How Much Stress Is Good For Us?

2 August, 2018

Everyone experiences stress to some degree.  The question is: how much stress is actually good for us, and what do we do about the rest?!

I was recently engaged to run a workshop on stress and resilience for a private sector corporate. The organisation has a consistently high engagement score and from the conversations and emails I had before, during and after the workshop with the leadership and the attendees, it was very clear to me that this is a great place to work: a place that took their employees’ wellbeing seriously and in a very proactive way. 

This is really great to see because most of my experience on the inside of organisations have been with the NZ public sector.  Despite some great culture development work driven by the Human Resources and Organisational Development teams, these continue to be stressed workforces.  Yet, ‘resilience’ continues to be a buzz word that gets banded around, as well as ‘change ready’, ‘do more with less’ and ‘learning agility’.

It can be hard to manage stress effectively and grow resilience in a culture that doesn’t seem to support you, but instead seems to be the very source of your stress!  This can, understandably, cause resistance within us.  So what can you really, truly do for yourselves in this crazy modern world, and why do you need to do it?

Here’s the deal: no matter what job or situation you’re in you will experience some degree of stress at some point.  It’s unavoidable.  There are a myriad of reasons for this which would be too long to detail here, but this is something you already know.

The Original Design

Here’s how stress is supposed to work:  you and your primitive Nervous System are simply going about your business, when, something out of the ordinary happens outside of you: your car breaks down; your parent goes into hospital; a business deal gets pulled; your child has a public meltdown; you get a sudden short deadline presented to you at work; your partner loses their job; you have a confrontational conversation at work.  Your Nervous System, which hasn’t adapted to these ‘modern day’ stressors (and perhaps never will) produces adrenaline, and then cortisol, to deal with this perceived ‘threat’ to your life.  You will feel physiological sensations in your body which you will recognise as the stress response, or anxiety/panic.  It’s all part of the same chemistry to give you the short-term energy to either fight or fly.  And OK, so these modern day stressors are not a real threat to your life, and you don’t actually need to fight or fly.  However, we can forgive your Nervous System for that, as its primitive and doesn’t know the difference, and is just responding and trying to keep you safe.

And - the fight-flight response which prioritises that short-term energy to deal with that situation is actually really useful to us - short term.  We NEED that adrenaline to produce a project under pressure, to perform on stage or to deal with an urgent situation like a parent being taken sick.  And of course for the very rare times where there IS a real threat to respond to - heavy footsteps behind us down a dark alley for example.  Without the stress response activated in the body we would be screwed!

It was evolutionarily designed to be short term: get triggered - have energy to deal with the threat - then reset and rejuvenate, so you're ready for the next thing to come along.  This is your NS working the way it was designed, with a few adaptations for the 'modern day' stuff.

The Problem

The problem is, that we don’t use it the way it was designed.  We keep getting re-triggered.  We are in that stressed state mid-long term.  And we don’t effectively reset and rejuvenate. So our systems are flogged.  And this means they are not ready for the next thing to come along.  In fact, the very thought of the ‘next thing coming along’ feels like too much, because we are still dealing with the three or four things currently overwhelming us.

And, you are experiencing the unpleasant symptoms of mid-long term stress: brain freeze; slurring your words; reliance on alcohol, sugar and caffeine; not sleeping well; forgetfulness; anxiety; panic attacks; health issues; weight gain; negativity.  Just to name a few.  This makes us less resilient and less effective, and the downward spiral continues down.

What Can We Do?

Our Nervous System won’t be changing any time soon, it will keep responding in this primitive way to the things that we throw at it.  What we need to do is firstly accept this.  And secondly find ways to LEAD and GUIDE it.  Help it work out what IS actually worthy of its attention, and when it is overacting.  Help it re-set into it’s ‘rest and digest’ state, so it really can relax and in turn, be ready for the next thing to come along.

There are a few things that can help you do this:

External vs Internal Stress

Understand the difference between External Stress (detailed above) and Internal Stress.  External Stress is the thing that happens outside of you, as above, that triggers that physiological fight-flight response.  Internal Stress is the SAME physiological response in the body, but what caused it was not outside of you, it was INSIDE of you.  Specifically: your thoughts.  Crappy thoughts.  The kind of thoughts that can do this are:  Worry; Catastrophic thinking; replaying unpleasant events in your mind; imagining unpleasant events happening in the future.  These patterns of thinking in turn simply create more stress and lead to a downward spiral.  I call this the Stress Loop.  

Check:  How much of your stress right now is caused by triggers outside of you?   How much is a result of one or more than one of these crappy thinking patterns?  Get curious about this!  These patterns of thinking can be changed, and will then alleviate most of your current stress.

Boundaries


We are living in a world of complexity, and most people don’t have enough protection around them.  We are saying yes when we should be saying no.  We suffer from hyper-availability: our devices are always on and we are on call to everyone in our lives for most of the day.  We weren’t designed for this amount of contact with the outside world.  Do you really need to check your emails at 10pm at night?  Read my blog Setting Personal Limits In a World of Complexity for more on boundaries.  This is a deep passion of mine and something I believe is mostly missing from people's lives, mostly because we are worried about other people being pissed off with us.  Yet learning how to set boundaries effectively is SO CRUCIAL to our wellbing.  I am happy to talk to anyone on the topic of bounadry setting, so please get in touch if this is an issue for you and I will pummel that issue out of you for good!

Leading Your Nervous System Into Its Restful State

Either physically or mentally, it’s up to us to guide our own Nervous Systems into restful states.  WE need to teach it that there is no danger, and that we are currently safe. We need to help it to stop responding to everything.  We especially want to be here at night, before we go to sleep.  You can fall asleep when in a stressed state, but it won’t be a good sleep and you are likely to wake up exhausted.  This is the old adage of ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ - so fill up yours, every day!  Here are a few tips to lead your NS into its reset:
  • Ratio Breathing (breathe in for 4; out for 8)
  • Weighted blanket on chest & abdomen
  • Massage
  • Bath
  • Skin on skin hugs
  • Shakti Mat
  • Sex
  • Music
  • Mindfulness activities
  • Let NS know you’re safe: use soothing voice with safety references
As always, I love to hear from you.  Please drop me a line and let me know what resonated and what didn’t, and how I may be able to assist you.  

Love, Charlotte x

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