What is stress? How to deal with stress proactively
This page is about what happens under stress, and how it is possible to handle stress proactively. At the end of it, there is a practical summary of how to deal with stress and build resilience.
What is stress?
It's what happens when something majorly disrupts the flow of your normal functioning. Think of this situation as: Your systems' resources are stressed beyond their capacity.
It helps to see this through a metaphor: When it rains too much, there is so much water that the "water system" is on overload. We call this a flood. In a similar way, when you're faced with more than you can handle, your nervous system is flooded. This is what we call stress. When there is a flood in nature, life is affected in a dramatic way. Think of the images you've seen on TV, for instance houses submerged in water with people perched on the roof. You cannot expect things to function normally under such circumstances. The first priority is to mount a major rescue effort.
Similarly, it is important to remember that your functioning is dramatically impaired when you are under stress. You need to deal with that to restore your ability to function.
In the above example, we're talking about flash floods, such as might be caused by a hurricane. In human terms, this is what happens when we face a traumatic event. But that's not the only way flooding occurs. Slow and steady does it as well. All it takes is a buildup of what drains your system, unmatched by a parallel buildup of your system's resources. To make this more concrete, here is a metaphor: If you keep drawing from your bank account without replacing what you take, your savings get smaller. Eventually you'll run out of money.
So it is with stress: If you keep getting too much stress in your life, without an adequate amount of restorative activities and time, you'll get depleted, drained, burnt out. And it's going to keep getting worse unless you address the situation.
The point I'm making here is that burnout comes from an imbalance -- not just the amount of work or worries you deal with, but also the lack of adequate resources. Within reason, you can tolerate more stress if you have enough "good stuff" in your life to compensate for it. Not so when you burn the candle at both ends.
It's not that all "stress" is to be avoided. Within reason, some stress is actually good and even necessary. For instance, think about the way exercise builds muscles. The effort you exert when lifting weights or running is a stress for the body.
It is important to note that exercise is good for you only when:
- you stretch your comfort zone, but you don't stress your body beyond what it can tolerate;
- you have adequate periods of rest to restore your body.
If you don't do the above, accidents or breakdowns will occur, just as accidents and breakdowns occur with machinery that's used beyond capacity.
You can increase your strength and stamina through the controlled stress of an adequate exercise program. In a similar way, you will increase your emotional resilience as you handle stress beyond your comfort zone, with the caveat that you do so:
- within the bounds of what your nervous system can handle,
- and with enough resources and resting time to be truly restored.
To deal more productively with stress, it makes sense to not see stress in isolation. Instead, I suggest you see it within a larger context: Stress can lead to either burnout, or to building resilience. As long as you don't draw on your resources more than you're able to replenish them, stress is a gateway to building resilience.
Building resilience means that you expand the "bandwidth" within which you operate. You increase your ability to handle stress and bounce back and feel good. You do so by stretching your limits, but not beyond the breaking point, and with adequate periods of rest... just as you would in an effective sports training program.
Paying attention to body sensations
The terms I am using, sustainable ecosystem, restoring balance, evoke the harmonious flow of nature. This is because the key to managing stress is to allow our nervous system to function for self-regulation.
Think of our nervous system as something akin to a thermostat: It is constantly sensing information, and adjusting multiple functions in our body, in order to maintain the dynamic balance under which we function optimally.
When we function under stress, we override the nervous system's sense that "this is too much". To some extent, it's good to do so. Without the ability to override the sense of "too much", we wouldn't be able to stretch our limits when we need to, in an exercise program, or in other endeavors that require a lot of effort.
But as we keep functioning under stress, and as we keep overriding the sense of "too much", we progressively dull our ability to sense this. Now, what's the problem with that? Well, imagine you're in a car where the fuel gauge is not working: You keep driving until the car stops suddenly because there is no more gas!
This is what happens to us under stress. The psychosomatic symptoms of stress are not imaginary ills, they're very real physical problems such as back pain or headaches or ulcers... They stay under the radar until they erupt full force because our "dashboard gauge" has been silenced, and we haven't been made aware of the problems until they become so big they're impossible to ignore.
This is why proactive stress management includes not just talking about what is stressful, but also enhancing our capacity to sense what is happening to us somatically (i.e. in the body), moment by moment.
So what about the "dashboard instrument"? Of course, it's distracting to have the red flashing light in front of us as we push beyond our comfort zone. But the solution to that is not to remove the dashboard. It is to develop our ability to shift focus. This way, we can temporarily shift our attention away from the blinking red light in order to go into full effort mode, without losing the ability to be warned of danger.
A proactive approach to stress management
We all have the capacity to be proactive. This simply means that our ability to learn from experience can help us build resilience. Difficult things that happen to us have the potential to nourish us and strengthen us… if we are able to make sense of them, to integrate them into our understanding of who we are and how we function. This kind of integration is not just an intellectual understanding of the situation, it is a felt sense, a profound experience.
However, the temptation is strong, when you have a lot on your plate, to postpone doing this: You feel that the pressure is such that you cannot spare the time for coaching or therapy sessions. Or you fear that getting in touch with the strain and pain would destroy your ability to achieve what you need to do.
In fact, it is when "too much" is happening... when you feel overwhelmed or stressed out... when you feel you don’t have time to chew and digest what’s happening… that you need more than ever to make time for this kind of “processing”. Not just for your health and happiness (which, at such times, may feel like they are not an immediate priority compared to the urgency of the tasks at hand), but simply in order to be more effective in what you're doing.
1. The goal is not to avoid any and all stress, but to improve your ability to deal with stress.
2. Managing stress is not some esoteric quality that you have or don’t have in your genes. It is a learning process: You are faced with something difficult; you engage with the challenge, and learn from experience how to deal with it.
3. What will help you to better manage stress is to develop your body awareness. This makes if possible for you to be aware of stress as it starts to build up, as opposed to being caught by surprise when accumulated stress results in psychosomatic symptoms.
4. As you’re in the midst of a challenge, it is helpful to remember that there is a larger payoff. Think of what’s happening as part of a “continuing education” that builds up your resilience. This is similar to the way a yoga class, or a run, or a workout have the larger payoff of helping to shape who you are.
5. To the extent possible, it is good to choose your challenges, to calibrate the level of difficulty you’re facing. It is not useful, and it can actually be very harmful, to keep pushing very hard to do things that are way beyond your capacity.
6. When you find yourself unable to move forward, either consciously resistant to change, or unconsciously avoidant… this probably means that something needs to be healed before you can move on, very much the way that a severe muscle sprain requires healing before you can resume your exercise program.