Stress isn't the problem. It's THIS...

I remember having a conversation with a psychologist friend about an issue I was having with not feeling motivated enough to complete a project. I was completely astounded when she said that it sounded like I didn’t have enough stress to get it done. Not enough stress?, I scoffed. Well that’s a first. I’d heard over and over about how important it is to reduce stress, but never until that point had I been advised to go get some more of it!

She proceeded to explain that there is such a thing as “good stress”; a level of stress that stimulates you enough to get you focused, engaged, and motivated. So at this point, mind=blown, right? I mean, wow. It’s not just stress we need to be aware of, but good stress vs. bad stress. Good stress provides the stimulation you need to get up and going, and moving from one task to the next without overwhelm.

A Healthypsych article explains: “In modern times, many people see stress as something to be avoided. But, the day to day stress we all face that involves getting up in the morning, brushing our teeth and taking care of our daily responsibilities is a simple fact of life.”

It’s likely you’ve  heard of the idea of flow: a state of complete engagement and immersion in a task accompanied by a loss of perception of self. Flow is known to be the zone in which you perform at your best. You may not, however, as I didn’t, understand the role that stress hormones play in the experience of the flow state.

In this article on Psychology Today, Dr. Dan Goleman describes this flow state involving “just enough of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, along with beneficial brain chemicals like dopamine” as “the sweet spot” for optimal performance. So there it was- I simply didn’t have enough stress chemicals welling up in my brain to get on task. Somehow I needed to create some.

Apparently, I was experiencing what Goleman calls “disengagement”, or simply not enough good stress to be productive. I needed to add some stress producing elements to my experience, like accountability, deadlines, more structure, and a clear need to get it done. So stress in too little amounts in not a good thing. But what happens when there is too much stress?  

This is where most of us are more educated. Being unproductive is far from a good thing, but being overwhelmed has much more dire consequences. Chronic overwhelm is the result of stress hormone overload. So while stress itself isn’t a bad thing, and can in fact be good because it protects you from becoming a lazy, unimpressive couch potato who doesn’t shower or brush your teeth, too much stress is extremely problematic.

The same Healthpsych article continued, “A moderate amount of stress isn’t actually a bad thing (and it’s often simply known as stimulation). However, excessive and unrelenting stress – the kind that results in physical or psychological damage – is something we should all be minimizing.”

Being “stressed-out”, as it is often described, makes you less productive just as too little stress does. But it also blocks creativity and  throws you totally out of balance, making you unable to function well cognitively and emotionally. It leaves you more susceptible to an array of physical and mental illness, and very often negatively impacts your relationships as your ability to be present and engaged with the people you love becomes impaired.

In this video, Dr. Tal Ben Shahar discusses the relationship between stress, and in particular the experience of feeling overwhelmed from stress, and depression. He reveals the results of a national survey where 45% of college students in the US reported feeling depressed to the point of being unable to function and 80% reported feeling overwhelmed. Today the average age for the onset of depression in the United States is 14 years old, as compared to 29 years old in 1969.

The bottom line about stress is this: stress hormones serve a useful function- they keep you proactive and engaged in life. But in excess, they slowly kill you- and that’s no exaggeration. The importance of managing your stress cannot be overstated. If you can find a way to balance your hectic day-to-day to-do lists with periods of proper recovery, you can get it all done without experiencing overwhelm and maintaining optimal well-being.

While all of the links in this article include tips for keeping stress levels in check and for accessing the state of flow for optimal performance, below I’ve isolated just 5 powerful ways to keep your stress levels under control.

  1. Get adequate sleep- I truly believe that if you had to choose just one thing to manage your stress, this is the one to focus on. Getting at least 7-9 hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep at night is crucial for recovery and generally maintaining good health and well-being (here you can learn about the endless benefits of adequate sleep). If you are currently not sleeping well, I strongly suggest making it a priority to visit your healthcare practitioner and discuss how to improve the quality of your sleep.
  2. Take breaks- Add in short 5-15 minute breaks throughout your day.  Use this time to take some deep breaths, meditate, take a short walk, write a note of thanks to someone who recently made you smile, list the things that make your life good, drink a large glass of water, stretch, sing, dance, play with your dog, send your significant other a sexy or sweet text- whatever makes you feel good. Schedule at least 30 minutes of work time that is completely uninterrupted- closer your door, shut off your phone, and close out your email. Focus on just one thing without distraction.

  3. Take time to savor- Make it a point each day to really savor the daily pleasures of life. Take in the beauty around you,  the delicious taste of food, the glory of that first sip of coffee in the morning, the joy of a good hug from a dear friend, the smell of freshly cut grass, or the amazing comfort of a hot shower at the end of a long day. Endeavor to practice mindfulness and be present enough to enjoy the moments that have within them endless opportunities for savoring.

  4. Spend quality time with friends and familyThe benefits to our well-being when we spend time with people we love are plenty. As social beings, we need to spend time bonding with others to thrive. Nurturing your relationships lends to higher levels of functioning all around, and plays an enormous role in how happy you are. Make it a priority every week to schedule time with the people you value most.  Remove all distractions, like smart phones and computers,  when spending time together and choose to be fully present.

  5. Move your body every dayTal Ben Shahar says that not exercising is like taking a depressant. Regular physical activity is like sleep- it has endless benefits for our physical and emotional well-being as well as for our relationships. Begin with setting an hourly reminder to stand up and stretch, take a walk for a glass of water, or do some exercises appropriate for your environment. Additionally, work in a minimum 30 minute daily workout that you enjoy. Choosing exercise that you don’t enjoy doing will increase the likelihood of your not doing it, so find something you consider fun and do that.

If you have been feeling overwhelmed with too much stress, will you commit right now to making just one change that will help you feel less stressed? Let me know in the comments which of the 5 tips you are going to focus on to get your stress levels down to optimal, high performance levels. Not sure if you're over the healthy limit? Take this quiz.

Do you want support getting your stress levels under control?  Work with me!

Thanks for reading!