Sunday 11 February 2018

Responding positively to stress

It is healthy to be positive about stress, says Kelly McGonigal – and backs it up with research data in her TED talk “How to make stress your friend.” The point is not that your pounding heart is a problem – actually it is a positive physiological response enabling you to act in response to the stress – but that the negative effects of stress only kick in if your blood vessels constrict as well.

This fits with my experience over many years working with my hay fever, which seems to have two interlinked dimensions:

  • The basic hay fever seems to be a simple allergic response: when the grass is flowering my airways get irritated and blocked up. 
  • The bigger variable is now I respond from there on. When I get panicky about my constricted airways, then the physiological response in the back of my nose and throat is to swell up even more - which really blocks my breathing in a dangerous way.
This sounds just like the people in the study quoted by McGonigal: they respond negatively to stress and get ill – 43% more likely to die within 8 years.

Over the last ten years I have been deepening my yoga and other spiritual practice to enable me to recover more quickly from the panic response to my hay fever. At the core are a mix of acceptance and shift in focus to relax my bodily responses. This corresponds directly to freer breathing and thus reduces the impact of the hay fever. It is not fixing the initial allergic response but it makes my life a whole lot better.

What is important for me and in line with McGonigal’s point is that the initial problem is just the trigger, and my long term health depends not on stopping the trigger, but responding to it in a healthy and resilient way. As she advocates, it helps to say to oneself “this is my body helping me rise to this challenge.”

In scientific terms (one of the studies quoted by McGonigal), this amounts to “participants instructed to reappraise their arousal exhibited more adaptive cardiovascular stress responses – increased cardiac efficiency and lower vascular resistance – and decreased attentional bias. Thus, reappraising arousal shows physiological and cognitive benefits. Implications for health and potential clinical applications are discussed.”

Thanks to my wonderful coach Vanissar Tarakali for teaching me so much about how to befriend and listen positively to my own body, and for referring me to the TED talk.

Saturday 27 January 2018

Sports star turns to leading systemic change

Bruce Fordyce has been famous for winning the Comrades Ultramarathon 8 times in a row, and nine times in total. Yet he is creating a bigger legacy as a systems-inspired leader in South Africa, via the parkrun movement. Free parkruns are getting South Africans out into our parks, waterfronts and other natural areas to run and walk weekly for joy and good health – over sixty thousand participants across the country at over 120 locations just last weekend, for example.
Bridgetown parkrun, 2017. Fordyce backs community leaders to create events like this
What impresses me is that his leadership is deeply empowering.This is not all about him, it is about his energy and backing enabling 2000 volunteers across the country to put on wonderful welcoming healthful events in their local communities. 

He shows up, he encourages and he inspires – but as a leader he doesn’t do the work, he doesn’t control everybody, he creates space for others to lead. As Prof Andrew Thatcher, a parkrunner with over 200 under his belt, says: "Bruce's leadership is about offering his support, encouragement, and occasionally his advice. The real work gets done by inspired teams of volunteers and passionate parkrunners."

It was a big honour to meet Fordyce this morning after he opened a new parkrun in my neighbourhood. What he says is that the change parkrun is bringing to South Africa is his biggest legacy – where winning Comrades brought personal fame, backing parkrun is bringing systemic change.

This is the kind of leadership we need – and actually community health is a good place to start. And the leaders I see succeeding most in business are those who share the Fordyce approach: give direction, inspire others and create space for them to lead.