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Stress Isn’t What You Believe It to Be

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Decades of studies have shown that both too much and too little stress can hinder how well we do things. The sweet spot is a moderate amount of stress, which boosts our performance. This concept is based on the famous Yerkes-Dodson curve, a finding repeated many times in psychological research.

Now, let’s think about what stress really is. Ask people anywhere and you’ll hear similar responses: “My kids,” “Taxes,” “Climate change,” “My in-laws,” “Political issues,” “Social media.” The list never ends.

What exactly is stress?

One thing I know a lot about is the stress that comes from taking tests. When I mention “test,” people often tense up. So, I show them a piece of paper that has “test” written in big, bold letters. Pointing at it, I ask, “This is what’s making you stressed?” They reply, “Yes, Dr. B, tests freak me out.” Then I joke, “Really? So this paper, just because it’s got ‘test’ written on it, is leaping off the table,” and here, I pretend the paper is attacking me by holding it against my throat, “and coming after you?” That usually gets a chuckle and a look of realization.

“Test” is just a word with four letters. T-E-S-T. It doesn’t create a bad feeling on its own. It’s simply there. But then come the worries: “What about climate change, wars, pandemics, my tough kids, or my annoying neighbor?” Sure, these are stressful situations, but they’re all outside of you. They’re not in your control, and obviously, if you could, you’d wish them away. These things don’t really bother you, though, until you let them bug you.

In any scenario, your reaction to what’s happening around you can be good, bad, or just okay. That’s the whole spectrum. When your reaction is bad, that’s what we call stress. It’s like thinking, “I don’t like this. Something’s not right. I wish things were different.” The first sign of stress from something outside is feeling tense and wanting things to change. If you can’t be okay with the moment as it is, that’s stress. Whenever you feel things need to change for you to be happy, that’s stress for you.

Three Common Stress Responses

Feeling “stressed out” means you’re likely:

  • Feeling tense or other weird body feelings
  • Thinking poorly about yourself
  • Getting sidetracked from what you’re doing

These tense feelings, negative thoughts, and distractions are extra loads you’re putting on yourself, and they don’t do you any good. Basically, you’re making life tougher than it needs to be.

Stress Comes from Pulling Away

What’s the common thread in all these actions? They’re all about backing away from a challenge, a test, or a stressful situation. I like to think of it as disconnecting.

Imagine what disconnection looks like. Here are some pictures that pop into my head: A phone line suddenly cutting out; yanking a plug from a socket; a tire coming off a car.

Disconnect: Breaking Things Apart

The word ‘disconnect’ has two parts. ‘Dis’ in Latin means to split or head in different directions. ‘Connect’ is about tying things together. So, disconnecting is like pulling apart what was once joined. What happens then? Chaos, lack of harmony, mess.

Ever been on your phone and suddenly you can’t hear the other person? That’s a break in connection, ending the chat. Or, imagine reading and someone trips over the lamp cord, unplugging it. Boom, lights out. Or, if you’re filling the tub and a pipe bursts, the water stops. When things disconnect out there in the world, they stop working right.

Now, think about what it means to disconnect from yourself. How does that look and feel?

First off, remember you’re a whole person, a mix of body, mind, and spirit. Being disconnected means these parts aren’t working together. It might be just one part or all three that are out of sync.

In upcoming posts, we’ll dive deeper into disconnection. I’ll give you a guide to keep your stress just right. But for now, know this: your stress isn’t caused by someone or something else. Realizing that is a big step towards managing it.

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