Is stress your enemy or your ally?
Stress is usually the bad guy, something to get rid of and overcome. But in the same time I know people —and maybe that’s you too?— who will tell me that stress is their motor for action.
So where’s the line? Do we get rid of stress, or do we use it?
On stress, regulation, adrenaline, taking action…
First and foremost, stress is an evolutionary necessity. If it wasn’t for stress, none of us would be here. We are the descendants of people who when they saw a Saber Tiger coming, felt the stress, and therefore did something, whether it was run of fight for their life. Not from the ones who stood there chilling and thinking:”What a beautiful animal.” just before getting eaten.
That is back when we lived around Saber Tiger. But today it works just the same, stress is still there to tell you:”Something needs to be done! Now!”. That’s why all the blood goes away from your organs –Brain included– and into your muscles where it is needed to take action.
The problem in our modern societies is, though we don’t have Saber Tiger anymore, we have all the kind of stress that we cannot do anything about because it wouldn’t be socially OK. Like punching people in the face, whether that is the cliche sadistic boss, the guy that keeps spreading all over you in the train, or whoever just won’t get more subtle messages.
In many situation we can’t take action, and the stress just stays unresolved and kept inside, where it adds up, which leads to a lot of psychological and physical dysfunctions and sickness. And that’s the only moment when stress is a problem.
Stress is a life saver, but it becomes a problem when action is not possible
And it might be really materially impossible, or we might just think it is.
Now, whether we can take action or not, in any case, adding resistance to the stress is making it bigger. It would be ironic to end up stressed about being stressed, right? That happens though.
Stress is part of life, so it’s not about getting rid of it absolutely. I’m not not saying to stay in horrible situations when you can change it, but we also need to work, on the complementary solution, which is regulating our nervous system. I won’t get into that today, I’m talking a lot about it here and you can find more in this podcast episode and a guided exploration here.
What is your relationship with stress?
For today, let’s stay with our relationship towards stress: Are you using it, is it your ally? Or is it overwhelming you?
When we need stress to move, to do something, it shows something is off balance. It is normal to get suddenly motivated by an approaching deadline, for example. But here I’m talking about constantly needing an adrenaline shot to get moving.
Remember, stress is the messenger, so we want to listen to it. When we need it to shoot loud chronically, that might say for example:
- That we are doing something that is not aligned anymore with what we want to do, and then it feels boring and we need a really big motivation to do it.
- That we do something that is not in your zone and/or we’re not interested in doing but needs to be done. Might be time to delegate. If not possible, we need to find a way to engage with it from a more enthusiastic state. Think about why you are doing that thing, what it allows in the end.
Can we get addicted to stress?
We might also be addicted to adrenaline. When we have an emotional pattern that we keep repeating, we get addicted to feeling these emotions and hormones. It becomes pleasantly familiar, thus comforting. Stress, being under pressure, can feel exciting, like it brings you into the moment and helps to focus. But again, when we need it to focus, then we are draining our nervous system un-necessarily.
In that case, how can we bring more satisfaction and appreciation in the now? Not in grandiose moments, but in daily and ordinary we life.
Becoming larger than stress
On the other side of the spectrum, we feel overwhelmed with stress… We need to take action but get into a freeze response instead.
Is it possible to lower down the stress, the stimuli? We might need to walk away from a situation altogether. What is the core of the overwhelm? And what is one action we can take in regards to it?
Sometimes the answer will be, right now, no action is possible. But even then, we can start looking for solutions instead of coping with the problem. It might take the form of scheduling a time in the future when we think or know that we will be able to do something about it.
We are sending a message to our unconscious that we heard the message, and momentarily we need to wait, but we are preparing for action; and this is already an action in itself, and lowering the level of stress. We are opening possibilities.
And what if we feel so stuck that there don’t seem to be anything possible now or in the future? We can always open the possibility to start looking for solutions. We might need some professional help for that. In any case, changing our mindset from hopeless stuck to I don’t know how, but I’ll find a solution, is in itself an action in response to stress.
What kind of stress are you reactive to?
What kind of stress are you more familiar with?
The “I want this so badly, I need to do something to get it.”, or “I cannot stand this anymore. Enough! That’s enough. I need to do something now.”
An interesting thing to notice, because it will influence the kind of action you take, the time it takes you to react, and the quality of your results.
Resources for nervous system regulation
Podcast episode: Avoid FOMO by regulating your nervous system
Guided exploration: Out of your head, away from stress, into your senses – to calm the nervous system
Guided exploration available here in the Integrally Alive toolkit.