Are you stressed out? Or just a little stressed? Or do you shine when others complain they can’t take it any more? Is there really good stress and harmful stress? And if you feel you’re at breaking point, how can you re-balance yourself to feel good again?
What is stress?
Mmm… if stress makes some people crumble and others shine, what is stress? How can it be both a stimulus for shining and a symptom of breaking-down? Trying to define stress is like stepping into a minefield because it means so many different things; but here goes. The original definition for stress related to the physical strength and elasticity of a material: the stress point being when it could no longer take the applied pressure or force and it would break or snap. The word ‘stress’ in relation to people became popular in the 1930s as its meaning evolved to include not only a potential cause of disease, but also how someone was feeling, or how a situation appeared to be, or physical symptoms like experiencing sudden chest pain or shortness of breath. Later people began speaking of good and harmful stress, but again, what one person considered as stressful (harmful), might be stimulating and motivating (good) for another. With so many interpretations of the word it’s not surprising that it’s exact meaning is so blurred, but I think it’s useful to explore how stress can be both good and harmful.
Can stress be both good and harmful for you?
One of my favourite coaching books, ‘The 7 Aha!s of Highly Enlightened Souls’ with the sub-heading: ‘How to free yourself from all forms of stress’ is written by Mike George. It’s a book you can pick-up and read snippets and feel it’s wisdom wash over you. I’ve read some of the pages a dozen times or more. His chapters begin with an common views on stress such as: ‘Stress is a physical phenomena and rest and relaxation will make it go away’, followed by his own view. In this example, ‘Absolute nonsense!’. Another chapter begins: ‘Other people, situations, and events are responsible for your stress’, and his counter, ‘No they’re not!’
Mike George’s view is that stress is the result of fearful thoughts, anxiety and worry – none of which are helpful for leading a healthy, happy and peaceful life. And I agree as stress like this, is non-productive, harmful to your own well-being and can negatively impact on your health.
However, those who argue that some stress is good for you say it is only harmful when you get overloaded, and I tend to agree with this too, although by-and-large far too many people are overloaded all of the time. It appears so commonplace that for most people even the idea of living and working harmoniously seems like a distant dream. The some-stress-is-good-for-you camp also argues that without any stress, arousal or desire, we would be bored and have no inclination to grow. This too resonates with me, for as a coach, I proactively ask my clients to step out of their comfort zone. Change can’t happen if you keep doing what you’ve always been doing: it happens when you do something new. BUT taking someone out of their comfort zone should be done in a nurturing, caring way, not as it is done in so many businesses and organizations where people are stretched to breaking point and asked to do ‘the impossible’ on a regular basis.
I recently came across this diagram (a modified view of the‘Human Function Curve’), which shows the effects of good and harmful stress on the body.
The graph is designed to show that when life and work are mostly in your comfort zone, and you are being comfortably stretched, this leads to satisfaction and happiness. When you are over-stretched, this leads to exhaustion, ill-health and feeling distressed. In its extreme form, it can tip people into a fantasy world as to what they think they can achieve, leading them to over-promise and under-deliver which in turn leads to disappointment, frustration and even more stress for everyone involved.
What is comfortable for one person will not be so for another. At this moment in time, where you are on this diagram? Are you in your comfort/stretch zone?
Measuring your own stress levels
Doctors and many therapists use a simple tool to assess the intensity of pain whether it’s physical or emotional. Because pain is subjective, the best person to judge its intensity is you. This easy test can help you assess your own stress levels too. Sit quietly for a moment. Take a few deep breaths. Close your eyes, now ask yourself: “How stressed am I out of 10? A score of 10 equals distress, panic, overwhelm and feeling like you can’t cope anymore. A score of 1 equals feeling mildly stressed but not unduly concerned, perhaps because it feels like a temporary situation. Where are you on this scale? It’s intuitive. Wait for the answer to come to you. Often this simply ‘pops’ into your mind: you can see the number, or feel it or hear it being ‘spoken’. If, by the way, you scored 9 or 10, please don’t ignore this. Find someone to talk to (a loved one, doctor, therapist or coach) and decide how to begin to dealing with your stress levels.
Not enough time
Feeling like there is not enough time is one of the first symptoms of being stressed-out: quite simply too much to do and not enough time to do it. The whole world appears to be running faster and faster. New technology may be may be marketed as ‘time-saving’, but in reality it simply increases the expectations of what one person can do in a day. Remember the days before email? How many letters did you write in a day versus how many emails you now deal with daily? My Grandmother used say: ‘Sometimes I sit and think: and sometimes I just sit’ When did you last sit—not watching TV, nor doing anything but just to sit? Or in fact give yourself time just to think things through instead of just instantly ‘doing’? It’s like we’re all on a giant hamster wheel and we have to keep running or else everything will collapse. It can be challenging to get off – but there are ways to do so…
Simple ways to reduce stress
Other people may well impact on your stress levels, but your reaction to the pressure and the way you perceive it, are things you can change and take control of. Below are some simple, easy-to-do things that will make a difference.
If you are tempted to skip over this suggestion or are rolling your eyeballs at me already—wait! You don’t have to be a Buddhist monk to benefit from meditation! Just 5–10 minutes a day can make a big difference. It can really calm a racing mind and give you clarity. Meditation can be done in many different ways, but the easiest way is to simply sit somewhere quietly—in a chair, on the floor, on your bed—with your back straight—and consciously breathe. Close your eyes. Focus (listen/watch/feel) yourself breathe in and out. Initially, your mind will want to think of a 1001 things other than the breathing. This is normal. Every time you realise your mind has gone AWOL, just gently bring your focus back to breathing in and out. Five minutes at lunchtime, or when you first get back from work, last thing make a huge difference to how you feel. There are many smartphone apps such as Headspace and Insight that can help you too.
Take one! So many people eat sandwiches at their desk or on the go. Not only does your digestion suffer when you do this, it doesn’t allow you to collect your thoughts either. Choose eat away from your desk, and be conscious of what you are eating, by focusing on each bite. Afterwards can you walk somewhere for 10 minutes? Is there a park, garden or an open space nearby? A ten-minute walk in or near nature will ground you and make you feel more in control.
Caffeine, alcohol and sugar
Caffeine is a stimulant. Alcohol is a depressant and sugar gives you a short burst of energy. Most people use (and abuse) these to cope with stress and yet none of them in the long-term are helpful. Your early morning coffee may feel like it gets you going, but it also can disrupt your sleep, making you feel groggy in the morning, making you feel like you ‘need’ a coffee to get going. This cycle can be tough to break. Alcohol may help you relax and deaden the pain, but in the early morning light of the next day, you may feel even worse. As for sugary snacks they play havoc with your blood sugar levels, often making you feel worse when the effect has worn off. If you can reduce your intake of all three, this will help you.
Does your boss dictate them? Do you bow your head to them? Do you set impossible ones for yourself? Look at what you have to do. What is truly urgent? What is important? Too often we get caught up with urgent stuff instead of focusing on what’s important. If your boss is giving you crazy deadlines, don’t assume that he or she is fully aware of what they have asked you to do! More-than-likely your boss is also on the hamster wheel too. Perhaps instead check-in with them what is the most important job that they need doing first. You may get a totally different picture when you ask this simple question.
Learning to say “no”
We are often victims of our own making.
It might seem illogical to stop what you’re doing and do something nice for yourself, but this is so beneficial. A relaxed mind is more creative and may give you new solutions too, but most of all having some relaxation / pleasure / fun time restores the soul and gives you new energy to pick-up where you left off with renewed vigour. What will you do? Have a bubble bath with candles and a good book? Take a trip to the cinema? A night out with your friends? Me time is important!
When you are so tired, things seem ten-times worse than they are. For tips and ideas on how to be better rested, please see: Unable to Sleep? Wide-awake or so sleepy?
Find something that you love to do that matches your personality and body constitution. Not everyone was meant to go the gym!! Walking for 30 minutes a day at a pace that just makes you glow (sweat!) is good for you, as can be gardening or a gentle game of badminton or a swim. If you are fit, consider a hard work-out to physically release your stress from your body. This can be any sport where there is an element of force or speed or both. PLEASE though don’t overdo it – for adding injury to stress is not a good idea!