Stress. The word is enough to make many people shutter. We feel stressed-out and don’t want to be stressed-out. We know it’s not good for us, but we want to believe it’s not doing that much damage and will soon pass. Unfortunately, the data suggest otherwise. Stress is a silent killer (and, at times, a very loud killer). If we fail to assess and adjust our stress levels on a continual basis, then they will overwhelm our ability to cope with and to contribute to life. So I hope you will join me on a journey over the next several months, as we seek to “stress proof” our lives.
It’s time for a new Provision series and what could be more timely, given global developments, than a series on stress. Since I began my second-act career as a coach in 1998, I have written articles on stress, offered “Stress-Proof Your Life” workshops to both small and large groups, and coached individuals through various transitions and stressful situations. Such is the life of a coach. Were it not for stress, most coaches would be out of a job. Stress is often what brings people to coaching and it is also what coaches work and play with in order to bring out the best in our clients.
The notion of working and playing with stress tells you that stress is not always a bad thing. A certain amount of stress, like the tension on a fishing line, is required to keep life interesting and fun. Indeed, just getting out of bed in the morning is a kind of stress. So, too, when it comes to getting our needs met. Some needs are more stressful than others • a challenge would not be challenging without stress • not to mention the stress of getting into and maintaining the vital rhythms that I was writing about in last week’s Provision. These things are tough and they’re worth the effort.
Problems arise when stress becomes excessive. I know from personal experience. After 20 years of working in high-stress environments, I ended up obese • 65 pounds overweight • with no time to exercise or recover. I was on the proverbial workaholic treadmill, and it took a toll. When I went to my doctor after resigning my last position, in 1998, I learned that my body fat, my blood pressure, my cholesterol, my triglycerides, and even my prostate were above recommended levels. My doctor gave me six months to lose weight and get in shape, or else he was going to put me on blood pressure or cholesterol medication. It was a grim, “change or die,” message.
My experience is in no way unique. Stress matters because it takes a huge toll on our health, well-being, and functioning. Consider the following statistics as to the impact of stress on daily life:
- Increased cardiovascular disease and ischemia.
- Increased susceptibility to the common cold.
- Weakened immune systems.
- Poorer antibody responses following vaccinations.
- Slower wound healing.
- Reduced heart rate variability and vagal control.
- Increased anxiety and decreased positive affect.
- Increased depression, suicide, and antisocial behavior.
- Decreased absorption of vitamins and other micronutrients.
Those are not personal opinions or assertions; those are the results of controlled scientific studies. And they represent just the tip of the iceberg. High-profile suicides make the news, often in the wake of devastating financial losses or malfeasance, but consider the impact of living in a stew of intense distress on a perpetual basis. Living with chronic unmet needs makes life almost impossible. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention documents the extent of the problem on a global scale:
Each year approximately one million people in the world die by suicide. This toll is higher than the total number of world deaths each year from war and homicide combined. Suicide is an important public health problem in many countries, and is a leading cause of death amongst teenagers and young adults.
In addition, it is estimated that there are from 10-20 times as many suicide attempts as suicide deaths. These suicide attempts range in intent and medical severity from mild to very severe. At a personal level, all suicide attempts, regardless of the extent of injury, are indications of severe emotional distress, unhappiness and/or mental illness.
Unfortunately, most of the planet lives with significant distress and unhappiness as people struggle to get their needs met on a daily basis. For those who do not commit suicide, health complications and premature death are a known consequence of stressful living. And that was before the current global crises! Pile on the economic recession, climate change, energy shortages, natural disasters, and disease pandemics and you have all the makings of a perfect storm when it comes to stress.
Stress can be defined as stimulation. In and of itself, stimulation is not bad. Without stimulation there is no life; there is only death. So there is a form of stress that’s good, which goes by the term “eustress,” defined as “stress that is deemed healthful or giving one the feeling of fulfillment.” That’s the kind of stress we want. It represents the zone of being neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed by the stimulation we are experiencing. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has famously referred to that zone as the flow zone. It’s not an effortless place to be, but it is wonderful, desirable, and even transcendental.
For most people, however, eustress is a rather unfamiliar experience. We are more often in distress, the bad kind of stress, either because we have too little or too much stimulation. Both conditions have negative health impacts, although too much stimulation is more common than too little. With too little stimulation we don’t have enough going on and we aren’t making much of a contribution. As a result, we end up feeling bored, frustrated, fatigued, and ill. With too much stimulation we have more than enough going on and we are trying to make too much of a contribution. As a result, we end up feeling anxious, crippled, exhausted, and ill.
Either condition can leave us feeling depressed and angry. It’s just not a good place to be. And for the next several months I plan to write a series of Provisions that will assist you to assess and, if necessary, to adjust your stress level.
Here’s a quick preview of the series. For the next month, we’ll focus on stress-assessment, using four different stress scales: Major Life Events, Stress Symptoms, Annoyances, and Physical Worries. If you not only read the Provision, but actually complete the assessments, you will have a better understanding of where you stand and of what’s going on. Such awareness lays the foundation for action.
Then we will turn to the question of stress-adjustment. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has noted, there are really only two ways to get back into the flow zone: either we have to adjust the challenges that are coming our way (environmental modification) or we have to adjust our ability to handle the challenges coming our way (personal modification). Often, we have to do both at the same. We have to strengthen our personal coping mechanisms, including our technical skills and daily habits, and we change the conditions in which we find ourselves. No matter how good our personal coping mechanisms may be, there’s only so long that we can survive (let alone thrive) in a toxic environment.
So we will look at all these areas in an attempt to “stress-proof” our lives. I borrowed that concept from the automobile industry, having grown up in a climate where Ziebart and other after-market companies could make a good living by rust-proofing cars. There were different packages, at different price points, based upon how deep the rust-proofing went. But all of the packages were designed to extend the life of the car through superior rust protection.
Note that rust-proofing did not eliminate rust. That was a natural part of life. But it did slow down the rate of deterioration caused by rust, and that is exactly the same thing I hope to accomplish with this Provision series and through LifeTrek Coaching. There’s no way to eliminate stress, but we can slow down the rate of deterioration caused by stress. We’ll follow and learn from that metaphor throughout this Provision series and if you, like so many people, find yourself juggling way too many balls right now with far too few options as to how to keep them all in the air, then you may find this Provision series to be life-sustaining. I hope you will join me for the journey.
Coaching Inquiries: How is stress impacting your life? What personal coping mechanisms are most effective for you? If you could wave a magic wand, what environmental conditions would you change to make life better? What steps could you take that would start the change process now?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..
I just read your Provision on Rest. I loved your message. The Stand By Me video, to which you post a link on your blog, is also fantastic. It reminds us of how much we share the basics of being human and nudges us to remember to stand by and to stand up for each other.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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