Stress Is…?

Stress is a word we use almost daily, but it’s hard to find a decent definition because it is such a complex concept. But we can at least discuss some common misconceptions about stress, and note what stress is not.

Should stress be avoided? No! It is a necessary part of life. Besides, you can’t run from it. As long as you are alive you will experience stress. Even enjoyable experiences like Christmas or getting married can be very stressful. Any experience that requires adjustment and change – whether it be positive or negative – is stressful.

Is stress equal to anxiety? Again, no! Stressful events can produce anxiety, yes, but stress can also generate emotions like anger, jealousy, envy, depression, and guilt.

Does stress damage the body? Not necessarily. Evolution has built you to withstand daily stress brought on by the challenges and demands of daily living. Plus, if you don’t experience some minimal amount of daily stress, you’ll get bored at best, and agitated or depressed at worst.

Does stress weaken performance? Not always. In fact, heightened arousal, a dose of apprehension, and even some anxiety can enhance performance of well-learned skills. That’s why we can get superb performances from musicians and athletes when the stakes are the highest. On the other hand, if skills are in the early stage of development, stress can weaken performance. Stress can negatively impact the performance of poorly-learned responses. If you’re poorly prepared, stress will harm performance. Want to put stress to work for you? Prepare thoroughly with extensive practice.

Does avoiding change reduce stress? Put another way, are you better off staying in your daily, predictable, unchanging comfort zone? Not in the long run. Yes, change is stressful. Marriage, having a baby, seeking a job promotion, retiring – all are stressful and require adapting to something new. Would you say, however, that avoiding those things is in your best interest?

Avoiding change to reduce short-term stress leads to stagnation. Should you tolerate a mediocre job, or face the stress of seeking a new and more challenging position? The long-term result of avoiding change and never taking risks can be devastating. On the other hand, confronting the challenge of taking on something new can be exhilarating and rewarding! 

Don and Mary were struggling with whether to have a second child. Mary said yes, Don said no. They were financially secure and had a solid marriage. Don, however, was comfortable with their organized lives, and he worried about disrupting things by adding a second child. Ultimately, sensitive to his wife’s desires – which he valued greatly – Don decided that adding to the family could strengthen something else he valued greatly – his marriage.

Notice how Don analyzed his dilemma as a problem to be solved – not as an emotion to be avoided – and how he brought his values into the equation. Approaching things from a problem-based perspective, and assessing how his values could be coordinated to his actions, Don made the issue a challenge to be faced by partners, not a source of stress he should selfishly avoid. When he decided to stop running from his anxiety, and face a new challenge with his partner, that partnership improved and was infused with new energy and enthusiasm.

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