Is stress good or bad? We seem to be universally conditioned to view it negatively. How often have you heard these?
- “He’s off work due to stress.”
- “Her stress levels are too high, she’s struggling to cope.”
- “He’s under too much stress to make a good decision.”
Are we living in a culture that’s allergic to stress? I sometimes wonder. It’s a stark fact that as a work related illness category stress, depression or anxiety accounts for by far the most sick days taken in Great Britain. The Labour Force Survey estimates that people inclined to take time off with it took an average of 21.2 days in 2018/19. That’s more than a month off work. In contrast, those with work related musculoskeletal disorders (familiar to dentists) took 13.8 days, and for people suffering from work related injuries it was 8.1 days.
Clearly there is a serious problem here: either a lot of people are in jobs they shouldn’t be in or they have low resilience owing to other factors, or it’s a complicated mixture of the two. Modern life is certainly stressful, difficult and complicated, and things that used to help us through — like community, family and religion — are no longer so central. Each person has to build their own support around them.
So I’m aware that I may be going against the grain in saying that I quite like stress, it makes me feel vital, it sharpens my concentration, takes me to a different level of consciousness and stops me being complacent or even lazy. This seems to be borne out by modern science, which differentiates between good stress and bad stress.
Stress is a burst of energy — a turbo boost — that in small doses has advantages. It floods the body with chemicals like epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol which increase your work rate, focus, stamina and memory. Your motivation surges and you find efficient ways to meet deadlines that can be surprising, even to yourself. Research suggests that stress can fortify the immune system, improve how the heart works and protect the body from infection.
But stress is also a warning system, producing the fight-or-flight response. This isn’t supposed to stay “switched on” for long periods, which is why chronic stress can be harmful to the body and mind. Over weeks or months the body’s high alert state causes cognitive impairment — poor memory and concentration, weakens the immune system and causes high blood pressure, fatigue, depression, anxiety and even heart disease. Overstressed people are irritable and difficult to work with, they get headaches, body aches, have trouble sleeping, the list goes on…
So the experts believe that life with an imbalance of stress — too little or too much — is unhealthy. You need physical and mental resilience to be happy, which comes from stress, but you also need time out from stress too. Needless to say, everyone has different thresholds and finds different things stressful.
Truthfully I actually get excited and motivated by stress, provided it’s not the kind caused by missing a flight despite arriving at the airport two hours before departure, losing my phone (a very weird feeling — I thought it might mean I had to stop breathing) or getting caught speeding twice in 20 minutes, all horrible events which I have experienced in the past three weeks. But even these stressful moments have a weird upside for me — after the initial anger, despair and cursing phase I become calm and sort of relish having to sort the problem out. It’s almost fun (I know this sounds weird).
My way of dealing with stress is dead simple: I quickly rationalise the situation and focus on solving the blocker, and by putting all my emotion (anger, fear, panic) into this, the stress seems to vaporise. It really works.
I was pleased to discover that Jocko Willink, a leadership author and former Navy Seal commander who my son Dan talks about a lot, has a similar approach. Here’s what he says.
So there’s different types of stress that people face, and in my opinion most of the time we’re either facing stress of things that we can control and stress of things that we can’t control. Well, if it’s stress of things that we cannot control, what you have to do is you mitigate that stress as much as possible. You’ve planned. You’ve trained. You’ve done everything you can in your power to mitigate the stress that’s facing you. And then after that, there’s nothing you can do. So, you have to let that one go.
If it’s something that it is something that you can control, it’s something that is hanging over your head — a lot of times people have something that they’re afraid of. They’ve got a client that’s mad at them. They’ve got a project that’s due. And they let that stress hang over their head. I don’t let that happen. If I’ve got a problem with one of my clients that needs to get solved, guess what I’m going to do? I’m going to call them up and I’m going to say, “Hey, here’s what’s going on. This is the situation. This thing went sideways. I didn’t expect it. Now it’s going to take me some more time to get you what you need.” But I’m going to do that upfront. Same thing with a project that I’ve got. I’m not going to let that thing hang over my head and wait till the last minute and be scared of it. No. If I’ve got something to do, I’m going to attack it.
So that’s what I recommend you do. If you’ve got things that are stressful in your life that you can’t control, do what you can to mitigate them and then you can’t worry about them anymore. And actually, worrying about them is taking away energy from what you should be doing, which is concentrating on the things that you actually can control. So the things that I can control that are causing me stress, I’m going to attack them. That’s what you need to do.
If you are struggling with stress maybe an informal chat with me might help. Give me a call.