me kay cooke

Seasonal Stress Matters

One of the things I’m often asked to write about is how to deal with stress during the festive season. Actually, the strategies that produce stress are the same throughout the year – it’s really only our perception that changes within differing contexts.

When we overrule ourselves with notions about things or people being a certain way, then we generate a very primitive fear response in the Amygdala. The resulting behaviour is simply a habituated response, which of course means you can change it.

Before change, we do need to check self-awareness because where we put our attention is astonishingly powerful in determining our outcomes.

You are not bound by habits of mind and body.

The key thing to remember is that our brains oscillate between ‘survive’ and thrive’, and influencing this is actually easier than you think.


Firstly we want our brains to be pointing towards a thrive response and draw attention towards behaviours and goals that nourish us.


Habitually, many people have been defaulting to ‘survive’ mode, cycling through behaviours gave the illusion of safety.


General survival behaviours are fear based and include:

  • Rage, outrage, depression, agitation, vigilance, anxiety, self-pity, self-delusion, self-harm …
  • Sympathetic nervous system is driving.
  • Neuro-chemically the brain is focused on survival and is unable to learn information it deems unnecessary to its survival.
  • Brain waves are high Beta or Gamma.


General thrive behaviours are solution focused and include:

  • Laughter, flexibility, resilience, flow, tolerance, respect for self and others.
  • Parasympathetic system is driving.
  • Neuro-chemically the brain is focused on thriving and is able to explore, learn and process new information.
  • Brain waves are low Beta, Alpha or Theta (Alpha/Theta is perfect for accelerated learning).


Check out the PDF ‘thrive or survive strategies’  with some simple contrasts of different ways people drive their brain. Which way are you driving towards?

Thrive or survive strategies


Remember also that quick brain hacks include Balloon Breathing, humming, and stroking a pet – all three quickly switch off the stress response. If that’s what you want to do …


Learning Lip Service

According to a Facebook thread, a high school in America was faced with an unusual problem after a particular trend  had formed amongst teenage girls.

The teenage girls would visit the bathroom and put on lipstick, before pressing their lips to the mirror, leaving dozens of little lip prints. Cute huh?
Every night, the janitor would remove the lipstick marks, only to find them replaced the next day,
The teachers tried all manner of interventions to stop the behaviour, to no avail. The girls were cautioned and scolded, pleaded with, and politely asked to stop. Nothing changed their behaviour.

Finally the principal decided that something had to be done.

She called all the girls to the bathroom and met them there with the janitor.
She explained that all these lip prints were causing a major problem for the poor chap who had to clean the mirrors every night, and to illustrate how difficult the mirror cleaning task was, she asked the janitor to demonstrate his efforts.
He took out a long-handled squeegee, dipped it in the toilet, and cleaned the mirror with it. Since then, there have been no lip prints on the mirror.

Teaching and learning is expedited when the same language is spoken.

How fast can behaviour change!




Teenage Stress Matters

13-year-old Lou (all names changed) and I chatted about general ‘stress’ matters during our coaching session. I’ve been working to have her distinguish between useful and non-useful stress. That is the difference between stress that she utilises to drive her, and the stress that holds her stuck.


Until now, she has had two differing strategies that she has generalised simply as ‘stress’.


One strategy drives her motivation to be getting stuff done; the other strategy prevents action and holds her stuck.


Lou regularly tells me that she is ‘stressed’ describing it as a label or even as her identity, rather than something that she is doing and feeling.


In fact, the word stress defines a cascade of physiological responses that prepare the body for action (fight, flight or freeze). And with a couple of exceptions (i.e. real threat of harm), the physiological responses are unwarranted and worse still, stimulated by thoughts, and then thoughts about thoughts.


When I unpick her account of school related stress, it soon transpires that she is actually running useful strategies with successful outcomes (e.g. staying focused and driven to complete homework or to revise). She has developed a strategy for self-propulsion (both away from failure and towards personal gain).


In a social setting however, she sometimes feels inertia. This is when she cannot drive herself towards a solution or away from feeling awful and keeps looping the problem around on itself through rumination or catastrophising.


In both scenarios, ‘stress’ is caused by an idea that she might fail, or by a negative comparison of herself to others.


So let’s remove the word ‘stress’ and instead, use the word ‘strategy’ because she can have more objectivity when using the word ‘strategy’ as it’s less emotive.


One ‘stress’ strategy Lou shared was her torment about whether the birthday gift she had bought for her friend Gemma would be ‘enough’. She was looping around ‘Yes, it’s fine/it’s what I want to give/it’s what I can afford, BUT, is it enough compared to what she bought me (disproportionately large and expensive)/what will Gemma think/what will others think/will Gemma be angry


Lou’s thinking strategy was caught in a loop that she couldn’t comfortably exit.

So we spent some time thinking laterally by looking at different mental maps of the world, different beliefs about giving and receiving and different value systems, plus different intentions (why do we give gifts). We explored different fears and rules (for self and for others).


Her conclusion was that it was OK for her to stick to her original gift plan.


By working through this perceived problem using drawings, movements and perceptual positions, she was able to begin to refine her strategy for problem solving. The problem (‘what should I give Gemma’) was not actually the problem; the problem was actually a bundle of stress responses she had generated by endlessly looping around the thinking (‘but what if my choice is not good enough’ etc).


Lou’s strategy upgrade involved starting and ending at the same place (‘what should I give Gemma’ – ‘I have decided what I will give Gemma’), but this time has the thinking processes were swift, uncomplicated and directed only towards solution. Previously they had looped back around on bad feelings generated by unhelpful imaginings. But now, any looping quickly swishes itself to reinforce the original good decision and feel good from authentic decision-making. This is efficient thinking.


The potential saboteur to this new strategy however, is her needing approval from others, which actually Lou thinks she does, but doesn’t feel is necessary. Such incongruence is the next bit of the jigsaw. We need to strengthen her sense of authenticity and her feeling that she is making the right decision, so that the ‘thinking about which social rules to follow’ becomes a choice rather than a series of rumination/catastrophising thinking loops.


More generally on the subject of Gemma’s attention demanding behaviours, we explored emerging (teenage) maps of the world and different value systems, and the notion that whilst most people gravitate towards ‘sameness’ some people need to find ‘difference’ in order to discover more about themselves. Lou and Gemma were indeed very different characters and held polar opposite values, but this was only a problem because Gemma wanted Lou to be step inline with her own mental map.


We discussed a variety of behavioural strategies for dealing with conflict arising from ‘different’ maps of the world.

For example A might simply respect B and discover there is much to learn from the difference between them.


A might try to influence/persuade B to change because A feels threatened by the difference between them.


A might try to influence/persuade B to change because A thinks that his/her version of how the world works is the only/best/better version.


A has already learnt how to manipulate the behaviour of B and has established an illusion of control. B may or may not yet know s/he has a choice about this.


There are many other variables. The key-coaching point with Lou is that when she learns to trust her authentic self she has great wisdom and confidence (ratified by her initial AND then final decision to buy Gemma a certain gift).


This self-respect is what will keep her focused through the ‘stresses’ of teenage life and especially when dealing with Gemma-type personalities.


We also explored a concept model of 100% joy – her birthright and entitlement. Of course it is not really possible to feel 100% joy 100% of the time because we all experience a variety of ‘routine’ emotions. However, she can ask the question of herself and of others:

  1. Is that thought/feeling stealing my joy?
  2. Does this person have (or have they earned) the right to influence my joy?


With regard to her relationship with Gemma, the answer to A) is yes, and the answer to B) is no.


And so we turn to boundaries and return to mental maps of the world. Lou’s world – Gemma’s world.


We can agree that there is a space between both worlds where communication is ideally respectful, flowing (2-way) and transparent. This is a space for Lou to visit and we used hoops to illustrate the boundary conditions of each world and the space between. By stepping into the space in between, Lou can take a neutral standpoint. A place to observe the structures of communication and a place to ask questions, check insights and apply ever-evolving wisdoms.