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December 14, 2016
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Feeling stressed? Join the club…

The positive side of stress…
Stress is a complex interaction of your mind, body, and the environment. It’s a universal human experience that, like it or not, we’re all guaranteed to have. And while most people consider stress to be inherently negative, think again. Research repeatedly shows that some stress is actually beneficial for us. How is that possible, you ask? Well, if we had no stress in our lives, we may not have much care or motivation to get out of bed, get showered, and get on with our day. If you didn’t experience stress, you may have never made it to class, finished your assignments, and gotten that degree. And without stress, your kids would rarely make it to school on time. Yes, it’s true – stress helps us accomplish our daily tasks more efficiently, it keeps us motivated and focused on our goals, and it fosters creativity. All this results in improved self-confidence and well-being.

The tipping point…
If there’s so much that’s good about stress, why does it get such a bad rap? Remember the bell-curve that you learned about in high school? Well, the bell-curve perfectly exemplifies the role of stress in our lives. As our stress level increases, so does our motivation, productivity, focus, creativity, self-esteem, etc. As we approach the top of the bell-curve, we reach our optimal level of ‘healthy stress.’ This is the sweet spot where stress is working in your favor, and you are able to reap the benefits of being under a bit of pressure.

However, balancing at the very top of that bell curve is challenging to say the least. Changing circumstances in your mind, body or the environment can ever so slightly tip the scales, slowly sending you over and down a slippery slope. Fortunately, or unfortunately, humans have the ability to acclimate to our changing circumstances. We frequently tolerate new stressors in our lives. They casually become accepted facts of life, whether they are by our own choosing (e.g., taking on increasing demands at work, overcommitting to activities with our kids, staying up too late night after night, accommodating visiting family members) or not by our own choosing (e.g., having a car in the shop, a few days off from school, a stomach bug, a broken appliance).

Before you realize it, things are s-l-o-w-l-y getting off track. You’re increasingly stressed out and living a life that hardly resembles the one you’ve wanted. The same stress that you valued, that gave you an advantage in life, now begins to work against you, detrimentally impacting your emotional and physical health. Moreover, it’s left you feeling out-of-balance and in need of change.

Psychologists call this relationship between performance and stress the Yerkes-Dodson Law. In the early 1900’s two psychologists found that one’s performance on a task increased as stress increased. However, once the stress level became too high, performance decreased. Therefore, stress is a good thing, but only up to a point. If stress continues beyond that point, it’s damaging to the person’s mind, body, and environment.

Here’s a visual explaining the Yerkes-Dodson Law:slide1By the way, while we’re on the topic, this same model can be applied to personality traits, thinking patterns, and behaviors. Are you self-critical? A worrier? Do you frequently compare yourself to others? Or expect perfection? Are you generally a private, guarded person? Or are you vulnerable and transparent, wearing your heart on your sleeve and telling people how it is? Do you enjoy being a helper, yet have a hard time asking for help yourself? Are you happier when you’re busy? Do you sometimes view things in black/white, all/none terms without allowing room for the more nuanced gray areas? Are you a planner who sweats the details or a more spontaneous person who trusts things will work out? Do you like to be in charge and in control? All of these personal observations exist on a bell-curve as well.

Where do we go from here?
I love this quote by Viktor Frankl, the famous Austrian psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of the well-known memoir “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

It sounds technical, but the above quote is wonderfully empowering. It gives you a sense of control and grants permission to pause, reflect, and be thoughtful, even deliberate, in how you act and react.

What does this quote have to do with stress and stress management? Well…everything! Life’s various stressors are the stimuli, and how you manage those stressors is the response. We’ll talk the details of stress management in the next post, but for now, consider Dr. Frankl’s invitation to pause, evaluate, and mindfully craft your next move. Here are three steps you might want to try out:

Ask yourself if you’ve reached the unhealthy part of the stress curve. Are you over the hump and in the stress zone? Overall, are you out-of-balance and not where you want to be? This sounds obvious, but as mentioned above, when we’re running along on the treadmill of life, we don’t often take the time to stop, take stock of where we are, and acknowledge that something needs to change. Perhaps your mind is racing, you’re overwhelmed, anxious, emotionally exhausted, and unable to sleep well. Perhaps you’re feeling checked out, frustrated, resentful, depressed, and drinking more than you’d like. Or perhaps you feel all of the above.

Identify the thoughts and/or behaviors in your life that that seem to be contributing to your stress. Are you not exercising or sleeping as much as you used to? Did you take on additional projects at work or socially? Have you lost structure and routine in order to accommodate family life? Are you expecting more of yourself than you’re able to give?

Reflecting on what we know about stress and the bell-curve, ask yourself:

What has this kind of thinking/behavior gained me?
(at home or work; in relationships, activities, self-esteem, etc.)?

What has this kind of thinking/behavior cost me?
(at home or work; in relationships, activities, self-esteem, etc.)?

Now take a deep breath and pause for a minute. Gather all the new insights you’ve made about your personality, your health, and your environment…and sit with them. When the impulse to act tugs at your sleeve, gently disregard it. Sit, in the stillness of your own heart and mind, and embrace these new observations. Though some of them may be undesirable, work on accepting them, without judgment, as the threads of your life. It is within this space that you will discover clarity. And it is from this space that you will find your power, your growth, and your freedom.

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