Take a piece of paper and write down all the things in your average day that could possibly be a stress in your body, mind, and emotions. Probably your list looks something like this:
- boss yelled at me
- rushing around to see clients
- worrying about money
- crummy weather
- kid woke me up early
- snarky interaction with partner/spouse this morning
- Ate some spicy/oily food
If you’re like most people, you’re a camel carrying a big load of straw with these combined life and work stresses. The pile of straw – the cumulative total of all the stuff in your life that causes physical, mental, and/or emotional stress – is known as the allostatic load.
Our body works in interconnected networks. These networks all work to balance stress and overall “load”. Allostasis is the process of adapting to the load to achieve stability. And allostatic load is the cost (wear and tear) of our bodies reaching to get back to homeostasis.
Types of Stress
Some stress is good stress (also called eustress). Good stress pushes you out of your comfort zone, but in a good way. Good stress helps you learn, grow and get stronger. For example, lifting weight at the gym is fun and exciting. It lasts a short time and you feel strong afterwards. Another example can be a roller coaster ride in an amusement park. It lasts a short time and you feel exhilarated afterwards. You feel a little uncomfortable, but then you feel good, and after an hour or so, you’re done. Take a look at good stress and you’ll find good stress:
- is short-lived
- is infrequent
- is over quickly (in a matter of minutes or hours)
- is often part of a positive life experience
- inspires you to action
- helps you build up – and it leaves you better than how you were before
But let’s say you ride that roller coaster constantly, or lift weights four hours a day, every day. Now it doesn’t seem as much fun, does it? Bad stress:
- lasts a long time
- is chronic
- is ongoing
- is negative, depressing, and demoralizing
- demotivates and paralyzes you
- breaks you down – it leaves you worse off than you were before
One key feature that distinguishes good from bad stress is how well the stressor matches your ability to recover from it.
That’s where the stress ‘sweet spot’ comes in. Each of us has a unique ‘recovery zone’, whether that’s physical or psychological. Our recovery zone depends on several factors, such as:
- our age and life experience
- our natural personality type (in other words, are we adventure-seeking adrenaline junkies or calm, sensitive homebodies?)
- our ‘stress resilience’ – how well we cope with and rebound from stress overall
- our allostatic load – the accumulation of everything going on in our lives
Generally, the ‘recovery zone’ looks like this:
- If the stressor is too low – not enough to cause a reaction – then nothing will happen. You’ll go along the same as before, no better or worse.
- If the stressor is too high – too strong, and/or lasts too long, outpacing your recovery ability – then you’ll eventually break down or burn out.
- If the stressor is within your recovery zone – neither too much nor too little, and doesn’t last too long – then you’ll recover from it and get better.
We want enough “good stress” to keep a fire under our butts, but not so much that we break down and burn out.
Your optimum zone depends on you. If your existing pile of straws is already heavy, then it’ll only take a few more straws to break you. As an individual, you need to learn to balance your own life demands, workload, recovery etc.
Your ‘recovery zone’ is found by matching your behaviours and lifestyle to your identity, values, and goals. Living and working in congruence with who you are as a person will reduce your ‘bad stress’ dramatically. To help you take one very small step towards matching your priorities and your coaching work, take a paper and pen and reflect & write answers to these questions:
- What are two mentally stressful things that you experience regularly?
- What are two emotionally stressful things that you experience regularly?
- What are two physically stressful things that you experience regularly?
Are you in your ‘recovery zone’ right now? Yes, No, I am not sure. Considering your answers, what’s one small thing you could do today in order to move closer to your own optimal ‘recovery zone’? Take a moment to write down your action item. Things can only improve if you act on them. An example to understand better: You are sleeping less and that’s making you feel tired or making you less efficient at work. Write down some actionable items – like going to bed half an hour early. Or going off screen couple of hours before sleep.
There are three ways to balance stress and recovery.
Structures are the things and environments that surround us, and the things we put in place to ensure that things get done. For instance, eating junk when you come back from office tired, is your pain area. Then you may want to ensure that your kitchen is full of healthy food and to avoid shopping and keeping those junk at home. Ask yourself: What needs to be around me in order to help me succeed?
Systems are the processes and practices we use to make things happen. For instance, we might have an evening ritual of packing our gym clothes, or a weekend ritual of planning our food for the week. Ask yourself: What needs to happen for me to be effective? What processes and practices need to be in place?
Scheduling. You book an appointment when you have to meet someone. Likewise, we don’t just wait until inspiration strikes – we book a time to hit the gym. We know that at 7:00am on Monday, we should be pumping some iron or running at the track. Ask yourself: How am I planning and scheduling my good habits and desired behaviours? Make time for them in your calendar. Are you living your priorities through your schedule?
Find ways to make adjustments to your schedule that honour your need for recovery and build in time for your own self-care. Remember if you use the stress tool in a balanced and right way, you will grow yourself and if the allostatic load increases, you will burn out and it will effect your health badly.
Actionable Item: Write down on a paper
What “good stress” and “bad stress” am I experiencing today?
How can I put myself into the optimal stress zone?
How could you make some kind of structure, system, or scheduling — work for you?
Think about how to improve your schedule just a little bit. What is one action you could take towards this, this week?
If you are not able to sort it out yourself, get professional help.
How you think about stress REALLY matters.
Turns out, there’s a huge difference between…“Ugh, why does everything in my life have to be so HARD!?”
“This sucks, but I can learn and grow from it.”
In fact, research shows that people with healthier stress mindsets cope better when confronted with stressors. And progress may take WAY less time than you might think, according to a study published in Emotion. The scientists found that right after people did a short journaling exercise, they, immediately and for two weeks after, experienced a better attitude about stress.
Want to try a similar experiment? Do one of these visualization activities:
- Come up with a list of common stressors and write down what someone might learn from them.
- Imagine the top three stressors you think you’ll deal with in the next month. Then detail how you might tackle them and grow from them.
- Spend five minutes jotting down what was most stressful for you in the past week and the positives that came from that stress (no matter how small).
- If you feel like you’re benefiting, keep it up. After all, for mindset changes to take hold long-term, they likely need to be consistently reinforced.