Stress away to happiness

Stress is a villain with a heart of gold...

Many believe stress is a great motivator

I don’t have enough stress in my life,” said no sane person ever. It’s no wonder why. For most of us, stress is an obstacle that gets in the way of effectiveness, of achieving what we want. But is it, really? Could stress be the villain with a heart of gold?

Stress has gotten an unfairly bad rap, thanks in part to screaming headlines and a lot of conversation around increasing stress levels. Too much stress is detrimental to physical and mental health, no question. So, does that mean low stress is good?

But before that, what is stress? According to our friendly online dictionary, it is “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.” Sounds unpleasant, but think back to the moment when you started your first job, moved to a new city or became a parent. Stressful experiences? Terrifying, even? But how do you feel about them now? Angela Sebaly and Michelle Cummings, founders of Personify Leadership, emphasise the value of these experiences; the kind that cause stress, but turn out to be positive and powerful. They believe that the right amount of stress actually enables performance.

The great motivator

Robert H Rosen, author of Just Enough Anxiety, emphasises the importance of this ‘motivational anxiety’, which gives us the energy to make progress. Without it, we tend to drift through life, getting things done but not tapping into our full potential. This links directly to how motivated we feel, for as human beings, we have an innate need for mastery; to become proficient at something. But this means we have to get off that soft, velvety couch called the comfort zone and make friends with the monster we call ‘stress’.

Psychologists Robert M Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson first explained this more than a century ago through the Yerkes-Dodson law, now referred to as the stress curve. Defining an empirical relationship between arousal (stress) and performance, it shows how performance actually increases with stress, up to a certain point. It is only beyond this point that performance starts to suffer.

As is the case for most profound truths, we can look to popular culture for examples. Remember Bella Swan from the Twilight series? In Breaking Dawn, the final instalment, she is leading a fairly mundane vampire existence, until life-threatening events jolt her out of her contented tedium. As she prepares to deal with them, she pushes beyond the limit of her power to discover that there were, in fact, no limits. A latent instinct for self-preservation was holding her back from discovering the extent of her power. This last bit is a key insight; the average human being is naturally risk-averse because we are biologically wired for survival. This means that we will naturally recoil from stressors, while fulfilment requires us to fight the very instinct that saved us from dinosaurs and woolly mammoths.

How do you know whether you have too little stress in your life? Here are some telltale signs that you can watch out for:

Procrastination: It is downright strange; when you have 17 things to do, you whirl around like a dervish on a sugar kick, feeling a fierce sense of triumph by the end of the day; the aching muscles and tired feet a medal you take pride in. But when you have just a couple of things on your plate, you drag your feet, because “after all, how long is it going to take?”

Lethargy: You function at 30% efficiency because that is all it takes to get your job done. You are drifting from day to day, eating leftovers from the fridge, old newspapers piling up in the corner. But the impending arrival of a guest jolts you into action and suddenly the house is sparkling, and you are trawling Pinterest for interesting menu ideas.

Stress
Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances

Boredom: You are getting things done, but you find it difficult to summon more than a superficial interest. Nothing is really wrong with how things are going, but you are plagued by a vague sense of dissatisfaction. Usually, this is also the time when, depending on your age, well-meaning people will advise you to get a job/ get married/ produce a child/ get a cat/ get your children married/ get them to have children, etc, ad infinitum.

Find a solution

Ok, so you have diagnosed yourself with a case of too little stress. Now what? Don’t we spend enough of our lives in the high-stress zone? Can’t we enjoy some of this miraculous ‘low stress’? Absolutely. As long as we acknowledge what we stand to lose.

The obvious casualty is of course growth, and fulfilment. The body does not get fitter until the exercise you do challenges it. The trick is to figure out the right amount and the right kind; how to bend but not break. Athletes call this ‘the zone’, that moment when you reach past yourself and draw from reserves you didn’t know existed. Remember that surreal scene from X Men: First Class when Eric (soon-to-be-christened Magneto) pulls the submarine out of the sea and sends it sailing through the air? You see the struggle, the pain, and then finally, the elation. This sweet spot that lies between frustration and exhilaration is the state of optimal stress that Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’.

To experience this elusive state, you have to push yourself, although in increments. Pay attention to your body; it will talk to you. Angela and Michelle use the term ‘biofeedback’ to describe the signals that the body sends when we are moving up the stress curve. We have all experienced these signs at some point or another. Think about the time you had an important presentation and you had to keep rushing to the restroom; or had to keep wiping your sweaty palms on your trousers. When you are at optimal stress, your body should feel warmer, heartbeat faster, and you feel alert and energised. If, however, your breath starts to hitch or you feel faint, it might be a good idea to slow down and break up whatever you are attempting into bite-sized chunks. Everybody has different preferences for the signs it chooses to communicate; learn to recognise yours.

Bring out your best

There are, of course, different things you do over the course of a day or week that have different levels of difficulty and therefore cause different levels of stress. The ideal week is a mix; some days, you coast along without even thinking about it, and others that need you to roll up your sleeves and prepare for battle. Examine which zone you spend most of your time in.

But while doing this, it is important not to take too ‘aggregate’ a view of your life. It is possible, for example, that you perceive your life as too stressful in general. But when you break it down, you realise that while your personal life is indeed in the high-stress zone, you are actually in the too-little-stress zone at work. This means frustration at home, and a lack of fulfilment at work. There might be room to reallocate some personal responsibilities and explore more challenging assignments at work. Or maybe not. You might choose to leave things as they are for the moment. But at least you know.

The tolerance and appetite for stress vary, too, and one size does not fit all. At work, it means plotting individual team members on the stress curve, so you can decide who needs more challenge and who is teetering on the edge of a breakdown. This is crucial because attrition happens at both ends of the stress curve, and deep engagement comes from more challenge, not less.

At home, it means recognising that your younger child is a born performer and could be nudged further, while the elder one is terrified of speaking on stage and needs smaller steps to help overcome her anxiety — for example, play-acting with you, then with the family, and so forth. Also, it is evident that keeping children engaged at the optimal level of stress might keep parents out of the high-stress zone!

There are, however, some people who thrive under stress that would knock out a normal human being. Marina, a consultant, says, “I am at the top of my game in a crisis. I feel powerful, in control. At other times, I find it difficult to function; life seems boring and dull, and I have to summon up the energy to carry out everyday tasks.” People like Marina get addicted to the adrenaline rush that stress brings, similar to extreme sports junkies who live from thrill to thrill. It is important to recognise that this rush of hormones is the body’s emergency response system; it is a short-term burst, intended to aid in fight or flight. It is not intended to fuel long-term performance and is essentially a performance drug, with the same negative consequences.

So essentially, the cliché is real: what does not kill you, will make you stronger. But why be so dramatic? It is enough to just push yourself just a little bit more, to attempt the ‘slightly impossible’. And since we are bandying clichés about, here’s another one: without fire, a sword is just a piece of metal.

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