Lesson of the Week

Stress Proof: I think clearly under pressure

Firemen have a protection protocol.  Pictured is one step:  pants and boots ready to go.  What is your protection protocol for stress?  Take a tip from one man who saved 1,268 refugees from being murdered.

Paul Rusesabagina was a hotel manager in Rwanda.  Outside the hotel, over 800,000 people were being murdered.  Inside the hotel, Paul saved 1,268 lives.  Years later, Paul was questioned how he maintained equipoise in the face of death.  He simply answered that his success was based on the fact that he remained a hotel manager.   Not being stressed, and being the best hotel manager he knew how to be was the only chance he had for survival.

Stress is the tense reaction to life experiences when you are a victim, helper, helper’s helper, or a mere observer.  A little stress can be a positive motivator.  However, too much stress can cause forgetfulness, helplessness, anger, sadness, unhealthy change in appetite, headaches, chest pain, hypervigilance, nightmares, fatigue, sequencing problems, and confusion.

You may not always understand what causes your stress or how to mitigate its ill effects, but there is certainly something you can do to stop stressing out.  Here are some concepts that should help.

Stress can be rooted in nature (biological causes) and/or nurture (psychological or sociological causes).  For instance, you might be immune from stress because you were born with a brain wired to cognitively deal well and quickly with stressful situations (nature) or because a mentor taught you how to overcome stressful situations (nurture).  The reverse is also true.  People, who have no natural inclination or upbringing to mitigate stress, might suffer debilitating results.

Another complicating biological variable is found by studying the almond shaped amygdala, deep within the temporal lobe of the brain.  The amygdala is involved in processing emotions and storing memories.  If you have an intense emotional event, the amygdala can create an autonomic response and secretions to prompt you to avoid that situation in the future – even without you remembering what the original situation might have been.

For instance, a woman lost her short-term memory abilities.  Researchers asked her to walk into a room and shake hands with several people.  The research required one person to have a buzzer in his hand.  When the woman shook this hand, the buzzer when off and she fearfully withdrew her hand.  The woman was ushered out of the room.  She was asked questions about the event and couldn’t remember being in the room.

After a few minutes, she was asked to go back in the room and shake the individuals’ hands again.  When she came to the man with the buzzer, she would not shake his hand.  Because of her short-term memory deficit, she did not remember the buzzer incident, but incredibly she did have an automatic response not to shake his hand.  The amygdala had built in a safety response and as a result she instinctively would not shake the perpetrator’s (buzzer’s) hand.

This is similar to the response of people who have had a traumatic event and suffer from posttraumatic stress.  There might not be a specific recollection of a traumatic event, but there is still an emotional and behavior residue that becomes evident when there are triggers of the initial traumatic event.  Here is a true example of this concept.  A child was in her family’s kitchen and a criminal attacked her.  After that event, she became mysteriously, deeply stressed every time a plane went over her house in the afternoon.  Forty years later, the reaction became so intense that she went to counseling.  No amount of cognitive, behavioral, or drug treatments helped her stress.

One afternoon she heard a plane going over the house, became stressed, and shook uncontrollably.  However, this time she had a flashback or memory that at the exact time she was attacked as a child, a plane had gone over her house.  As a child she thought the people in the plane could see her but not help.  This brought on feelings of shame and helplessness.  The woman gained insight as to why the plane caused her stress — the amygdala had developed a warning system for being attacked – a plane going over the house.  However, the amygdala hadn’t really gotten it right.  The plane had nothing to do with the attacker.  The plane had simply become a posttraumatic stress trigger.

With this insight, she was able to mitigate the stress the next time a plane went over her house.  She took a rather humorous approach.  When she heard the plane and started getting stressed out, she started speaking to her self like this: “OK, amygdala.  You did your job linking the attack to the plane.  You’ve been warning me of impending doom for years now.  You are relieved of your job.”  If the stress continued, she said to herself, “Amygdala.  Go sit on the naughty chair.  Stop bothering me.” This brought on some laughter that mitigated the stress.  Next she did breathing exercises to relieve the physical reactions of a rapidly beating heart and jittery central nervous system.  She simply panted until the stress reactions went away.  Although the stress attacks have not completely subsided, they are quickly identified and overcome through inward dialogue, humor, and breathing exercises to relax the central nervous system.

Stress can become evident during many events and continue until you develop an effective protective protocol to mitigate the tension.  Here are some real life examples of people who have become stressed on their mission:

1. The present:  A town leader is sandbagging and watches as his work is breached and the town is flooded.  There is nothing he can do to save the town.
2. Aftermath:  A chaplain is asked to sit with a policeman whose legs have just been cut off in a multicar accident on the highway.  The policeman is saved, but loses both legs.  After being rescued, the chaplain is never able to connect with him again.  He has no closure after the trauma.
3. Anniversary:  A news report shows replay after replay of people jumping out of a burning building that blew up.  Each year a fireman is reminded of the event that took his brother’s life.
4. Tangential relationships:  A best friend’s daughter was blown up in war.  She continues to resent the senseless act of violence.  She has linked certain politicians with the decision and the mere look at their faces causes her stress.

There are many ways to successfully carry out your mission without debilitating stress. Here is one protection protocol you might adopt – like the fireman’s boot and pants ready to go approach.  The concept is called AAA — Accept, Ask, Act

1. The first step is to accept whatever is going on within or outside of you.  You can accept, but not agree.  For instance, if your employer is arguing with you, you can listen to what is being said.  If a thought is reoccurring in your mind, you can accept it, as is, no judgment.  If there is tension in your body, you can accept it — even embrace it.  You can just accept the event and emotions – no fault, no fear, no judgment.
2. Second after accept, ask.  Ask your self or the person meaningful questions to gain understanding about the situation.  What do you mean?  Where are you going with this?  What would you like to do?  Continue to ask questions until you better understand your self and/or the person.  Again in this step, there is no fault, no fear, no judgment.
3. Third after accept and ask, comes act.  Do something salutary for you and/or the person.  An act can mean dismissing yourself from the situation, breathing deeply, waiting for the thought to pass, or seeking help.

In the case of Paul Rusesabagina, when the killers came to his hotel, he listened to their demands, asked how else he could work together with them, and acted in a way fitting of a good hotel manager.  He only had to be himself.  This is the best protection protocol for you as well.  Be the best of who you are in real time.  Bring your best qualities to accept, ask, and act upon each situation.  In this way you will be able to mitigate the effects of stress and carry on your mission.


Stress is basically a disconnection from the earth, a forgetting of the breath. Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency. Nothing is that important. Just lie down.

- Natalie Goldberg, American Author


Activity:  Accept, Ask, Act

Materials:  Paper and pen or pencil

Time:  Ten minutes to write and ten minutes for each person to discuss.


1.  Make three columns on a piece of paper.  Label the columns:  Accept, Ask, and Act.

2.  Think of a very stressful situation that is still causing you stress.

3.  Take this situation and work through the three AAA steps:  Accept, Ask, and Act.

a) Accept:  Write down what you can accept about this stress.
b) Ask:  Ask yourself what you need to know to understand this stress.
c) Act:  Write down some action steps to mitigate this stress.

4.  Discuss your results with the other people in your group or with a friend or family member.


I can think clearly under pressure so I can ..... We'd like to hear your story about being stress proof. Write your story below.