Fatherhood raises the stakes. You’ve suddenly got more financial responsibility and less time than ever before. Your sleep is invariably compromised and your relationship liable to shape-shift into some weird and unsettling new form. Fatherhood, in other words, can prove bloody stressful.
But that’s not a bad thing, insists Luke Mathers. He argues that stress is an evolutionary force that empowered our ancestors with the strength, focus and energy to survive in a dangerous world and outsmart hungry predators with very sharp teeth.
Mathers, the author of Stress Teflon, believes that stress is what fires us up to challenge new frontiers and achieve great things. “Without stress, life would be really dull, depressing and we’d be bored shitless,” he says.
Which is all well and good. Except when you’re lying there at 3am with minor heart palpitations as you fret about making your next mortgage payment. Or catch yourself exploding at your kids because you’re wound up and irritable as hell.
Yet herein lies the trick says Mathers, whose LinkedIn profile describes him as “optimist, author, speaker and coach”. What you need to do is reprogram how you look at stress and transform it from a source of ulcer-causing misery into a positive tool that can improve your life. Yep, we could do with a bit of that, too.
THE REFRAME GAME
When you’re confronted by a demanding situation – you’ve fighting a savage deadline / your kid’s having a public tantrum / you’ve run out of beer – you’re facing what Mathers describes as “a fork in the stressful road”.
“You can look at that problem as a threat,” he explains. “Or you can take the road that says, ‘Okay, this is a challenge! Fire up! Let’s go! Let’s climb that mountain!”
But this isn’t about hokey motivational slogans. Your chosen approach will, in fact, have a physiological knock-on effect. Whichever fork you take, your cortisol and adrenaline levels will initially spike. But if you perceive something as a challenge they’ll return to normal more quickly.
“When you treat something as a threat, your cortisol and stress levels stay higher for much longer,” says Mathers. “And that has really bad health effects on things like your cardiovascular system.”
USE THE THIRD SPACE
A high-powered executive is coming home early from work. Through a side-window he notices that his kids spot his approach and hastily run off to their rooms. “They didn’t want to be around him when he got home,” Mathers says.
“’Holy shit,” the CEO thinks and so he starts talking to his wife. And she says, ‘Well, you come home and you’re whingeing about this person and complaining about that person. You’re angry. It takes you two scotches and half an hour before you start to calm down and are pleasant to be around.’”
Chastened, the exec changes his nightly routine. When he returns from work, he starts to use a different entrance and heads straight for the bedroom to have a quick shower and change out of his work gear. “That way he can walk into the lounge room as dad, rather than CEO,” Mathers says. “He made a deliberate choice to be in the right frame of mind for whatever he was doing.”
Mathers cites this anecdote taken from a book called The Third Space, by Dr Adam Fraser to explain how gaining control of life’s transition points by creating conscious habits or rituals can help you “show up” in the right mindset for your work, family and friends.
Crucially, Mathers suggests, it’s an effective tactic that enables you to park your stress to prevent it from contaminating your next scenario and enable you to shift from work to dad mode.
HACK YOUR BIOLOGY
Recognising a problem is the first step to solving it. If you can become aware that you’re getting stressed there are genuine physical steps you can take to de-escalate the situation and calm down.
1. Firstly, consider your posture. Often when stressed, Mathers says, a natural reaction is to cross your legs, move your arms across your chest or touch your face. “You’re literally protecting yourself with not even knowing you’re doing it,” he says. “Your posture is telling your brain that you’re small and under threat.”
Put that mental chain-reaction into reverse by sitting up straight, puffing your chest out, spreading your arms wide and taking deep breaths. “If a tiger is running straight at you it’s almost impossible to stand there with your arms out wide while taking big breaths,” says Mathers. “So your body is telling your brain that you’re okay.”
2. Sucking deep breaths down into your stomach will stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system to further calm you down. Mathers recommends lying on your back with your feet up on a chair and the entire surface of your back touching the ground. Then breathe in deeply. “If you can do that for two minutes your whole parasympathetic nervous system will kick in and it’ll calm the farm,” he says.
USE THE TRIBE
“Sometimes when stress happens I have something I call ‘an old brain shit-storm’,” Mathers says. “You get a knot in your stomach, your heart starts to race, your breathing gets shallow… All of a sudden, you’re going round in a big spiral that’s fuelled by your own biology. When that happens, the part of your brain that thinks about things objectively, logically, sensibly goes offline.”
When that happens, Mathers knows what to do: he calls Mick Zeljko, the guy he wrote Stress Teflon with. Mathers makes that call to talk his problem through, safe in the knowledge that his mate has his best interests at heart. “Being vulnerable is something that blokes really struggle with, and we shouldn’t,” he insists.
Mathers believes everyone needs this “safety of the tribe”. Often, he admits, dads can find themselves socially isolated, particularly in the early stages of fatherhood. “But you still need a tribe around you. You still need your friends. You still need other things outside your family that are really important to you.”
To maintain those tribal connections, however, you’ve got to invest in them, too. That means carving out the time to see your mates. “You need to look after your family,” Mathers says. “But you also need other things outside your family that are really important too.”
For more info on Stress Teflon click here