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A preferred level of stress? Why would we want any level of stress at all?
And surely our preferred level of stress is zero. Would we want it to be anything else?
I’m going to suggest that for many of us, there are three surprising truths when it comes to stress.
First, the answer is not zero. Second, we actively work to keep it there. (No, I’m not kidding.) And third, there’s something we can do about it.
But first, let me be clear. I’m talking about negative stress—distress, if you like. Some say there’s such a thing as positive stress in rising to meet challenges, but that’s not what I have in mind.
It’s well known that different things stress us different amounts at different stages in our lives. When we’re young, we’re more likely to be stressed by work, money, and job stability. In our middle years, the list is likely to include health issues affecting our parents. By the time we’re seniors, job stability may have dropped off the list (if we’re retired) but those health issues are more likely to be our own.
Whatever the source, we always say we want our (negative) stress to be less than it is.
A lot that stresses us is not ours to control. Depending on the situation, health can be one example. Others include global pandemics, earthquakes and hurricanes, wars, the state of the economy, and other people’s driving habits. However, there’s much that stresses us that we can definitely do something about. Yet, we don’t.
Examples include taking on extra unpaid work, saying yes to things we know will take time from what matters more to us, allowing disorganization to cause the stress of not knowing whether a bill has been paid or where to find something we put somewhere a moment ago (or a month ago, or a year ago). Or being surprised and overwhelmed by predictable events.
For each of these examples, there is an obvious solution. We could decline the extra unpaid work. We could say no in advance to things we know will take time from more important things. We could organize our world so we know which bills have been paid and where to find things. We could plan for the predictable so we won’t be surprised by it.
The point is that often we don’t. And the question is: why not?
Here’s what I think is going on. First, I think there’s a level of stress we become familiar with. Second, we react not only when things become more stressful but also when they become less so. In the former case, we react to bring our stress level down but, in the second case, we react to bring it back up. Third, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Seriously? We act to increase our own stress level? Yes, I think sometimes we do. We act as though we prefer to keep our stress at a familiar level rather than at a lower level where we claim to want it to be. It’s like when we want the room cooler, but we set the thermostat so it kicks in to heat things up before we reach the coolness we desire.
Doesn’t this amount to self-sabotage? Yes, it does. But we do it anyway.
Should we be surprised? Perhaps not. Maybe it’s just another example of how we’re not the rational creatures we may think we are. After all, saying one thing and doing another is nothing new; it may as well be part of human nature. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do about it. Which brings me to my third point.
Since the negative effects of stress in our lives are well-known, I think we owe it to ourselves to look wherever we can for ways to reduce it. To be sure, one way is to look outside ourselves for sources of stress and then work to reduce them. But another way is to look inside and see exactly how we might be getting in our own way, as it were. We can work on that too. After all, why do we heat things up for ourselves when we know we want them cooler?
Working on ourselves always starts with awareness followed by action. Here are six ways we can stop getting in our own way with respect to reducing stress:
1. Recognize your preferred stress level. While we may want our stress to be lower than it is, at what point do we start increasing it? Clearly this is not something we do consciously—which makes it hard to notice. But try anyway. Ask yourself if your stress thermostat is set where you want it to be. Remember, you will act to maintain stress at this setting regardless of whether it’s higher than you like. (It’s an example of what psychologists call set-point theory.)
2. Notice when your stress level goes up. This one isn’t hard because our mind and body generally tell us. For example, we feel drained of energy, exhausted. Whatever’s stressing us seems to take over our brain and run itself in an endless loop getting us nowhere. If we’re particularly self-aware, we may notice ourselves seeking distractions instead of facing the cause of stress head on and doing something about it.
3. What types of things raise your stress? Stand back for a moment, and ask yourself if there’s a pattern to the things causing stress in your life. Are there types of causes? If so, can you come up with a general approach for a given type of cause? For example, overcommitting your time to too many things or consistently living beyond your financial budget.
4. Recognize these types of stressors when they occur. The benefit of recognizing types is that we no longer have to deal with each case on an individual basis. We get to say: “Oh, this is Type X. I know what to do with this.” For example, when committing time think twice (or three times) before saying yes, and when spending money ask yourself if it’s a real need or just a want.
5. Do something about them. Whatever we do with Type X, now is the time to do it! At least we won’t be spinning our wheels as though we’ve never been here before. For example, look at your calendar before taking on another project, consult your budget before saying yes to a want rather than a need. Another example is when we have multiple projects on the go and are getting stuck and stressed on the current one. Consider switching to one of the others (assuming you can switch back later). Better, of course, is to be aware when we take on multiple projects in the first place. Remember the calendar step!
6. Take small steps. If we want to reset our stress thermostat to a lower level, it’s likely better not to try doing so in one shot. Be gentle with yourself. Your personal stress thermostat setting is likely a well-formed habit which took a while to get that way, so don’t expect to succeed in changing it overnight. What’s a small step you can take in the right direction? Take just that one small step. For example, don’t try to reorganize your overstuffed filing cabinet in one evening. Focus on just the first drawer. Perhaps your first step is to notice that you need a filing cabinet! And that’s fine too—it doesn’t matter how small the step is, the point is to take it.
Do we have a preferred level of stress? Yes, most likely we do. Is it where we want it to be? No, most likely it’s not. Do we often start increasing our level of stress when it falls too low? Yes, I suspect we do.
Hopefully, we have succeeded in shedding some light on this piece of human nature so we can see it more clearly. Awareness puts us in a better position to succeed in doing something about it.
Have you noticed ways in which you unconsciously react to the stress in your life, not only when it gets too high but also when it falls below a certain level? And have you found ways to manage this when it happens? If so, please share them in the comments. That way we can all get better at this together.
After all, who doesn’t want less stress in their lives?