There are some things in life that one never forgets. I may not remember the joke I told for the upteenth time last week or even the name of the film I watched just an hour ago but I remember like it was yesterday, the day my mother had her first stroke. It happened right in front of me. A few of my siblings were also present. I was to turn 16 later that month. My sister was just 11. Mum turned 49 two months earlier. We were in London when a phone call came through from Nigeria. The person on the other end of the line asked to speak to mum. After a minute or so on the phone my mum screamed – the way we do when we receive really bad news. Suddenly, the handset dropped from her hand, followed by an eerie silence. The expression on my mum’s face went blank as she looked straight ahead. We were all confused. We started to cry out to her but she didn’t respond. She seemed so distant. Without the slightest warning, her face contorted in a grotesque manner and her body stiffened up. Our screams and desperate efforts to stop whatever it was that was happening right before our eyes came to nothing. Mum had had a stroke. It was a horrible day. Mum had always been a vivacious character who despite her diminutive stature was so hard to keep up with when walking. “Co-co-co” or “sisi Comfort” as she was endearingly called by her friends because of her smart nature, was never quite the same again.
A life devoid of any stress at all will cause one to atrophy so we need a little stress to keep our minds sharp. It challenges us and with sufficient periods of recovery in between, it actually makes us stronger. The experience increases our resilience and helps us to surmount other challenges. The right amount of stress helps us to operate at our optimum and to thrive. The problem is when the stress becomes more than we can bear or it’s protracted. This is when it becomes toxic. Medical research has long identified stress as being either the direct or remote cause of 90% of all sicknesses and diseases. Chronic stress in particular disrupts the way the body functions and this imbalance invariably leads to life degrading ailments such as asthma, migraine headaches, ulcers and various allergies and at times, to more life-threatening ailments such as high blood pressure, strokes and heart disease. It has also been discovered to make pre-existing health conditions worse and more difficult to manage. My mum was hypertensive.
The demands of daily living alone can be extremely taxing which is why maintaining good health both physically and mentally is very important. This is especially so in the Nigerian environment where the vast majority of people live with extremely stressful conditions; from spending several hours a day in traffic as they commute to and from work, to being in an almost constant state of safety alert because of the terrifying nationwide security situation, to trying desperately to keep head above water as the economy continues to nosedive; and to compound all of these, rarely getting a good night’s rest due to epileptic power supply in the best of cases and no supply at all, in the worst. With what appears to be an imminent and significant increase in the price of petrol, the prohibitive cost of running a generator will soon put this backup source of power beyond the reach of the average Nigerian.
We may not be aware of this but when we’re under chronic stress, especially for those of us in managerial or leadership positions, we’re not in any way on top of things like we may believe we are. Chronic stress brings with it, a degree of cognitive, perceptual and emotional impairment. Human beings generally have 180° – 270° peripheral vision but the onslaught of chronic stress can reduce this to just 30°! This explains why in that state we tend to close up to people, especially to people we don’t know and we’re far less open to new ideas. Our initial reaction on most occasions will be to reject them. All these, coupled with an impaired immune system is precisely why professionals, business leaders and career people tend to be more prone to high blood pressure issues, ulcers, sleep disorders, sexual dysfunction, gastrointestinal problems, Type 2 diabetes, strokes, heart problems and certain types of cancer. It’s a keg of gunpowder we quickly need to get up from.
Mindfulness is the fourth of the experiences we need to regularly engage in to invoke the renewal process in our bodies. The others are compassion, hope and empathy. Without periodic doses of renewal, even the most effective and resonant leader will no longer be able to sustain his performance as he will simply burn out and become wholy ineffective. The fact is that emotional downward spirals are natural but a conscious effort must be made to engage in sufficient renewal exercises each day so to keep ourselves excited, effective and engaged. Experts say we have 8 – 12 chronic stressful experiences a day on a good day and those in leadership positions endure this up to 6 days a week; and for female professionals this can easily be 7 days a week as they look after the home or aged parents and the like on weekends. We must keep in mind that stress will always come but renewal can only come with intention.
Mindfulness has been described as the foundation of emotional intelligence. In Forbes magazine I saw it defined thus – “Mindfulness is a key tool in understanding ourselves, our own thoughts and feelings and what is important to us. It can help you develop self-awareness, which is the first component of emotional intelligence and is the basis for developing all of the other emotional intelligence”. It is also said to be, “a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment”. Practice of mindfulness can be something as simple as carving out a five minutes quiet time for ourselves or taking a walk in nature. Activities that detach us a little from the daily rat race can be invaluable as they don’t only help us to decompress but they often help us to see things more clearly. I guess my mum can’t have been at her best before she heard the bad news and that must have been enough to tip her over the edge.
Changing the nation…one mind at a time.