Stress 101

Hey, it’s me, K. Thank you for being so patient with me as I sort out my life by taking a mini-break from writing about these things. I’m back now with some knowledge I’ve learned.

Stress is a real thing. 

There are two types of stress: eustress, positive stress, and distress, negative stress. Most of the time, when we think about stress though, we only focus on distress and how to stop or avoid it. Real talk: it is part of living life to encounter both types of stress. You don’t have the option to eliminate it. In fact, up until the point where stress turns to distress, stress actually help us evolve. So, our goal is to learn how to manage it adaptively. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’m going to offer up some of the practices that have buoyed me through moments of incredible distress and turned the distress into challenges. 

What is stress exactly?

Stress takes many forms but it is easiest to take the idea of stress learn it from the physiological perspective and translate it into the emotional and psychological perspective. Essentially, let’s look at the body and then see how those same concepts apply to the mind. 

When you workout, you feel sensations in your body, burn in your muscles. Say you’re holding a plank. About 45 seconds in, your shoulders are on fire, your quads are asking you to stop, your core is quivering. That’s a form of stress on the body. If you continue for too long, you’ll mostly like get injured. If you back off too soon, it will be very hard to increase strength. If you stay inside the plank long enough to tax your muscles but take a break before you get injured, you’ll gain strength and increase the time you can spend in plank as long as you practice consistently and safely. 

When you encounter an uncomfortable stimulus, you’ve got a few options and the choice you make will determine whether this stimulus helps you to grow and change or hinders you from doing so. Let’s label the grow and change as challenge and the hinder as distress. The work that I have found so vital in my own life is reclaiming the power over which situations get what labels. Why? Because, if you’re reading this (it’s too late), JK, you probably currently sit in a place of privilege. You have a phone or a computer or a tablet and access to the internet. You can read. Your basic needs of shelter, food, water, and warmth are taken care of. You are focusing, most likely, on self-fulfillment as opposed to making sure that you stay alive until the next morning. Maybe you have lived through those other types of stress and are now out on the other side figuring out how to thrive. But you viscerally feel the difference, right? I argue that it is much harder to turn the stressors of having basic survival needs unmet into an adaptive challenge. The things that stress us out on the way to self-fulfillment can be manipulated into such. So, we’ve got to teach ourselves that not all stressors mean an attack on our ability to survive. That means reclaiming the power to choose.

Here’s what that looks like:

Holding your plank for 15 seconds, never any more, won’t challenge you enough to build strength. At the 45 second mark, your pulse starts to quicken, you hold your breath or it feel frantic, that is the moment when you have the choice. You can let the stress derail you, or you can choose to stay for 10 more seconds - enough to challenge you but not enough to injure you. If you force your body to stay for, say, 5 minutes when your threshold is 50 seconds, you will most likely get injured. Our goal in managing stress is to find that sweet spot where you can take on just a little more, but not enough to leave you destroyed.

Cool, but what about my real life where things are not as simple as holding a plank? I feel you and I raise you my recent move across the country. 

Even though I was removing myself from an incredibly distressful and toxic situation, moving into a completely foreign environment has its own challenges. My support system is way smaller here. My New York support system is on a different time zone, so our ability to connect and hold space for each other in real time doesn’t work out frequently. Everything is new. Everything is different. Going back to school is hard. Starting a nonprofit is hard. Working full time on top of all of that is almost too much. Most days, I work between three different time zones. All of these factors could be stressful enough to derail a person. They could be seen as threatening and my body could respond by hijacking my sympathetic nervous and thrusting me into a state of fight or flight. Harkening back to the idea of the plank, I have a few choices: I could allow the stress to continue and let it result in an injury (read: breakdown); I could avoid the problems altogether (drop my classes, stop working on the non-profit and do what I need to do to get by); I could reframe my idea around the stimuli and turn it into a challenge moment thereby growing from it, using it adaptively.

Obviously, we know which one I’m choosing. It’s easier said than done.  Over the course of the next few weeks though, I’ll guide you through some strategies that allow you to turn stress, whether they show up in the form of planks or moves, into challenges that help you grow instead distress that derails your life.

Next time on the blog: strategy one for making stress adaptive - gratitude. 

A Quick Post Script Review:

stress info.png