Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

This is the title of a book by Prof. Robert Sapolsky, and it has a simple message (though the book is anything but simple). For me, it’s a message that pulls together two factors, a similarity and a difference. Both zebras and humans are mammals and share some aspects of biology, including the core mechanisms of a stress response. And we are different because we have a thinking mind – at least, we believe, more so than zebras.

When we perceive a threat, our bodies start a biological process via the sympathetic nervous system, often called the fight, flight, freeze response. It puts us on high alert towards the perceived threat. It’s driven and supported by a hormonal cascade, including an increase of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and, a few seconds later, cortisol.

The terminology of this biological response isn’t important, but the experience will be familiar. We will have all benefited from it (running for the train or a final burst of energy to finish a task) and almost certainly suffered with it too (I can’t think straight or sleep).

The second core mechanism is our ability to think. Zebras, when not running for their lives, seem to enjoy grazing in the sun. And, although we may enjoy time in the sun, we’re also quite good at thinking ahead to problems that might occur or going over ones from the past, both of which can also lead to a stress response. We’re not about to be eaten, but we can imagine all sorts of unpleasant things that might happen. As the author Mark Twain said, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

We could make light of this psychological stress with phrases like ‘it’s all in your head’ or ‘it might never happen.’ There is a grain of truth to this, but it also underestimates the power of the mind. Our brain is the master organ, and the body will prioritise it over everything else. It’s the central arbitrator of every pleasantness and unpleasantness, every drive and break; nothing is more powerful. So, let’s not use phrases like ‘it’s all in your head’ as a simile for it’s not real; there is nothing more real, to us.

This isn’t great news if you’ve ever suffered from stress, anxiety, or other psychological issues. But it can also be good news if you have approaches to help use that power to support yourself. Mindfulness is a set of techniques or skills that help us develop this power, as are therapy models like CBT or any approach that allows us to combine intellect and behaviour to make a difference.

So, why don’t zebras get ulcers? Our zebra is out on the savanna, grazing. It sees or hears something suspicious, which triggers the stress response supplying the focus and energy to literally run for its life. Either the zebra is caught and eaten, a permanent ending to its stress. Or, more likely, it escapes, and the stress response has done its job and abates. Relax, no more tension, back to munching grass.

Our psychologically driven stress doesn’t always have such a clear ending, which, if unmanaged, can lead to it lingering much longer than is helpful, becoming chronic (long-lasting) – which is the connection in humans to stress ulcers.

I consider short- or long-term (resilience) approaches for managing psychological stress. Though, any strategy, if overdone or poorly done, can have downsides, which are more evident in some coping mechanisms, like drinking alcohol, smoking, and over-eating.

Other short-term tools, like exercise, relaxation, or breathing techniques, can be helpful. I think of mindfulness as helping us develop long-term approaches to managing stress. Although not a perfect analogy, one is like taking a painkiller for a headache, and the other is learning to stop the headache from coming. Both are valuable.

What short and long-term approaches do you find helpful for managing your stress and improving resilience?

Aghhh – I’m alone with my thoughts!

Psychologist Timothy Wilson led a study in 2014 describing how hard some people find it to be with their thoughts.  One experiment even tested if people would rather give themselves an unpleasant electric shock than sit alone with their thoughts for fifteen minutes – 67% of men and 25% of women shocked themselves (in one extreme case, 190 times!)

Why does it matter if we’d prefer to be doing anything other than being alone with our thoughts?  For me, it’s about wellbeing.

I don’t deliberately mess up my house, but it gets messy.  I am vacuuming again, more cobwebs, wiping down.  And it quickly becomes apparent if I’m neglecting things (hang on, just getting the mop out).

And my mind is a bit like my house, accumulating clutter – randomly scattered unthunk thoughts waiting to be dealt with.

Sleep is an excellent cleaner – particularly REM (or dream) sleep, which seems to help process thoughts and emotions, casting off the unneeded ones and filing away those it deems significant.  But it’s not always as discerning as I might like, leaving a few unpleasant ones lurking behind the sofa and removing some of the more pleasant ones I’d left on the coffee table.

Consciously choosing to process our thoughts can add an element of discernment into the mix.  Though, as Prof. Wilson showed, there must be reasons we avoid our thoughts, probably many, and I’m going to go with three, boredom, discomfort, and effort.

Boredom (or the need for entertainment) – sometimes thoughts don’t seem terribly interesting, boring even.  Not when I compare them with making progress on my language learning app, getting on with dinner, or working through my ever-extending task list.  And, when evening comes, I can settle down with the next episode on Netflix.

Boredom is an unpleasant state for most of us.  But a little counterintuitively, I think it’s also an active state – we are processing our situation, deciding it’s not engaging, and wishing things were different.  Sometimes that’s valuable input, but if it leads to avoiding the things it’s helpful to face, whether that’s my tax return or allowing my mind to think, boredom is another way our clever minds procrastinate.

We don’t have to accept boredom.  Bringing curiosity into the mix, noticing if the boredom is avoidance, or having a little conversation with ourselves about what might be going on.  Then making an active choice rather than going with a reactive ‘get my phone out’ or whatever well-worn habit we’ve learned to ease this state might serve us well.

Discomfort – the thoughts we need to process are sometimes unpleasant, and frankly, I don’t want to be having these thoughts and wish they’d go away!  They might be ones I’m very familiar with, and, groan, here they come again.  Or they might be fresh nasties readily cooked up by my sometimes unhelpfully creative mind.

Although this might not be the right moment to process unpleasant thoughts, often, they will stick around until we do.  So, having the skill and the courage to do it, perhaps with some support, is worth the investment.

An article paragraph isn’t spacious enough to teach the skills of sitting with unpleasant thoughts (an 8-week mindfulness course provides more space).  Still, some key elements include being open and non-judgemental of ourselves (I’m not ‘broken’ because I have these thoughts).  Then, being willing to sit with the discomfort without reacting to it – neither giving in or fighting it nor pushing it away or trying to master it, but being curious about any value that might be lurking beneath.

Often this way of sitting with the discomfort can be enough to allow perspective and creativity to provide valuable insight.

Effort – processing thoughts can be hard work.  I know my mind would rather not work too hard; it’s much easier to follow its habits.  Whether thinking about things it’s used to thinking about, bizarrely, even if those things are unpleasant, like the ones I worked hard to develop around anxiety or self-criticism.  It’s not thinking itself that’s hard; it’s new thinking, new ways of looking at things, and choosing to sit with complex or challenging thoughts rather than heading down the oh-so-familiar mental pathways.

The key for me is to make the helpful things I find hard now automatic in the future, which requires going through an effort barrier.  Repetition is one of the ways the mind gets good at something.  For example, suppose I practice sitting with unpleasant emotion, starting with something just a little unpleasant, and moving through it rather than continually fighting it off.  Although it might not become a pleasant task, I will get much better at it.  It will embed itself in my brain as a skill I can call on, ultimately requiring less effort.

When I was learning mindful meditation, it was, at times, frustrating, tedious, and sometimes felt like hard work.  I tell people now that I hope they struggle when learning it – not because I want anyone to suffer, but because that way, you know you’re on the path to change.  And it does get easier, usually quite quickly, often turning out to be quite pleasant!

Unpleasant, dull, or difficult thoughts, like the detritus of my house, do seem to keep coming.  And that’s OK, or at least, it’s normal.  Once we’ve built some good habits, we know to clear up behind the sofa and to put the good stuff back on the coffee table.

Resilience isn’t about being tough

We use resilience in the face of adversity which comes in many forms, from the impact of a pandemic to the somewhat lighter arriving late to an appointment or spilling coffee down our favourite top.

There is no absolute agreement in psychological research about resilience, but one way it’s been summarised uses the three R’s – Resistance, Recovery, and Reconfiguration.  The first of these is often translated as toughness, but I don’t think that’s helpful.  Let’s look at the other two before returning to Resistance.

Having asked hundreds of people, I’d say that Recovery is the most common of the Rs we use to describe resilience, typically using a phrase like the ‘ability to bounce back’.  This might bring to mind the analogies of the sapling flexing in the wind or the more literal bouncing back of a ball.

Bouncing back can be a good analogy, but like most complex things that involve humans, it isn’t perfect.  For example, bouncing back implies a ‘fast’ return, quickly recovering to where we started, which is perfectly reasonable for those lighter adversities but less so for something like the loss of someone close.  Even with great skill, recovery may take some time, and that’s normal.

Reconfiguration refers to the growth we may go through while dealing with adversity. It’s common for people to describe that although they wouldn’t choose to go through their difficulty or wish it on anyone else, now they are different.  Somehow stronger, more skilled than before, or with a better appreciation for the value of life.  I used to wish I could have this kind of growth without going through adversity, but I’m not sure it works like that!

If you are currently going through adversity, and many of us are, I find it helpful to appreciate that growth is a possible outcome and even asking ourselves, ‘how can I grow from this?’ If it seems insensitive, or your answer is ‘I can’t’ then it might be too early, or the question needs phrasing differently.

And finally, we get to Resistance.  The image this suggests for me is an oak tree – majestic and solid.  But even the mighty oak will flex and move in the wind.  The core may look solid, made more so by its growth through adversity from a sapling, but the leaves and branches still flex, and forces still create strain through the roots.  For me, this describes how we may have developed skills, mindsets and resources – the three aspects that I suggest make up resilience – that allow us to work with difficulty and continue to function well in the face of adversity.

One of those skills, for example, is our ability to work with unpleasant emotions rather than them working us.  Blocking out emotion, which for many is the epitome of toughness, is rarely a helpful long-term strategy.  Having the skills to face and feel unpleasant emotions, working with them and responding wisely is a real resilience skill – and a fundamental one.  It helps us to be flexible, see options, function, and perhaps learn from our adversity.

Business consultant Tom Peter suggests that business leaders often consider the hard stuff of finances to be the bottom line, the fundamentals of business.  When the actual hard stuff is what we often call the soft stuff, how we treat our customers and staff, the consideration we put into our services – it’s the bottom line that’s soft, totally dependent hard stuff of working with people.  He coined the phrase “Soft is hard.  Hard is soft,” which is a perfect analogy here – the soft stuff of emotions, for example, is actually the hard stuff of resilience.

It’s not toughness we develop; it’s skills, mindsets, and resources for working effectively with adversity – as, if you reflect, you already know.

The soft skills that are crucial in the modern workplace

By J Shaw for reachremarkable.com

Workplaces are changing — and you need to keep up if you want better opportunities. Now that organisations are disrupting their processes with automation and other technologies, recent LinkedIn data revealed that job skillsets have already changed by a quarter since 2015. Professionals need to further step up their upskilling considering that job skillset changes are again expected to double by 2027.

With automated tools handling more work processes, employers are now more interested in the soft skills that professionals can offer. In the new face of the workplace, these are the soft skills that are taking over:

Many individuals limit their perception of creativity to artistic talents. However, this soft skill is becoming crucial in workplaces, especially because it sparks innovation.

Creativity can be a lifesaver in tricky career challenges, which is why our article on the ‘Three Easy Everyday Creativity Tips’ suggests that you should dare to be different. Rather than keeping up with industry trends, you can try to suggest products and services that you may have encountered in your personal life. You can also get inspiration by reading books, movies, or even TEDTalks about highly creative individuals.

Industries have had to change working conditions and processes in the past few years, forcing employees to learn how to become more agile and flexible.

Given the drastic changes, it’s no surprise that 24% of professionals listed agility as their top answer in LHH’s poll on the top soft skills to develop in 2022. Since agility is a key part of resilience, you’ll often see it described as flexibility in resources that discuss the importance of resilience in the workplace. Being adaptable to change is a necessary skill to develop in the modern workplace since it teaches you how to become open to various processes in your professional life.

Workplace communication was already a big problem for some companies, but this became even harder once remote and hybrid teams were established.

Communication skills are often taken for granted, and Business Advice points out that this can result in misunderstandings, arguments, and even financial losses. So if you think that you need to be better at presenting your ideas and handling arguments, then you have to practise delivering concise messages and treating your co-workers with respect.

Many professionals think that confidence is a value, but it’s actually something that you can develop through learning, practice, and persistence.

Instead of ignoring negative self-deprecating thoughts, our article entitled ‘Mindfulness is Not…About Stopping Your Mind Thinking‘ suggests that you can start by being aware about your thoughts on yourself and your work. Once you’ve become aware of these perceptions, whether negative or positive you can properly acknowledge your thoughts and let go. By keeping these thoughts in check, it’ll be easier to focus on your unique strengths and become more confident handling work projects, meetings, and more.

Time Management
Big work responsibilities can get so overwhelming that many professionals end up using more time worrying about the task itself than actually doing it.

Instead of worrying, time management expert Julie Morgenstern suggests that you dedicate 15 minutes of attention to the tasks you want to accomplish. Since it’s easy to set aside 10 to 15 minutes of your time, you can use this as a chance to draft an important e-mail or to do some quick research, freeing up your mental space for other tasks.

Strong soft skills are able to help your hard skills shine in the workplace. By developing your soft skills, you’ll find it easier to cultivate work relationships and accomplish crucial tasks.


Small actions, big changes

We know how leverage works – as Archimedes is quoted as saying, ”give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I shall move the world.”  Or said in another way, it’s not the size of the task; it’s how I go about it. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, etc. etc., we know the theory.

A habit is anything we do or think automatically in response to a trigger or prompt.  When we get dressed in the morning, we likely put on clothes in the same order, or whenever I hear that voice, I get a burst of excitement… or dread.  These automatic ways of doing things rule much of our lives (lesson one of my mindfulness course – running on autopilot.)

It’s these automatic ways of responding that have got you to where you are today, though admittedly with the occasional tough decision, whether chosen or forced along the way.

If we want to create change in our lives, we often start by imagining where we want to be, which might look very different from where we are now.  Whether it’s a promotion or new job, losing or gaining weight, a career switch, a change of partner or close relationship, moving home, and so on.  Each of these and any significant change will require a myriad of actions, and each action will require a decision.

Any decision requires a process, and the outcome isn’t fixed, hence the term ‘decision.’  Yet, it is in these decisions that we often fail. Making one decision at the start might be easy. Making decisions every day, or multiple times every day, when any of those outcomes could take you toward or away from your intended change is often the problem.

Back to habits.  How hard is the decision to clean your teeth at night?  Is there even a decision at all?  It’s just what you do, there’s no noticeable decision at all.  And that’s what we want to leverage.

For change x, what daily actions, y and z, can you make habitual?  Or, how can I take away the need to decide and just do y and z.

One approach that might help cultivate automatic is to make the things you want to do as easy as possible and things you don’t want to do as hard as possible.

I love crisps / chips.  I also know that if I were to eat them every day, it wouldn’t support my health goals.  One way to achieve ‘fewer crisps’ is not to buy them.  If I really wanted some, I’d have to make a special trip to the shop – which is a barrier bigger than my desire, most of the time.  But, I chose to carry on buying them, deciding to only eat crisps on weekends and to remove them from my kitchen so I wouldn’t have to make the decision every time I opened the food cupboard!  At my house, you’ll find crisps in the cupboard with coats and shoes… which works for me.

On days when I do formal exercise, I get dressed in workout gear as soon as I get up.  It takes away a decision and action (to get changed).

These are simple examples, though they are real, and both lead to meaningful outcomes for me that were once part of a change to focus deliberately on my health.

Is there a change you want to make?
• If so, what are the small actions you can take each day that will eventually deliver that change?
• When you know the actions, how can you make them automatic?

Don’t depend on willpower

Sometimes change is easy; perhaps you or someone you know changed or started a new habit and found it straightforward. But, it’s not the typical path. We might decide to eat differently, maybe following the 16/8 fasting approach we’ve heard about, where you eat within an 8-hour window (and so not eat for 16 hours), deciding, for example, that you won’t eat after 7.30pm or before 11.30am.

In the moment we make the decision, we’re healthy, not hungry, and the evidence seems to suggest it’s worth trying this fasting approach, so it’s an easy decision.

The first day, buoyed with enthusiasm, we follow the approach. The next day, Friday, we’re watching our favourite TV show at 9pm, the one where we usually have a glass of wine, or our favourite snack… and we’re faced with the reality of craving. Aghh, I really want that snack and come on, it is Friday, and so the craving wins. And that’s the end of this silly 16/8 fasting lark.

The challenge is not just establishing a new habit; it’s dealing with all the existing ones! We often put too much trust in our willpower which is often not up to the job. To say this isn’t to suggest that any of us is weak. In our example, the combination of habit, emotion and biology are all rooting for the wrong side, and willpower is easily overwhelmed.

Those with the best results know not to rely on willpower. What we need are strategies! Firstly, anticipate the craving (or remember it from the past), and decide what to do when it inevitably comes — when faced with the craving, what will you do?

The strategies don’t have to be complex or sophisticated, how one or more of:

  • Drink water – expanding the stomach can reduce hunger perception
  • Clean your teeth – who wants to spoil that minty freshness
  • Sit in a different seat – the trigger leading to craving may depend on several time and place elements coming together
  • Remove the snacks – don’t buy them, hide them, lock them up, …
  • Allow snacks once per week, e.g. only on Fridays
  • Get support from family, friends, a coach, or community
  • Watch a different program

These examples may or may not work for you, the key is to use strategies that don’t leave you at the whim of willpower.

If you find change difficult, then welcome to club human. Disrupting established patterns in our lives, even when we know they are unhelpful patterns, can include a mix of physical and mental obstacles that make change messy.

So, if you’re using the new year as an opportunity to initiate change, go for it, but take along a bag of strategies to support you along the way.

We become what we think about

Have you ever tried not to think? Even better, tried not to think about something specific – like white bears or noisy chickens? Once we become aware of something, consciously trying to avoid it often encourages the mind to keep checking in, to make sure we’re not thinking about it – and so, repeatedly thinking about it.

This phenomenon was tested formally in the late 1980s by psychologist Wegner and colleagues, leading to the theory of ironic mental processes of thought suppression, or the white bear phenomenon. It appears anytime we use thinking to try and stop thinking. For example, when we try not to think of unpleasant things or use thinking to try and create something that requires us not to think – consider ‘forcing’ ourselves to fall asleep or choking in sport.

Now consider how we learn. In short, to consciously learn something, we focus on it or engage in it repeatedly over time. And eventually, our brain creates more persistent neural networks that we see as skills or understanding.

This learning process isn’t just about external skills like driving or gardening; it’s everything, including how we think. If we repeatedly think in specific ways, we get better at automatically thinking in those ways. If we’re always self-critical, we get better at being critical, and if we’re always supportive, we get better at that too.

We get better at doing what we repeat. Which you might word as: we become what we think about most.

At what would you like to better? When I’m asked variations on this question, my initial response is often that I want to ‘stop’ doing x or y, stop criticising my children’s behaviour, stop spending so much time on Facebook, stop…

Unfortunately, this ‘stop doing’ thinking pattern, supported by ironic mental processes, can have the opposite effect in the long run (even if there’s an initial reduction). So, what might we do?

You probably already know. It’s the what can I start doing approach. For example:

  • What can I do?
  • How will I behave when…?
  • How can I help?
  • What is a wise way to respond?
  • What would support my wellbeing here?
  • What response would support the wellbeing of others?

To help unseat persistent unhelpful (or ‘negative’) thinking, we might also start writing about the situations or the thinking itself to see it a little more objectively. The process of noticing our thinking patterns rather than trying to ‘stop’ them can cultivate a lighter emotional approach, which both reduces their unpleasant impact and allows us to start choosing how to respond or what to start doing.

Mindfulness isn’t the only approach here, but it is a comprehensive one (though mindfulness isn’t about stopping your mind from thinking).  And we can combine it with other methods for resilience, leading to more proactive ways of choosing who and how we become.  So, when you find yourself saying ‘oh, it’s just how I am‘ remember, you’ve practised yourself into how you are now AND you can practice your way out.

Three easy everyday creativity tips

Creativity is helpful for those particularly sticky challenges, but it’s also a great approach in daily life.  When we get too wrapped up in the minutia of our days, we operate mostly on automatic pilot. Although that’s fine for some things, it’s often not the best approach if we’re feeling fed-up, upset, or generally unmotivated.  And, it’s even easier to be swept up in autopilot with all the time most of us are spending at home.

Here are three easy everyday tips to break into our natural creativity.

1. Let go.  If you’re trying to solve a problem, whether an external one (re-organising the kitchen, getting that project on track) or an internal one (feeling unmotivated, or frustrated), often the harder and longer we try to tackle it, the more we get stuck.  When it’s our inner state, we might get stuck in rumination, going over and over the problem – and whereas the intention is good, the effect is often not.  One of my favourite ‘scientific’ models, because of its overly complicated name for such a simple thing, is transient hypofrontality – temporarily not thinking much.  That’s not to dismiss the effect though (or the work of Prof. Arne Dietrich who studied it).

When you’re engaged in something like washing up, exercise, or showering, it’s light enough that your brain can also run the more complex work of insight in the background.  Most ‘aha’ moments come when we’re not in the heat of the moment, but later when we’re driving, washing up, exercising…  When you allow yourself to let go and engage in something functional, it’s like the brain can get down to what it’s really good at.

2. Do something different.  It’s easy to think of what we can’t do, but what could you do that’s different from usual?  Perhaps you know someone who loves jigsaws, but it’s not your thing, do one anyway;  write a poem about a problem you’re working on; get a games lesson from a young person; walk in the woods; make a papier-mache tree, or learn how to say the alphabet backwards.  Doing something novel is a great way to allow your mind out of its usual box, and novel experiences enhance our creative insight.

3. Read or watch something creative or uplifting.  Just reading about someone creative (recent for me are Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin), watching an imaginative movie, or a movie about someone or something creative, like Dead Poets Society, or Eat, Love, Pray or something else uplifting, Slumdog Millionaire or Pursuit of Happyness perhaps, can also help to break out of that one-track mind.  Or delving into some of those TED videos you’ve put on the back-burner.

The pandemic restrictions will ease at some point, so, have a go a nudging your creative-o-meter before all that ‘normal’ stuff floods back in.

(Check out other creativity related posts)