Stress - What the hell are we talking about? If we’re talking about managing stress or not managing it, or not creating it we ought to know what the hell we’re talking about. Surprisingly, considering how much stress is discussed, we really don’t seem to know what we’re talking about.
Except for the word love, which we have totally screwed up, stress is the most overused and misused word out there. The American Institute of Stress said, “Stress is not a useful term for scientists because it is such a highly subjective phenomenon that it defies definition. And if you can’t define stress, how can you possibly measure it.”
In a 1951 issue of The British Medical Journal, one physician concluded that, “Stress, in addition to being itself, was also the cause of itself, and the result of itself.” In other words he was saying that the definition of stress was a mess.
For some, stress refers to an unpleasant situation. For others it is the physical reaction to that unpleasant situation. For example we talk about facing stressful situations which implies that the situation itself already contains stress. Then we also talk about the reaction to that situation being a stress reaction. That happens in our body. So according to a lot of people there is stress in the situation and stress in our body.
If you don’t believe me just look up definitions of stress. And look how the word is used in sentences.It’s a mess, a total mess. Then it gets worse when you start hearing about good stress and bad stress. They make it sound sort of scientific but it’s a mess. Some people now call the events that are supposed to be full of stress, stressors instead of stress. This has led to the infamous paper and pencil stress tests. These tests are supposedly measuring our stress levels.
Let me say right now, I think these tests are stupid. These “stressors”, which are basically life events like weddings, and divorces and death and all kinds of other things, are supposed to contain certain levels of stress points. The more points for the
event the higher the stress level. You add up all the points from the events that correspond to your life and you can figure out how stressed out you are. Just silly.
Why is it silly? First they make stress sound like something that actually exists out there in the environment . . . like concrete or something. Secondly, they must assume we all react the same way because we all get the same number of stress points. Just to show you how dumb that is, it has been well documented that there are a lot of people who would rather face death than do public speaking. I would imagine they would see a public speaking event as a lot of stress points. Some of us however love to speak in public. Not many stress points there. But if you take the test it’s all the same.
For some people divorce is about the worst thing imaginable while for others they can hardly wait for it to be final. Not only do different people react differently to the same event, we react differently at different times to the same event. Have you ever had
the same situation come up at two different times and one time you handled it like a champ and the other time like a lunatic?
Your child spills something all over the floor and one time you’re like Mr.Rogers using it as a teachable moment. “Can you spell disaster?”
The next time you’re like Genghis Khan screaming, “Can’t you get through one meal without making a mess?” According to the stress tests however there is a pretty consistent response every time. I don’t agree.
Play with these thoughts There is no stress “out there” in the world. There is only life.
Events don’t contain stress.We bring the meaning to the events in our lives.
Stressors are at best “potential stressors.”For example you supposedly get stressed by public speaking. You take some classes, you get good at it. You aren’t “stressed” any more. So really, public speaking in and of itself doesn’t cause stress. It’s how you look at it.And don’t give me “good” stress and“bad” stress silliness. Nobody talks like that in the real world. Have you ever had somebody say to you, “I’m really excited about this afternoon. A lot of good stress is coming in.” Don’t equate being excited with being terrified. They are different. Period.
What I’m saying is that we have something to say about experiencing stress. It is not something events bring to us. There are no stressful situations or situations full of stress.It’s a figure of speech that is a bad figure of speech. We are not the tail on the end of a dog. We might be helpless as to specific events happening to us but we are not helpless when it comes to how we deal emotionally, psychologically, spiritually with those events. Between stimulus and response there is a space.
One last thought about the confusion around what stress is all about. Lisa Feldman Barrett Phd, is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, with appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Psychiatry and Radiology. She received an NIH Director’s Pioneer
Award for her research on emotion in the brain, and most recently the 2018 APS Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement.
She says that one of the great myths about the brain is that the hormone cortisol causes stress. In March 2017 alone, she counted over 250 stories on Google News that call Cortisol the “stress hormone.” She says it’s simply not true.
Barrett states that cortisol’s main purpose is to provide a quick burst of energy when you need one. She points out that our brain produces a cortisol surge every morning when we wake up and anytime we exert ourselves. We constantly have cortisol in our bloodstream, and our brain regulates the amount through the day to keep us alive and healthy. She says calling Cortisol a “stress hormone” is like calling cake a “birthday food.” Sure, she says, we serve cake at birthday parties, but far more cake is consumed in other circumstances. It’s even conceivable that we can feel stress without a surge of cortisol. Now remember she’s looking at Cortisol in relation to people calling it the stress hormone. It supposedly creates stress in the body. Now trust me on this, you can find articles that talk about cortisol being released as a reaction to stress in the environment.
So is stress in the body? Is it in the event? Again - the confusion on just what the hell stress is. We’re supposed to manage it when we can’t even define it?
Some more thoughts. Stress is a catch-all word. It’s a lazy word. If you went to a good therapist and said you were stressed out, the good therapist would think that that
word is way too vague. He or she would press you to find more specific
Quit using the word stress altogether.
Therefore as far as I'm concerned most stress seminars are goofy. First of all they speak of stress as if it exists out there in the world, like a dog. You want to learn how to manage your dog, right? So let's manage our stress. Wrong.
I've heard so many speakers say that the only people who don't have stress are dead people. I've seen people actually write that down in their notebook - "Dead people don't. . . " How dumb is that. It's also dangerous. If you're feeling out of control and overwhelmed by "stress" and you keep hearing that dead people don't have stress, well then what might be the next step. Get to be dead!
My approach is different. It comes out of my own research and my working with people in really difficult situations. Stress doesn't kill us. We commit suicide with it. Our job is not to manage "our stress" but to quit creating it. We need to rekindle our hearts and our spirits.
Look at the picture above this segment. When was the last time you felt awe? When was the last time your spirit was moved. Jimmy Valvano in his famous speech at the ESPYS said that we should do three things everyday - Laugh, Think, and have our spirit moved to such a degree it affects our emotions. That is great advice.
How many times have you asked someone how they're doing and they either give you the countdown to their retirement or they say they didn't jump off the bridge - as if that shows real enjoyment in life. You're dead for a long time. Savor the good moments even if there are a lot of bad moments.
James Stockdale was one of the highest ranking, longest held prisoners in Vietnam. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor. In the book "From Good to Great" by James Collins, Stockdale talked about the importance of believing you can get through the rough times. However he also said it was critical to acknowledge the difficulties that are in front of you. He always said he truly believed he would survive his captivity and it would be the defining moment of his life. I have said in my talks that if they had taken him out to be shot, I am sure his last thought would have been, "You might be killing me, but you didn't defeat me."
We have a lot to say about our emotional state.
If you want to get some more ideas you can order my book "Who's In Charge?" or download my book, "Don't Manage Your Stress - Rekindle Your Heart - Rekindle Your Spirit."