Stress has got a lot of bad press in recent years. So much so that whenever I ask a client what comes to mind when they think of stress, I invariably hear comments like; “It’s bad for you”, “Stress can make you sick”, “Stress can kill!” It’s hardly surprising that they’re coming to see me – people are stressed about being stressed!
But here’s the thing. Stress isn’t all bad. It can actually be very helpful to us. It’s how we think about it that matters. Let’s take a closer look.
Did you know that there are two kinds of stress? One is really helpful and necessary to our survival. It gets us out of bed in the morning, preparing for work or school on time and meeting deadlines. The other can be debilitating and detrimental to our health and wellbeing because it has become chronic and dominant. They are known as Eustress (think useful stress) and Distress. Let’s take a look at Eustress.
The stress response is your nervous systems alarm. It alerts us when there is danger or threat. If you think of the smoke detector in your house, an effectively functioning one will activate when it senses smoke and then deactivate once the smoke clears. In the same way, our nervous system alerts us when there is threat or danger and once activated it releases chemicals into our body that will help us to get out of danger either by facing it, running or freezing. This is commonly known as fight/flight mode.
When it is operating optimally, the alarm will enable us to rise to the challenge before us be that stepping back from the curb when a car suddenly comes whizzing around the corner, standing in front of your class to give a speech or working to get that assignment finished by its due date. With the alarm activated, we are better equipped to focus our attention, we have an increase of motivation and energy and our senses are heightened. This enables us to think and react fast. We’ve all heard stories of people recalling feats of seemingly super human strength under pressure saying “it was the adrenaline!”
Yet, we seem to have gotten stuck in the thinking that this is bad for us. So when for example we find ourselves about to talk with the boss about that pay rise, we perceive the normal stress response of increased heart rate, sweaty palms and maybe jitteriness as being a bad thing. How’s that going to make you feel about talking to your boss?
Jake, was a 9 year old boy who hated giving speeches at school. His mother reported that he would worry for days before speech day, lose his appetite, feel nauseous, sleep poorly and become moody and easily upset. He hated feeling jittery and out of sorts in the days before, and once in front of the class he would feel his heart pounding, his mouth go dry, his palms sweating and he would feel jittery and shaky. He then had difficulty recalling what he wanted to say and often fumbled his cards. This coupled with the fear that his classmates would laugh at him often left him feeling paralysed.
Jake and I spent some time talking about smoke detectors. He learned how his body has one of its very own that could help him to give speeches. When he learned that those physical sensations he felt in his body were the stress response and could actually help him to focus his attention, give him energy and motivation, a light came on. He realised that the stress could be his friend and help him rise to the challenge of standing in front of his class.
I spoke next with Jake and his mum the week after speech day. He proudly recounted how he coached himself leading up to speech day and on the day itself, reminding himself that stress was his friend and there to help him. With a smile on his face he told me that his speech went without a hitch.
Jake is great evidence that how we think about stress matters. If we think stress is bad for us, it will be. However, if we choose to change how we view stress and instead see it as a helpful and empowering friend, then we will get to enjoy its many benefits.
Do stress well.