Stress is one of those words, like time. You know what it means but, asked to define it, you flounder. This is partly because it is one word which identifies with many causes, some of which stress all, and some of which stress none. What is stressful to you may not be stressful to me, although reading the news one would be forgiven for thinking that because someone feels stress about something, we all should. And if we don’t feel the same stress, or at least sympathise with the sufferer, we are unfeeling.Heaven knows how mental health week goes on for months. Stress, or stories that relate stress, are now badges of honour. If you go to LinkedIn you will read about people’s challenges and how they overcame them. Not about their work, but how they overcame the same things you did, but for some reason their story will be better. I once had two colleagues who suffered from stress. They actually competed over who had been prescribed the higher dose of Diazepam. How stressed you are, has become a competition.
Don’t worry. I’m not dismissing the illness or consequences of genuine stress. I know it, I have seen it, and I have been there myself. But my response wasn’t chemical. I didn’t think it merited a LinkedIn post. And it wasn’t the motive for my next novel.
I recognise that many suffer from genuine stress – but others are empowered by it. And the triggers are often exactly the same. You see, stress the word is only half of stress, the reality.
The most famous writer on the subject of stress was Hans Selye (1907-1982), a Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist. Nominated 17 times for a Nobel Prize, he never actually received one. 17 parties, never a raffle prize. Stressful.
To cut a long story short, Selye identified a three-phase response to what he called ‘stressors’. Stressors were the events that cause the response we call stress. That response was essentially the same whether the stressor was positive or negative. The events created alarm, then adaptation, then exhaustion or death. But Selye identified two kinds of responses, positive and negative. The negative we call distress, and the positive eustress. But people only speak of stress in the negative sense.
But in the important difference between distress and eustress was that while the positive stress went through the same three stages, the result was a euphoric, educational stress, rather than an exhaustive, depressive surrender. Eustress serves us while distress does not. After the alarm, the distressed adapted badly and suffered, while the eustressed adapted well, and thrived.
This explains why one person will be excited and strengthened by events which another would find debilitating. One person sees the event as ‘the end’ while another sees the same event as an opportunity. One passenger in my car is terrified, while another is excited and impressed. One social worker happily goes about their day helping people, another sues for stress because their paperwork pile is too high. One speaker dreads standing at the lectern, while another seeks out every opportunity to speak in public.
Years ago, some research was conducted into what occupations caused the greatest amount of measurable stress. The research was broad, taking into consideration as wide a range of occupations as possible. The conclusions were that the least stressed, and longest-living, workers were orchestra conductors. The most stressed were those in the hospitality industry, particularly waiters and waitresses. They identified that the more control a person had over their environment, the less stress they felt. A conductor raises the baton, and 50 odd people do exactly what the baton tells them to do. A waiter waits and does what is required, as quickly as possible, and then changes tack to do the same for another impatient, demanding and rude customer.
They concluded that stress resulted from being in a low control, high demand environment, while those with high control of a low demand environment thrived.
The best response to any stress, therefore, is to take control. Not abandon it on the grounds that you’re feeling harassed. I know my own brief breakdown many years ago was cured in three days flat by a decision to take control. And knowing that, every time control was taken from me, I didn’t react as well as my employers might have liked. They knew this, because my response informed them. I nearly killed a fax machine, once.
The only way to change an outcome borne of stress, is to change our response. The event giving rise to stress is a given and is unchangeable. So the only way to not be stressed is to decide our response, and implement the least stressful, most purposeful idea.
So, given that we humans have the ability to choose our response in any given situation, why not use that knowledge to change even the meaning of the event, and thus even the response? Why not use your intellect to change distress into eustress? See the aforementioned social worker paperwork as a necessary part of a cared-for clients’ solutions. Marvel at my excellent driving as you would on a rollercoaster ride. Stand up at the lectern and speak. And think about it – who, there, has the most control (and probably the least demand)? It’s the speaker, there, at the lectern. Stress FREE!!
By taking charge, you would be using your self-awareness, imagination and independent will to turn that distress into eustress.
Finally, consider the work of psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who suggested that the cure to distress is a life of meaning. He took the distress of the concentration camps into the eustress of scientific discovery, and into the world of logotherapy. People with a sense of meaning don’t stay depressed – they are too busy doing something important.
Ultimately, stress is necessary. Without stress we’d still be in caves. With it, we learned to communicate, to learn, to build, to innovate, to fight, and to seek peace. Stress is an opportunity to create. Don’t knock it.
I repeat – stress is alleviated by taking back control, and by finding a sense of meaning in the event that caused it. No pills can do that. But you can.
Speakers – Stress is only the enemy if you allow it to be. Make it your FRIEND.
And remember – policing has meaning.
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