Luke Mathers - How to harness stress into a productive strength

For most people stress has become an inevitable part of life and something we put up with, without really understanding what it is, where it comes from and how we can actually utilise it to enhance our performance.

On the blog today we’ve got Luke Mathers, a man who’s owned over a dozen businesses and knows stress like no other. He, along with his co-author cognitive psychologist Mick Zeljko, wrote the book Stress Teflon, which aims to change the way we look at ourselves and stress itself in order to get the most out of life.

Over to you Luke.

It’s no secret that most people struggle with stress.

And it’s also no secret that most people try and avoid stress at every cost. But what if trying to avoid stress was actually more damaging than dealing with it? And what if by having the right tools, stress could in-fact be utilised to enhance performance so you can get more out of life?

This may sound hard to believe but stress is not the worst thing in the world.

We hear so much about the downside of stress but the reality is, if we didn’t have stress nothing would get done.

So, what is stress?

There are two types. The threat response and the challenge response.

The threat response

Bad stress is generally the stress that you roll around in your head. It is toxic and it doesn’t achieve anything.

It’s stress that lingers, and can pop it’s head up whenever it likes because it doesn’t need outside influences to set it off. You only have to think of something touchy and boom, it’s triggered.

My wife calls it renting a room in your head for free, because it invades so much of your mental space.

This type of stress will give you high cortisol levels, it will shut down different parts of your body, it will make you sick, dumb and defensive.

When stress becomes toxic like this, it can permeate into every part of your life. Situations become catastrophic. You lose control of your thoughts and start wandering into, “What if this happens, what if that happens?”

You start to look for things that are going to save your life, you become acutely aware of the things that could possibly hurt you, and you can’t see the roads that are taking you somewhere good.

The challenge response

Good stress is fleeting. It doesn’t hang around too long which is why we named the book Stress Teflon.

It’s one of those things where you experience stress momentarily and then it just slides off.

We all have stress but it’s how we utilise it that counts.

Good stress allows us to get fired up, it activates a fight or flight response which gives us a boost to get shit done.

You get it, you use it, and then it goes.

Short term stress is the way it’s meant to be. We’re wired that way because in cave man times when we were walking through the jungle and came face to face with a tiger, stress is what activated us to move quickly to get out of danger.

Unfortunately, in this day and age, there are a lot more tigers that come in many different forms.

The tigers today could look like a fight with your partner, financial issues, running a business and, ‘I’m not good enough’ stresses.

New Brain vs Old Brain

Now unlike my co-author Mick Zeljko, I’m not a neuro-scientist, so I won’t bore you with the brainiac jargon, but for the purpose of the book, we split the brain up into two sections called the New Brain and the Old Brain – and understanding this is quite crucial when learning how to utilise stress better.

The Old Brain, often referred to as the reptilian brain, is the primal part of the mind. It’s the reactive part that is responsible for survival. It’s the part of the brain that will activate fight or flight, it rules reactions and controls fear. It is the most basic mechanism left over from our ancestors and is negatively biased, looking for life threatening possibilities before it sees positive options.

Your New Brain is your conscious thinking, which is able to monitor Old Brain responses. It’s a highly evolved critical thinker which can see many shades of grey, and can understand the modern day environment.

It’s how these two brains interact together, is what I think is key. They need to interact in a way that’s productive.

Reframing stress

But you’re always going to get Old Brain responses, which are things like knots in your stomach, increased heart rate, sweaty palms and other symptoms depending on what’s going on in your life.

This is where it’s important to move the situation from the Old Brain to the new one because it’s your reaction to the situation that really counts.

So instead of looking at stress as a threat, I like to look at it as a challenge.

If you honestly believed you could handle anything that came your way, would you have more stress or less stress?

You would have less.

We spend a lot of time and energy trying to generate less stress, rather than spending that same time and energy trying to increase our ability to handle the stress.

You need conflict because you need to know that you have the ability to handle a situation so that when it comes up next time you can look back on the experiences that you have had in the past and know that you can get through it. This is called building resilience.

Every time you feel that Old Brain reaction to stress, reframe it and tell yourself, ‘This is a challenge. I can do this’.

If you can just reframe it, you’re 90% of the way there.


Let’s say a car cuts you off and you lose your shit. You yell and scream, and toot your horn and get yourself all worked up. And from that incident, you end up having a really bad day.

But the thing that ruined your day wasn’t the person that cut you off. The thing that ruined your day was your stupid reaction to it.

Situations themselves don’t actually ruin days, people’s reactions to situations ruin days.

The key is having a high level of awareness around stress and your reaction to it.

So how do we become more aware?

Breathing is a fantastic way to bring more awareness into a situation. You can’t breathe deeply if you’re being chased by a tiger, it’s just not going to happen. Breathing communicates to your body that you are safe so you can move through the process consciously.

I love the concept of meditation and I know Kerwin does too. Meditation is fantastic, but for some people it can be a bit of a hassle because they think they have to sit in a temple in Nepal to do it properly.

But when a challenge comes up, allowing yourself to breath will bring instant awareness to the situation. And if you can make a point to stop, close your eyes and breathe deeply for 10 minutes a day, stress will probably be a lot easier to deal with.


Once you have a level of awareness around the stress you’re experiencing, ask yourself these three questions.

‘What am I thinking? Why am I thinking it? And, is it helping?’

And if you can answer them in a way where you’re not justifying or blaming someone else, then you’re going to put things into perspective and help your brains to work together.

From there you will be able to make a much smarter decision rather than just going off on an emotional rollercoaster.

Rate yourself

Another way you can keep your stress levels in check is to rate yourself.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how big is this problem?

Rating a problem above an 8 if no one’s dying probably means your scale isn’t very good.

Rate the problem and your reaction to the problem and make sure the two correlate. By doing this you will automatically bring more awareness to the situation, to be able to consciously choose how you want to move forward with the issue.

Taking responsibility

Now there will be people who say, ‘Oh I’ve always been a hot head,’ Or ‘Blowing up runs in the family’.

I say you choose to lose your temper.

It may be a habit that you lose your temper but it’s your choice, and at some stage you’ve got to stop and say, ‘Is that the choice I want to make. What am I thinking? Why am I thinking it?’

Utilising stress

Life is full of stressful situations and no one is exempt from them.

I’d really like everyone to understand that you have to go through times of stress if you want to grow.

Doing something that’s new, or difficult, or seemingly impossible can be stressful – look at the stuff Kerwin talks about, he’s been through some really stressful things but you come out at the other end with the belief that whatever the next stressful thing is, you will be able to handle it because you’ve handled it before.

You have to go through the stressful times to realise you can get through the stressful times.

I’m human, I have stress, I have emotions galore but I won’t let them do things that conflict with my inner values, because when your emotions make you do things that don’t correlate to your inner beliefs and values, that’s when you get cognitive dissonance, which is the difference between what you think and what you know, and what you do. When those things become separated that’s when you get really toxic stress

It’s not about having no stress. It’s about dealing with it in a healthy way so you can push through and make better decisions, get bigger results and be a lot more in control of what you lose sleep over.

To find out more about stress, or to take the stress mindset survey, click here