This is a stressful time. Stocks experienced their worst week since 2008. Counter to our view, treasury yields hit new all-time lows. Crude price is in a tailspin, down more than 20 percent since December when we wrote that “Being bullish on oil is getting easier and easier.” And, to top it all off, the coronavirus outbreak threatens to roil our desert gathering.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but foresight is better,” wrote William Blake. Prospective hindsight, also called the pre-mortem technique, is one way to prepare for stress before it happens. By looking into the future and imagining how it may unfold, we can overcome blind spots and evaluate a course of action to deal with any situation.
Our brain under stress releases cortisol, which increases our heart rate, it modulates adrenaline levels, and this clouds our thinking. The pre-mortem technique gives us a chance to be objective and feel secure enough in our decision making in real time. We cannot eliminate the stress in our lives, but we can think ahead and at least prepare for it.
Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension, what happens in our brain and our body when something we care about is at stake. In a typical stress response, our heart rate goes up and our blood vessels constrict. This is why chronic stress is often associated with cardiovascular disease. But what makes stress harmful isn’t the basic physical reaction that causes our heart to pound and palms to sweat, but our belief that this is a bad feeling.
When the stress response is viewed as helpful—the pounding heart is preparing us for action, breathing faster is no problem as it’s getting more oxygen to our brain—a Harvard study found that our blood vessels stay relaxed. This is a much healthier cardiovascular profile and doctors say it looks like what happens in moments of courage and joy.
In other words, when we change our mind about stress, we can change our body’s response and transform our experience of stress. As William James once said, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal suggests a three-step approach to create the “biology of courage”: acknowledge stress when we experience it, welcome the stress by recognizing that it’s a response to something we care about, then make use of the energy it gives us. Stress can activate strength and can be used as a signal to the body to help us rise to the challenge.
That is what we must do now.