Clinical psychologist Tom Nehmy explains how stress can sometimes be helpful.
For many people, the very notion of stress carries a distinctly negative connotation. They imagine furrowed brows, sweaty palms and a racing heart; deadlines, pressure and sleepless nights. But really, that’s only part of the story.
Stress isn’t quite what many people think it is. It can actually be useful and – contrary to popular belief – we don’t want to get rid of stress.
As a clinical psychologist who has treated hundreds of clients in therapy and worked with thousands of people in school and corporate settings to manage stress and emotions, I’ve learnt that the word ‘stress’, just like the phrase ‘mental health’, carries a whole lot of assumptions and expectations.
What stress really is
Stress can be defined in many ways, but for most people stress occurs both in their body and mind. Stress is associated with the activity of the adrenal system and various hormonal and neurochemical reactions. Most often, however, stress is conceptualised as a feeling. That feeling will vary from person to person and depends on the type and level of stress. But usually when people describe their stress, they report feeling tense, hot and agitated. In truth, these sometimes unpleasant feelings relate to high levels of stress – being over-stressed.
I call it ‘over-stress’ because these feelings can signal that we have gone past the point at which stress is actually helpful.
The right amount of stress helps you rise to challenges because it makes you more:
How stress helps
Just because stress sometimes feels unpleasant, doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful. Like so-called ‘negative’ emotions, our mental and physical experience might be subjectively aversive but we need to remember that these states serve a purpose.
If you want to really know why we are the way we are, look to evolution. We are a reflection of what has worked in the past. If something helped us survive (that is, it provided a ‘survival advantage’), it was retained in the human genome.
Stress is related to alertness, perception and responsiveness to threats in the environment. In millennia past, this was crucial to deal with the dangers of the world in which we lived. The physiology of the stress response tells the story:
- Your pupils dilate to improve your ability to see what’s around you
- Your heart pumps blood to your extremities to run or fight
- Digestive activity reduces to prioritise other, more urgent functions
- Your breathing becomes heavier to oxygenate the blood
- Your liver releases glucose for immediate energy
In the modern world, the stress response is not often required for dealing with immediate danger, but our brains and bodies respond to our perception of threat and danger. This could mean the ‘danger’ of social alienation when we give that presentation and worry we’ll stuff it up; or the pressure to meet the deadline that carries the ‘threat’ of serious repercussions if we miss it.
This translates into increased focus and energy for the tasks at hand. We’re not dodging tigers and spears, but the challenges of the modern world can still benefit from what stress has to offer.
The problem with too little stress
It always surprises people when I say that I have seen more people suffering from not enough stress than too much stress. Let me explain.
Rates of mental ill health are rising. Why?
One reason is that we lead increasingly comfortable, protected lives and we grow up without routinely learning the ability to tolerate and embrace mild-to-moderate stress.
Diligent, well-meaning parents work hard to provide a smooth, calm and safe life for their kids, but if they smooth the path too much, it denies young people the ability to learn distress-tolerance, independent problem-solving and to cultivate a level of comfort with discomfort.
In the adult world, we know stress and discomfort will happen. (Does anyone disagree?). This is part and parcel of a life that embraces challenges and responsibility.
Here’s the rub: it is only by facing challenges that we build up a capacity to handle challenges effectively. Now, if your aim is to have a completely stress-free life, then this might not seem relevant to you.
But remember, a stress-free life is also likely to be an underperforming, unexciting and less fulfilling life. Because in the real world, we know that having responsibility and pursuing difficult but meaningful things will always bring some stress and discomfort. The calm, comfortable, stress-free life is also highly likely to be dull and under-achieving.
If you say goodbye to stress you are also saying goodbye to excitement, risk, challenge and the sweet satisfaction of pulling off a daring task that you weren’t sure you were capable of.
Which life would you prefer?
The Yerkes-Dodson law
The Yerkes-Dodson law is a well-established principal that says on most tasks, if we are not stressed at all, we are likely to perform worse than if we are experiencing some stress. In this case, higher stress equals higher performance. But only to a point.
Being over-stressed is associated with lower performance: an inability to focus, feeling overwhelmed, fatigued and anxious. If stress is too high, performance starts to drop off. Think of an inverted ‘U’.
What does all this tell us about stress?
Stress isn’t inherently bad. We just need the right amount at the right time to perform at our best.
Managing stress effectively
If stress can actually help us to perform better by being focused, energised and efficient, how can we learn to live within the optimal stress zone, rather than being under or over-stressed?
As you might imagine, I hear fewer complaints about being under-stressed than over-stressed. But being under-stressed is problematic because it is related to poor productivity. The remedy for this is usually to contract the amount of time available to complete a task, to increase the pressure to act. In my own work, if I have a deadline looming, I am never so productive as just a few days out from the deadline. A few weeks out, I am less productive because there is less pressure to focus and produce the work. If this describes you, then creating earlier deadlines that you publicly affirm to meet can increase the level of pressure and stress in a helpful way.
Of course, the big complaint, by far, about stress is that we have too much of it.
Too much stress
Aside from the impairment to our good functioning, being over-stressed is an issue because human beings are not great at managing it. We aren’t good at identifying when we have moved from optimal stress to being over-stressed, because we tend to have a narrow awareness that is focussed on the stress-provoking task(s) at hand. And when we are over-stressed, we tend not to do the things that mitigate stress. Herein lies the secret to managing stress well.
Your stress signature
To manage stress effectively, we need to be good at noticing when we have shifted into the over-stressed state.
Every person has their own unique set of indicators that they have become too stressed, known as a stress signature.
Think about the last time you were definitely in an over-stressed state. It could have been last week when you had a work report due, it could have been when several family and domestic issues were occurring all at once. Think back to that time and imagine you were observing yourself; what you said, did and felt. If you had to summarise the top five indicators that were present in you, or your behaviour that reflect being too stressed, what would they be?
Common things that feature in stress signatures include:
- Muscle tension
- Sweating more than normal
- Sleep disturbance
- Increased emotionality
- Difficulty concentrating
- Loss of humour or empathy
- Social withdrawal
You might have some things that aren’t on this list and that’s entirely the point: your stress signature is unique to you. Once you have your top five indicators of over-stress, you have it: your stress signature!
Your task now is to simply notice when your stress signature appears. Once you notice that you are over-stressed you have overcome the first barrier to managing it effectively. The next step is to take helpful action in order to get yourself back into the optimal stress zone.
Your life medicines
Whenever you notice your stress signature, I recommend you schedule in your life medicines.
Life medicines are those small, everyday activities that discharge stress. These are also unique to you. I know that exercise, taking a shower, doing some chi kung exercises, or talking to my closest friends always has the effect of discharging stress for me. Your life medicines might be different and that’s fine, as long as they somehow make you feel more calm and centred, more supported, or give you a boost in some other way.
Interestingly, these small, accessible stress relievers are precisely the things we place way down on our priority list when we are over-stressed. And this is a trap, because we get more and more stuck in an inefficient, unfocused and overwhelming over-stressed state.
When over-stressed, I recommend you schedule in three of your life medicines each week for at least two weeks. This will bring you back into the optimal stress range.
Commonly, we don’t do these things in times of high stress because we don’t have enough time. But the crucial lesson for us all is that what we lose in time, we get back in efficiency.
Stress management in action
In addition to your stress signature and life medicines, you can also manage stress well by keeping a balance in your overall well-being – things like a balanced diet, exercise, healthy relationships, interests outside work and maintaining a sense of meaning and purpose.
We also know that self-compassion – treating yourself kindly – is a powerful protective factor when the pressure is on. And finally, always remember that the physiology of stress – all those sensations we sometimes don’t like to feel but that go hand in hand with rising stress levels – is actually your body’s attempt to respond in the most helpful and effective way evolution has taught it to. It is simply helping you to rise to the challenge of whatever you are facing right now. By accepting and harnessing stress rather than fighting or avoiding it, we can see it as a part of an efficient, meaningful and accomplished life.
Summary of Dr Tom’s stress tips:
- Notice your stress signature
- Prioritise your life medicines
- Be proactive in managing your well-being
- Apply self-compassion
- View stress for what it is – our body’s attempt to help us rise to the challenge
Article sources and references
- Nehmy T. 2019. Apples for the Mind: Creating emotional balance & lifelong wellbeing. Formidable Press