Give Stress a Second Chance
Is it really the big scary giant that everyone makes it out to be?
Of all the words thrown around in the workplace, stress is an unequivocally popular one.
“Don’t stress, it will all be okay!” or “Sure, I’m alright. Just a little stressed!” are phrases we hear all too often, words of affirmation from colleagues or muttered behind laptops on oh-god-my-inbox mornings.
While today’s world of #wellness has made wonderful advances in encouraging discourse around mental health in the workplace, it is important to remember to consciously stretch the conversation around these popular terms.
Of course, it is easy to see how this unhappy little six letter word has garnered its reputation. We see its negative connotations thrown around everywhere—“de-stress” guides and products, blog posts, meditation monologues, the list goes on. While the intention behind this practice is well-meaning, the word has become so ubiquitously negative that it is easy to imagine stress as an insurmountable lethal monster, lurking around every corner.
But how would you describe what stress actually is? Though every second headline promotes a “stress-free” environment, how many articles deep dive into what stress actually entails? And how great would an environment completely devoid of any stress really be?
A useful definition can be attributed to Dr. Edward P. Sarafino and Dr. Timothy Smith, who define stress as “the condition that results when person-environment transactions lead the individual to perceive a discrepancy between the demands of a situation and his or her resources”. In a shorter number of words: stress is when we perceive ourselves as incapable of meeting the needs of a situation.
How does this definition measure up to the way you describe stress? Perhaps this conceptualization is less internal, more a product of perception and environment than a ticking tumour of stress and anguish.
Perception and environment, it should be noted, are two ingredients that we are more capable of changing than we give ourselves credit for. And before moving forward, yes, of course chronic stress has well-researched harmful effects (if you or someone you know is struggling, please seek the resources at the bottom of this piece), but this article is here to tackle the assumption that all stress—from the fleeting to the big-day jitters—is diabolical.
So, let’s move on to debunking some notions about stress.
Stress is a process, and that is a good thing.
Understanding that stress is a process of appraisal allows us to grasp our own agency to intervene in that process. Though we like to think of ourselves as aptly tuned into our own abilities, sometimes this internal exercise can be plagued by unnecessary doubt or judgement.
Simple, mental pivots can help here. Evaluating difficult situations as challenges—rather than threats—is a key intervention in the process of appraisal, and can be beneficial to understanding that the stress isn’t always there to hurt you.
When faced with a difficult factor, try assessing it as a challenge. Try telling yourself: I know this will be hard, but I also know that I am prepared. I have the resources to deal with this. While this exercise won’t make the stress disappear, it will help you realize that perhaps the very existence of stress isn’t a cause for panic, but rather an opportunity to harness that extra push you need to succeed.
Good stress exists—and there is a name for it.
Beneficial stress is a real thing, otherwise known as eustress. Eustress occurs when a person experiences a moderate physiological or biological reaction in response to a challenging—see what I did there?—situation. Eustress has been shown to increase growth and contribute to fulfilling feelings of confidence and self-sufficiency.
Eustressors are tied to big life steps that stretch one’s comfort zone and are associated with perceived benefits. Examples may include challenging new work projects, job promotions, learning new skills such as driving, planning a big party, competing or performing.
While everyone can experience eustress, we all have different limitations.
It is important to understand that the ability to manage or deal with stress is not the same for everyone. We should all be mindful of each other’s limitations—one person’s eustress could be a very valid cause for distress for another person.
While practising positive psychology and mindfulness can strengthen the ability to demystify stress and transform it into eustress, a person’s relationship to stress is personal. Any attempts to change this relationship should always come from an internal motivation, rather than any external pressures.
The best way to take advantage of stress - fostering connection with self and others.
Whether you’re feeling the challenge of eustress or trying to cope with other difficult situations, it is important to stay connected to your own feelings, says resident therapist at The Werk, Melissa Ander: “A lot of [these feelings] come from interpersonal places, like being disconnected from a sense of community and also the fear of our own feelings.” At the end of the day, navigating our environment in healthier ways starts with “redefining our relationship to that feeling in our body” to feelings that arise from stress, like “fear, shame, loneliness and guilt”.
Reaching out to others, offering support and encouraging a more comprehensive discussion around notions of stress are important steps towards redefining these relationships—both internal and external.
Often times, refusing to talk about something—or skirting around the issue—can cause things to seem scarier than they really are. Everyday moments of short-term stress are not, in fact, lethal. They are necessary and while they can be challenging, they are vital in helping us improve and grow stronger.
Depending on your situation, attempting to mitigate any hint of stress can actually be more exhausting and, frankly, depressing. As we’ve covered, stress isn’t the all-consuming scary villain that it is so often made out to be. Some instances of stress can be beneficial—and we are active and capable in shaping stress through appraisal. Thus, (and sorry to go all Sheryl Sandberg on you) it is important to lean into stress once in a while.
Let us embrace those moments when we are faced with situations that quicken the heartbeat or make the palms sweat. Lean into this discomfort and realize that you already have the resources you need to deal with this situation. It may be difficult, sure, but you’ve got this.