Getting stressed about your stress?

The way we perceive stress decides how much stress we experience and potentially the harm that it can do to us.

If we don’t adopt the right attitude, we can suffer chronic stress and all of the unpleasant side- effects it brings for our physical and mental health.

Our rational mind is a problem-solver (in the physical realm). Unfortunately, we use it to problem-solve everything, even where it doesn’t work, like with feelings, emotions and thoughts. By doing this we create suffering. If you doubt this, ask yourself if you have ever experienced the following: getting angry about getting angry; beating yourself up for beating yourself up; thinking obsessively about why you cannot stop thinking obsessively. We can add to this family of absurd, common and self-inflicted suffering feeling stressed about your stress.

We have come to believe that stress is bad. This is not surprising as we are bombarded daily with information about what stress can do to you, how stress can kill you. We hear very little about how stress is actually beneficial.

There is no doubt that there are times when stress can be negative, for example, when facing a life-threatening crisis, or  when we feel that we have a critically important task in front of us, but feel that we are not capable or do not have the resources to solve the problem.

While too little stress can lead to boredom and depression, too much can cause anxiety and poor health. The right amount of acute stress, however, tunes up the brain and improves performance and health.

I like to think of stress working something like a guitar string: too tight and it will break; too loose and it is not much use for anything; but with the right amount of tension, we get music.

With the right attitude, stress also produces positive feelings of excitement, fulfilment, meaning, satisfaction, and well-being. Stress can also make you feel confident, adequate, and stimulated by the challenge you experience.

The main difference in these two states is often (not always) our perception of stress. If, as is often the case, we perceive stress as universally negative, then stress can make us anxious about the cumulative negative effects stress is having on our minds and bodies. In other words, we start to feel stressed about our stress because we don’t want to feel stressed; because we have learned that all stress is bad and should be avoided. In this state, our perception can become distorted and for example, we can confuse fear with excitement. The physical symptoms in the body are similar, but the presence of suffering depends on your perception.

The chemical state of our bodies directly affects our perception, for example, if you experience a fright whilst you are driving, then for about 10/15 minutes after the event you will notice that your perception of the traffic is more fearful and you drive with greater caution. Once the fear-chemicals are eliminated, then you return to your normal style of driving. When your body is charged with the chemicals associated with anxiety, then your perception becomes more fearful and anxious. So when we feel stressed about our stress, our perception becomes more coloured by anxiety, which in turn, means that we are much more likely to generate anxiety. Perception really is everything.

Stress then is not something that we should avoid, but rather something that we need to learn to manage without fear. When we maintain our stress levels at the adequate level, then stress really does become our friend.

So how can we develop this attitude? First, remind yourself that stress is not bad but can be really useful. Learn how it feels in your body, observing with an attitude of open curiosity, kindness to yourself and a sense of humour. The following advice may be helpful:

  1. Commit to a life-time process of growth: “let everything be my teacher”
  2. Keep learning new things
  3. Choose to deliberately put yourself outside of your comfort-zone at both work and play.
  4. Daily exercise: this is vitally important, ideally at least one hour a day
  5. Set challenging yet realistic goals
  6. Incorporate meditation/mindfulness into your daily routine
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