Someone reading the title is expecting me to open with a deflategate joke, so let me do a little panderin’ for just one picture:
Good news is I can make a real slick segue with that picture into today’s topic: Does stress ever make you feel like a football before Tom Brady gets his hands on it?*
Yes, today we are talking about good old fashioned stress, that thing that causes heart attacks, strokes, anxiety, sleep deprivation and all kinds of other badness. And, like most of you, I don’t particularly want or need any more badness in my life, so it sounds like we all should strive for stress-free living. In fact, if I google “stress-free living” I find that there are millions of entries, some by really smart people, with advice, books, pills, and pictures of happy people in open fields spinning around with their arms held wide…the universal symbol of people without stress (or inner ear dysfunction.)
I do love me an open-field, and and while spinning around isn’t my thing, apparently I’ve stumbled upon a goal we should have. Let’s all get rid of stress!
Trying to live stress-free is stressful
Is it just me or is the idea of all the work involved with living stress-free stressful?There are soooo many steps involved. Sure decluttering my life would be good, exercise each day sounds smart, and creating lists for the tasks I need to complete would prevent worrying over forgetting things. But, if I let myself become obsessed with all of the stuff I should do to avoid stress, I’ve added a gigantic pile of things to remember to do each day. Yay, more stress.
Seems we’ve found a situation like the one I talked about in Make Happy Little Cognitive Dissonance: Believing that we should be trying to be stress-free causes stress, just like believing we should be trying to be happy all the time causes us to be less happy. We’ve got our priorities out of whack again, and I think it is because we misunderstand stress.
Stress, on its own, isn’t the evil we think it is
Did you know that the idea of emotional and mental “stress” has been around for less than 100 years? Not only that, “Stress is not a useful term for scientists because it is such a highly subjective phenomenon that it defies definition.” I find it odd, that we try to eliminate something that is so ambiguously defined that even scientists feel the term is useless. Fundamentally, stress is just pressure exerted by “stressors” on our lives. As people often tend to do, they latched on to the negative connotations of stress, ignoring the fact that it also a necessary part of life.
No Stress, Eustress, Distress:
More than 100 years ago John Dodson and Robert Yerkes came up with a law showing that up to a certain point the more stress you have the more productive you are. Now back in their days, they called it “arousal” (remember the use of the word “stress” is less than 100 years old…pay attention class!), but nowadays a curve that says “the more aroused we are” means something entirely different, so we use the current term for the mental and emotional pressure put on us- “stress”.
Because of the negative connotations around the word “stress” we had to come up with a new word for “positive stress”- Eustress, or “good stress.” And to make the distinction between good and bad stress, we call bad stress “distress.” The, artfully handcrafted by me, chart you see above gives you an idea of how this law works. Without stress of any kind in our lives we get nothing done. Though sometimes sitting around and playing videos games all day sounds good, most of us want to accomplish something with our lives. Without any factors pushing us to do so, we simply won’t get anything done.
There is a certain amount of stress (which depends completely on the task) where we are “in the zone” and feel super-productive. That’s the area of eustress, the good stress that helps us find creativity, focus our energy, and meet deadlines. Eventually, if the stress levels keep building, we become less and less productive, eventually falling into distress (where banging your head on the keyboard seems a reasonable alternative to working.)
A balloon analogy
While it may be outside pressure (stressors) that cause stress, for me, stress feels more like I’m about to burst from the inside. I’ve never felt so much stress I want to implode, I’m all about explosions.
And that leads us back to limp balloons, and targeted deflation. (Not much of a segue there was it?) Here’s why:
Life without stress is as pointless as a limp balloon.
A balloon without any air in it is living a stress free life…nothing pushing on it’s thin walls forcing it to expand. That balloon is living in the state that we have errantly set as a goal. Are we jealous of the balloon?
No, of course not! Aside from the fact that it is a balloon and jealousy of inanimate objects would be indicative of larger personal issues, if you have a balloon and you never fill it up, what is the point of having it? It isn’t serving any purpose. I can’t imagine a child’s eyes lighting up when you hand them an empty balloon, and tell them not to blow it up. You certainly aren’t going to make many balloon animals out of it. It’s just a limp ol’ piece of rubber. You’ve got to add a little pressure, but not too much.
Life with distress is as scary as an overfilled balloon in a cactus garden.
Similarly, no one wants to be handed a balloon that has so much gas in it the slightest touch will blow it up. Sure it may have accomplished the task of being a balloon, but again, you aren’t going to make any balloon animals out of it. You are going to have to handle it delicately if you want to be able to enjoy it for any amount of time. You want to see stress-levels rise- go bat an overfilled balloon around with a friend in the desert section of your local botanical garden.
Embrace eustress, avoid distress, and stop trying to live without any stress.
Stress in all its forms is something for which we should take notice. But just like with our emotions, we shouldn’t fear it. We shouldn’t avoid it. We definitely shouldn’t have stress about eliminating stress. Like most of the stuff I write about, it’s really easy to say, but not so easy to do. For me, the first step is to pause throughout the day and just try to figure out if the stress I’m feeling is eustress, or if I’ve gone over the edge into distress. Then, instead of trying to eliminate stress that is actually beneficial to me, I can simply acknowledge it and be on my merry way. When it’s too much, I don’t have to eliminate it completely, I’ve got the much smaller task of just dialing it back to more optimal levels.
So maybe Mr. Brady was on to something there: The balls clearly were in a state of distress. Had he emptied them of all the stress there’s not much to be done with a limp pigskin. Free the football from distress he cried! And then empathic ol’ Tom Brady deflated the balloons (err, footballs that is) to bring them to their optimal state of eustress. Or maybe he was just looking for an advantage in life.
The good news is, you can do the same, without the four game suspension. Instead of fearing stress, embrace it and let it help you succeed. When you do you can create things you never imagined possible.
*Does it count as a slick segue if you tell people you are about to drop a slick segue? Can we please start spelling segue segway? If we started spelling segue segway, would we all have to wear sweaters and ride around on weird two wheeled transportation devices?