I am somewhat surprised to read that a book (Rush: Why you need and love the rat race by Todd Buchholz) has just been published along with alarming claims that ‘stress is good for us, makes us feel alive, keeps our minds agile, and helps us live longer’. I can’t help but wonder if the author, a former economic advisor to the White House, is confusing stress with pressure or even with the positive aspects of work. Indeed, there is a lot to be said about the benefits of work, feeling stretched and challenged and engaged in what we do, but to suggest these benefits apply to stress is at best misguided. So I thought this might be a good opportunity to correct some of the common myths about stress.
Myth One: “We need stress!” We do need to feel motivated when we want to achieve something but stress is not the answer. There is a difference between pressure and stress. The right amount of pressure can be stimulating, but too little pressure and we feel boredom and eventually ‘rust out’; and too much pressure and we can feel stressed and eventually ‘burn out’. Imagine you are an elastic band. If you don’t feel stretched your ability to perform is poor. If you feel too stretched you feel weak and may snap. But if the right amount of pressure is applied you perform at your optimum.
Myth Two: “Stress is all in the mind!” Stress indeed starts off in the mind but it affects the whole body. When we are exposed to situations and events we make two split second sub-conscious appraisals. The first is to question whether we are under any threat. If the answer to that is yes, then the next question we ask is whether we think we have the resources and skills to cope with it. If we don’t feel we can cope with the situation then we set off a biochemical reaction in our bodies which causes us to feel symptoms like sweaty palms, a racing heart, butterflies in the stomach, muscle twitches, clenched hands, a dry mouth, a need to urinate and so on. And it can negatively impact our ability to make decisions, concentrate, and be creative and it can cause memory lapses. It can also lead us to withdraw from others, lose our libido, work too much, panic, cry, swear, and get frustrated and angry.
Myth Three: “Stress is for wimps!” Stress is not a sign of weakness; in fact we are all susceptible to the affects of too much pressure. Whether we feel we have the ability to cope with excess pressure will depend on our personalities, prior experiences and past personal exposure, how much control we feel we have, our patterns of thinking, whether we’ve had sufficient sleep, and what coping strategies and techniques we use. If we don’t have or don’t use the correct resources to cope then we can feel stressed.
Myth Four: “Stress helps me focus!” Stress narrows our thought-action repertoire so indeed it helps us focus on the perceived dangers at hand. In contrast positive emotions help us be more creative, explore options and opportunities, and undo the negative physiological effects of negative emotions. And when we lose ourselves in work or other activities it’s not because of stress but because we have entered a state of absorption or what positive psychologists call ‘flow’. To create flow we need to feel challenged or stretched and feel that we have the resources to achieve our goal – this is NOT stress.
Myth Five: “Stress helps you live longer!” Short bursts of stress every now and again should present no health problems. However, prolonged stress and frequent exposure to stress has been linked to a number of health conditions including high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, reduced immunity and cancer. And if when you’re feeling stressed your way of dealing with it is to reach for the biscuit barrel, packet of cigarettes or bottle of beer then don’t expect to increase your life expectancy (or cope very well for that matter)!
If you need help addressing some of the myths about stress and tackling some of the problems it causes and/or helping your staff explore the benefits of pressure, work and engagement, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.