How can stress not be a problem? That sounds like one of those super positive (aka unrealistic statements.) Especially for those of us who experience high levels of stress we know how debilitating it can be.
Actually stress seems like a huge problem!
It is an energy drainer that leaves us feeling exhausted and frustrated. Even worse, research shows that occasional high stress levels eventually lead to chronic stress which has devastating implications for our health. Stress interferes with our immune system and it creates a breeding ground for a multitude of physical and psychological ailments.
So it doesn’t take much to assume that stress cannot be good for our well-being.
So how in the world is stress not a problem?
Well, let me explain. Here is what I have come to realize after years of studying it, working with it and experiencing it myself:
Undeniably stress is not good for our well-being.
But STRESS IS NOT THE PROBLEM.
THE PROBLEM that causes stress IS THE PROBLEM.
Let me explain.
Stress is a symptom and NOT the primary cause. There is a huge distinction between the two. Truth be said, stress is a very loud and obnoxious symptom. We experience it everywhere in our body! Somatically with elevated blood pressure, shortness of breath, discomfort. Mentally with worrisome thoughts about something terrible that is going to happen. Our senses get heightened and our system is alerted to imminent danger.
Stress is so loud that it demands immediate attention!
While we try to cope with the havoc of stress the real PROBLEM is QUIETLY PERCOLATING under the surface.
The real problem is what kick-started the stress response. Something occurred in our external environment or internally in our mind. There is an event or a thought that our mind perceives as overwhelming. If coping with it is exceeding the capacity of our inner resources then our mind rings all the bells and whistles calling for the release of a stress response. And we all know how yukky the stress response feels!
How we run away from stress:
In order to avoid feeling stressed we try downplaying it and ignoring it.
If that doesn’t work then we employ heavier tactics. Here are some of the most successful ways used to silence stress:
- Abusing substances like: food, alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, drugs.
- Engaging in destructive behaviors like: spending money we don’t have, having unprotected sex, participating in extreme sports.
Eventually we find our favorite coping behaviors and stick with them. Some drink heavily but they never use other drugs. Others engage in dangerous sports. Or others are have food addictions but don’t smoke or drink. All of the above coping behaviors are extremely effective. However, not only they mask the issue but they eventually create secondary problems compounding on the primary stress.
These were examples of very common and very ineffective ways to address stress. On the other hand, there are many EFFECTIVE ways to ELIMINATE STRESS. To do that we first need to go to the source to find what causes stress in the first place. In other words we need to identify the problem. Then we can take a creative look at possible solutions. As soon as we resolve the problem the stress will evaporate.
The solution is in the problem itself!
What we need to do to if we are to be successful at diffusing stress is to GET into our CURIOUS state of mind about figuring out the real problem. Getting “curious” gives us perspective. It helps us avoid getting into a judgmental state thinking: “This is such a stupid problem.” or “Why do I always do that?” or “Things are never going to get better. What a waste of time.”
When we FEEL CURIOUS about the problem, we start from investigating. We search for possible internal and external triggers.
An external trigger is something that happens outside of us. For example, in the case of my friend Susan the external trigger of her stress was that her elderly mother fell and broke her hip while under Susan’s care. Susan got overwhelmed with stress because she already had a full load with work, home and kids.
An internal trigger is something that happens inside our mind. In Susan’s case a fearful though like: “What if my mom dies?”, or “I cant take care of everything, I will have a breakdown.” or “What if I have to take time off to care for her and I lose my job?” Internal triggers are thoughts that originate inside our mind and elicit stressful emotions.
Very often our stress is generated by both internal and external triggers like in Susan’s situation.
Now let’s change course for a few paragraphs.
Let’s take a different perspective for a minute. Since stress is part of our everyday life lets examine it and understand it a little better. Let’s take a more friendly approach towards it! Who knows maybe one day we will learn to love our stress and know how to make best use of it instead of try to avoid it!
Here is a little background on “stress”:
Did you know that “stress” was originally used as an engineering term?
The term stress first seems to have achieved technical importance in the 17th century in the work of the prominent physicist-biologist Robert Hook.
Robert Hook was concerned with how manmade structures such as bridges must be designed to carry heavy “loads” and must resist buffeting by winds, earthquakes, and other natural forces that could destroy them.
By “load” he referred to an external weight placed the bridge such as carriages and later cars and trucks, or the force of the water current, or the weather conditions.
“Stress” was the pressure over the area which the “load” impinged on.
And “strain” was the deformation of the structure that was created by the interplay of both load and stress.
It was Robert Hook’s analysis of how stress applies to bridges that has influenced our understanding of stress. So, we find that the term became a favorite of psychologists and sociologists in 20th century.
Today the way Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “stress” is as follows: “Stress is a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, e.t.c.”
Key words being: “…caused by…”
So, if you were a bridge engineer and wanted to avoid damage on your bridge you would start from identifying:
- WHAT the load is “caused by” and how much your bridge can hold.
- Then brainstorm for WHAT To DO if the load exceeds the capacity of the bridge.
- DO IT.
For example you would be making the bridge stronger, adding lanes, supportive beams and holding cables would allow for the bridge to hold. Or in the case of a person facing a problem, chances to become stronger would be asking for others’ support, seeking out experts, learning new skills, using inner resources like patience, curiosity, creativity, persistence, trying different approaches until the results were satisfactory.
Back to Susan:
Susan told me that initially she became so overwhelmed that she almost got sick. Then knew she had to do something different. She decided to look at the real problem and figuring out what to do.
Introspection was tough because she suspected what the “real” problem was. Her attitude. Although she knew right away, she didn’t want to see it. Her ego aside and her head low she had to face the fact that with her over-achieving nature she had overextended herself. In the past few years she had allowed herself to become everything to everyone. She was superwoman and she thrived in it! She was doing an awesome job except that in reality she didn’t really have superwoman powers. And eventually reality caught up with her like it does with all of us.
Being happily married, a successful commercial real-estate lawyer raising three cute kids and taking care of her elderly mother had become a huge “load” on her bridge. She did not even realize how it happened but as her career took off she had less time and less energy for her family. She was under chronic stress. But she wasn’t one to ask for help.
Now she swallowed her pride and considered having short daily family meetings with her husband until they saw a viable solution. They made lists and redefined roles and schedules of everyone in their family. They gave a full load of responsibility to their 6, 8 and 13 year old kids who rose to the occasion. They asked for help from other parents and rides to sports. They hired someone to clean their house once a week. They also contacted Susan’s younger sister who had been cut off from their family in the past. Susan called her sister. Although still angry with her she decided to bypass their issues for now by only asking for temporary help with doctors’ appointments and their mother’s care. Her sister was cold towards Susan but willing to help with their mother.
Susan told me that after a couple of weeks of chaos and disarray she one day woke up to realize that the dust had settled. All her family members were involved in making sure grandma was taken care of. Everyone was keeping up with responsibilities at work, school and sports. They were busy but on task working as a team. There was almost no bickering, yelling or complaining. She said that she had never been more proud of her kids and her husband. That week she closed a huge financial deal at work too. Her mother passed away a few months later. Susan said that she left peacefully surrounded by the whole family who has been closer that ever. She is currently working on her relationship with her sister.
By taking the opportunity to:
- Identify the problem, amazing things can happen.
- We then look for solutions.
- By attempting to solve the problem we gain experience, we learn new information, we become smarter, stronger, and wiser than before. We will feel confident and our self-esteem will rise high.
And that is how stress is not the problem.
Actually we can seek stress out if we want to grow!
So stress is like a sparkly arrow that points towards the direction of growth!
Let’s take it!