade. Think for a moment about growing old. How do you want to feel like when you are 77? The 21st century harbours much misconception in regard to old age, with inaccurate imageries attached to it. When we live life correctly old age is a time of the ripening of profound wisdom and a very special kind of possible well-being.

The nature and pace of the 21st century generates incessant demands upon people to a point of causing disconnection from self and severe en-mass burnouts. It’s an ‘instant’ super-competitive culture, insanely bent on quick results – “if you don’t deliver this by tomorrow I’ll find someone who will”. Statistically, some 40% of the workforce of any given company is subject to excessive stress factors.

While the human system is naturally built to be astonishingly resilient and to handle extreme stresses, it does have its limits. And these limits are exceeded when what we do with our body and mind alters its natural balances, leading to the weakening of the immune system and various orders of potentially lethal internal system failures.

When you are 25, it’s like there is no tomorrow. The world is at your finger-tips – there is so much to be explored and discovered, to be accomplished, to be won. Be very careful – the 21st century is hell-bent on the short-term and mostly blind to the long-term. So it sucks the best of people today and then leaves them to whatever is left of their essence tomorrow. Investing in understanding the root causes of stress, its intimate relevancy to your life-style and how to handle it correctly may be one of your wisest moves today. You want to be at your very best – in some ways, in your prime – when you are 77, not looking back with regret asking where was your common sense when you half burnt yourself up somewhere along the line.


Let’s begin with a simple exercise. If you are sitting behind a desk, place both hands underneath it – or pick up any somewhat weighty object – exerting an upwards lifting pressure without trying to actually lift it. Now let go. The muscle systems that contracted to execute the lift are now back to their relaxed state. Repeat the same exercise, but now having let go of the table keep the muscles contracted nevertheless, as though the mechanism responsible for returning the system to its relaxed state malfunctions, thereby causing this state of contraction to persist for days on end. This is a good inroad to a vital insight concerning stress and the relaxation response mechanism.

Stress and the Relaxation Response Mechanism
Whenever we encounter a situation that calls for a shift in ‘metabolic gear’ – such as waking up in the morning and launching into the day – the body manufactures a host of hormones that act as metabolic regulators, balancers and catalysts. One of the ‘leaders of the pack’ is Cortisol, the important and very well documented “stress hormone” that is secreted by the Adrenal glands. “Stress” because it’s also secreted in higher levels during the body’s fight-flight response to stress, thereby being responsible for several stress-related changes in the body.

The function of the relaxation response mechanism is to return the body’s function to normal after a stress-induced event. If, however, the body is exposes to prolonged, elevated stress factors, with little re-balancing time allowance, there comes a point where the relaxation response mechanism may become overworked to the point of losing its elastic quality. The result is that rather like the muscles analogy, the body continues secreting Cortisol – as well as other chemicals – into the blood stream long after the event. As we shall see, this is greatly influenced by the quality of our perception. The adverse effects of this throughout the body are numerous – from impaired cognitive performance to weakened immunity and inflammatory reaction in the body all the way to brain atrophy.


Every action in our life – even the purely habitual – begins with a thought process. When we think, the thought process activates multiple inner chain reactions that, depending on the subject, range from tame to intense, from a feel-good moment to cold sweat. The more it concerns things that are up, close and personal, the greater the vibrancy and concentrate of the inner reaction, leading to alterations in radiation, posture, blood chemistry, heart-rate, breathing, digestion, impact on the five senses, muscle tension and so on.

One of the most immediate impacts of a stress-inducing thought process is to cause shallow breathing, leading to oxygen deprivation and faculty slow-down, just when the opposite is needed.

As an example, when we encounter situations that may potentially threaten our integrity, the mental reaction can be quite powerful. Please note ‘may potentially’ because the thought alone generates a reaction. Now think of examples that are personal to you, where just thinking about a may-be of something or about an unfortunate incident causes a hot-flush or inner fight-flight reaction.

One of the most debilitating aspects of stress is that of mental and emotional fatigue – think metal fatigue in aircraft – leading to a state of disconnect from reality: To effectively deal with stress we need to develop new thinking and personal decision-making technologies.

The Team Scenario
The deep connection between pressure, stress and thinking compounds in a team scenario: Unless well trained, different people think about and perceive what is happening through potentially conflicting psychologies and mental pathways, leading to potentially conflicting reactions.

Some 70% of people’s unspoken reactions to change happen in the unseen of themselves in terms of what they really think, their uniquely individual fight-flight reaction and personal alignments in terms of what their life revolves around. These inter-personal differences create another stress overlay, where the personal and team levels magnify each other. Effective leadership, when present, can neutralize much of this phenomenon.


Response is chosen; reaction is mostly impulsive-compulsive. In encountering high-pressure, stressful situations, most people fall into a reactionary mode, putting themselves and their emotions on the firing line. This vicious circle of compounding reactions leads to the wastage of precious energies, leaving the untrained individual exposed to various maladies, from energy depletion to a progressive weakening of the immune system.

In severe cases, in crossing unseen inner thresholds, people switch to ‘auto-pilot’ mode, where they go about their day a bit like a robot, devoid of the drive and inspiration that they may be known for. And then, one day, they wake up in the morning feeling completely incapacitated, literally unable to get out of bed. In my capacity as a coach I can write a book of case studies about the many bright, highly capable individuals that I have helped over the years in the process of coming through a burnout. You really don’t want to get anywhere near that threshold and what it inflicts upon the human system.

The Sidestep and the Two Considerations
The way to sidestep stress is to, well, sidestep stress. The basic practice is quite simple – the challenge is in actually doing it: In encountering a situation that delivers pressure and stress, rather than meeting it head-on with one’s emotions, to first take a side-step. The obvious next question is: “What do I do having taken a side-step?” The answer lives in the consideration of proneness and connected roles.

Prone (Merriam-Webster): “having a tendency or inclination”
Humans are imperfect beings – no matter how highly developed we may be, each of us has a proneness – and probably more than one kind – lurking in us. Subject to our education, training and development, a proneness can have mild or extreme outplays in our lives.

Each of us has his/her unique kind of proneness: Reactivity; impulsiveness; absent-mindedness; insecurity; hardness; being too soft; shyness; aggression; timidity; stubbornness; bouts of anger; depression; apathy; being a control freak; not letting go; impatience; panic attacks; emotional outbursts; being easily intimidated; hastiness… do you know yours?

In this context, a proneness is the outplay of a weakness or an uneducated behavioural trait that may lead to undesired outcomes.

The thing with a proneness is that it has that unfortunate tendency to turn up in the worst possible timing. As an example, when a loved one makes a mistake and needs our kindness, and instead, for whatever reason, we deliver an unkind reaction. This is aggravated no end when it just happened for the nth time, doesn’t it..? Another example: Our reaction when something does not go our way, especially when, for whatever reason, it is important that it does. When was the last time you found yourself regretting an unconstructive reaction? To top up this little examples part: How we react when in crisis. Some lose their head, some freeze, some make silly mistakes and some act wisely.

The aim is for us to be in charge of our lives by learning to contain our proneness on the one hand and deliver a fitting response on the other. And the best way to do that is through the media of connected roles.

Connected Roles
The big challenge in being confronted with situations that deliver excessive or regular doses of incessant pressure and stress is what we meet them with. If you only have a hammer you treat everything as a nail; if we only know one way to deal with stress, the way we relate to it may be misplaced.

Managing stress effectively in a leadership context calls for a highly adaptive approach that makes full use of the astonishing natural versatility of the human design. As an example, while being able to be ‘centered’ is by itself a useful ability, it can end up being like that hammer because there are situations that call for more than just that.

A connected role – “connected” to mean in harmony with and powered by our natural formations – is a role that we step into, a role that we create – a mental formation – through which we respond to the demand that a situation puts upon us. So instead of our reactions being flavoured by a proneness, they are shaped by how we bring to effective deployment different combinations of our natural qualities and capabilities.

The aim is to learn to translate this profound concept into a fluid daily practice, leading to the establishment of empowering habits that activate in alignment with the situation that we find ourselves in.

The first requirement in encountering an unknown situation is to perceive and comprehend what is happening. The process of detecting and discovering what is at play is a critical element, a set of developing skills, in ensuring our survival and in developing our ability to perceive change and new opportunities. This role needs and does have its own unique name and ongoing daily practices. Another example concerns situations that require our problem solving abilities which has its own skill-set and behavior modes. One more example: A connected role that ensures that we never lose sight of the human in the human, even when we are managing bottom line scenarios.

There are ten fundamental connected roles but at the end of the day what is important is to develop the ability to meet demanding situations with the formations and behaviors that allow for an effective response in the context of what is actually happening rather than an ineffective, energy draining reaction.

Summing Up

As already mentioned, pressure and stress = demand to do or be something. Inability to comprehend the need, to do and be it fully or partially leads to the building of stress. The way is to work to build an inner core of values and qualities that transcends any locality while also creating aninner team of connected roles with their accompanying skill-sets.

The two faces of the 21st century – the insane aspects and the incredible opportunities to create, develop and evolve – require a holistic personal effectiveness methodology that enables us to stay intact and bring into the daily arena the best of ourselves; to ensure that our lives are guided by what is really important to us in the long term while delivering excellence today.

“Stress is not being able to use oneself properly”

David Gommé
World Copyright 2013© David Gommé

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