Sunday, October 09, 2011

Stress is due to failure in (un)certainty management system

Most of the advice on stress management is ineffectual because the advice is based on a universal approach to stress management. Much like cancer researchers in 1950's who believed that there was 'one cancer' which can be treated with one universal cure, most of us believe that there is only 'one type of stress'  that can be cured by one approach. However as researchers found out, stress like cancer are of different types, and each type requires different strategy to prevent and cure.

To help you manage stress better, you have to understand that stress is caused by the failure of our certainty management system. It is like sugar control done by pancreas. If the sugar level is more, insulin hormone brings it back to normal. If it is less, glucagon hormone gets it back to normal. It is a homeostasis system.

When you desire an outcome such as passing with 85%, or getting a x job, or reaching your college by 11 am, this outcome is not in your control. You are uncertain if the outcome will indeed happen as expected/desired. When you face this uncertainty, your 'uncertainty level' rises. You feel disoriented. If it rises beyond your assimilation threshold - your capacity to assimilate the uncertainty - you become stressful, or dysfunctional. Stress is a signal that our uncertainty management system is failing to reach homeostasis, much like failing to reach homeostasis of sugar leads to diabetes. 

Dynamics of every-day stress  

You get up in the morning. Everything is fine.
Event 1: You hear the news of your father's deteriorating health on the phone. Possibilities of uncertain outcome goes through your mind. Uncertainty level increases. You go to the office.
Event 2: You come to know from your boss that you have to immediately go and meet one of the customer because of his complaint. Uncertainty pool increases further.
Event 3: And then you get a phone from your home that your son has fared poorly in arithmetic. Uncertainty level increases further.
Stock and flow model of stress***

At this point, let us assume that uncertainty level has gone beyond your assimilation threshold level i.e beyond your capacity to assimilate the uncertainty. Until now you were feeling nervous and disoriented, now this new 'event' makes you dysfunctional. You are 'Stressed'.

Now you tend to do something 'drastic' or 'incomprehensible'. Most of us go into 'action' mode and tend to display anger with our nearest or weakest associates. For instance, you may call up your wife and angrily blame her for not taking care of the house and children. Or  if you meet your subordinate who has put up a conveyance voucher, you will call him and 'blast' him for spending money on taxi instead of using auto-rickshaw.

This happens every day with all of us. Fortunately, after a nice sleep ( which helps you defocus from the outcome) or with some talk with the customer who accepts that it was his mistake, your uncertainty level drops. You feel better. You suddenly get a better perspective of the situation. With uncertainty level lower than your assimilation threshold, you respond to the situation 'appropriately' instead of reacting. For instance, you will try to understand what went wrong with your son's arithmetic paper and help him.

Every event generates uncertainty to a different degree

Basically, uncertain outcome of every event increases your uncertainty level of tub. The degree of increase however depends on two elements:
  • perceived consequences from the undesirable outcome, and 
  • the amount of 'control' you perceive to have over the outcome.
Firstly, the impact of perceived consequences. If you hear about the bomb blast in a local train at 3 pm, your uncertainty level will increase appreciably if you know that your 'son' returns home at the same time. If you know that your son reaches home at 6 pm, your uncertainty level will not increase as much. Please remember, the consequences are 'perceived'. It is your subjective interpretation. More the perceived impact of consequences of event, more it increases the uncertainty level.

Secondly, you have two levers to control the increase of uncertainty level: gathering information about the variables related with outcome and your ability to influence the outcome. For instance, once you talk to the customer and gather information  of what has caused the complaint, you know what can be done to address the outcome. This reduces the level of uncertainty tub. If you can take immediate 'action' to control the customer complaint, it will further reduce uncertainty level in the tub. On the other hand, if your 'ability to act' depends on your 'organisational policies'. If you are not sure of your boss's approval, you uncertainty level, instead of decreasing, may increase further.

By gathering information about the uncertainty, you can generate less uncertainty. For instance, travel to another city always increases the uncertainty level. But with more experience of traveling, as you gather more info about the city and schedules, your uncertainty level does not increase to the same level. In other words, expertise and experience of the outcome increases your uncertainty level by a lesser degree. That is why you may be more stressful in arranging 'birthday event' for your child (because you are not aware of it), than managing a 'global event' of your product launch ( of which you are expert)

Your response to the event depends on your assimilation capacity ( threshold level)

As you would have understood from the above example, a single event may not make you dysfunctional, because uncertainty is a 'stock' element, the level in the tub. At an event level, uncertainty is a transient flow. Only when your 'uncertainty stock' crosses your assimilation threshold, you lose control of your self and react disproportionately to the event. You may even get surprised by the 'extent' of your anger or 'reaction' at such times. This is what is meant when we say that 'the small event was the last straw on the camel's back'.

Each of us have a capacity to bear 'x' level of uncertainty. We call this level as the threshold level because it represents our mental capacity to withstand uncertainty in our lives. This 'x' level is essentially determined by our adopted beliefs of outcomes and the 'sense of direction' in our lives. 


As you would have deduced from the above discussion, you require 3 different strategies to manage your stress:

1. Strategy to manage inflow/outflow of uncertainty 

Every uncertain event will increase the level of uncertainty tub. You can only reduce the degree of increase. Depending on the 'event' you have to devise different strategies.

Only information, not data, will reduce your uncertainty level of an event. Internet websites only provide 'data', that is why it is not helpful in such situation! That is why, it is more helpful to call up your distant car-fanatic friend, when you are buying a car. Or finding a friend, who has recently bought a car, may also be more useful.

If you recognise your limitations of knowledge and are willing to seek advice from others, it will help you maintain your uncertainty level of an event. Given our 'limitation' of understanding every event, it  is prudent to accept that 'we cannot know everything'.

2. Strategy to enhance your assimilation threshold ( your capacity to bear uncertainty)

Spiritual Guru's offer this approach as a universal cure for managing stress by advocating meditation. However, after understanding the stock and flow model of stress, you will appreciate that managing stress as 'stock of uncertainty' is not enough; you also have to manage the 'inflow' and 'outflow' of uncertainty every day.

Although this is a more durable and solid approach to manage your stress, it also demands far more time, effort and commitment from your side to practice and perfect it than the first approach. In other words, you need time on your side to make this work. You cannot manage the stress of your next month's exam, by using this method.

3. Strategy to mitigate the effect of accumulated uncertainty 

Despite initiating the strategies of controlling inflow/outflow and managing the assimilation threshold,  you will accumulate lot of stress daily until you become 'master' in using the two approaches. You cannot wait until you learn, because the accumulated stress affects your daily life in two ways. You need to find your way of mitigating this impact.

One, you need to become sensitive to your ' daily increase in uncertainty level' ( especially when it is closer to your threshold level) and postpone the critical decisions until you recover to your 'normal level'. When your uncertainty level is closer to your threshold, you become over-sensitive to certain aspects and ignore other important aspects of a situation. It is prudent to wait and delay such critical decisions, especially decisions like choosing a life partner, or shifting a job.

Second, accumulated stress starts impacting our body. Chronic ailments of diabetes, BP and cardiac are correlated with high stress levels for a long time. It is therefore necessary to 'dissolve' this stress every day, either through yoga, exercise or some other 'physical method'. As impact of accumulated stress on body is irreversible, it is extremely critical to mitigate this effect.

I know that more detailed discussion on each of the above strategies will be required later to help you manage your stress. I however hope that this overall framework of Stock and flow model of stress will help you 'relook' at Stress management in a far more meaningful and practical way.

*** This "Stock and flow model of stress' is based on three principles
1.  Self control as a limited resource model enunciated by Mark Muraven, Dianne M. Tice, and Roy F. Baumeister
2.  Concept of assimilation capacity enunciated by Daryl Conner
3. Systems thinking concept of 'threshold' or 'tipping point' 

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