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‘Stress’ versus ‘Stretch’ (article)

by | Sep 29, 2021

Can stress be good for us? If so, what would good stress look like? Is there an optimum amount of stress?

To be able to answer the questions above, we need first to define what we mean by stress. When we talk about stress, we tend to mean it in the emotional sense – ‘feeling stressed’. The word ‘stress’ can also be used in a physical sense, in the way an athlete seeks to deliberately stress their body when training hard to break it down so that it then repairs and rebuilds stronger. For the purposes of this article, I am interested in discussing the issues surrounding what we know about emotional stress and whether its effects can ever be considered positive.

I imagine that everyone reading this article will have experienced what it feels like to be stressed at some point in their lives. Everyone would surely agree that feelings of stress are certainly unpleasant. We may think of stress as a feeling of being overwhelmed, having too much to cope with at that time, primarily driven by feelings of anxiety which can lead to feeling irritable and frustrated which, in turn, can increase feelings of worry. Our attention becomes focused on our problems, driving us into black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking, making it difficult to get relief or feel pleasure. Our endocrine system releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline as we enter into fight/flight/freeze mode. Our security systems go into high alert as if preparing ourselves for imminent danger.

These instinctive systems have ensured the continual survival of our species for over two million years. When danger is present, we can be assured that our brains have the instincts and ability to react in fractions of a second before even conscious thought has taken place. If you have ever found yourself in a genuine dangerous situation, you may have experienced your body taking action to protect itself before you even knew what you were doing. We have an overriding protection system operating in the background working to try and ensure our survival at all costs.

So, this begs the question, how often do we find ourselves in life-threatening situations? In our modern world, hopefully not very often. So how often should we have feelings of stress? Again, for the same reason – not very often! Unfortunately, many people, of all ages, do suffer too much stress, too often. Why is this so?

There are three reasons for us feeling overwhelmed and stressed:

  1. The situation we are currently in is stopping us from getting our needs met in balance.
  2. There is damage to our ‘guidance system’ (our toolkit of resources).
  3. For some reason, we are lacking the skills we need to get our needs met.

First, it is necessary to clarify what these ‘needs’ are that we have to meet to feel balanced and at ease in ourselves?

All living things have specific needs for them to thrive and human beings are no different in that respect. The main difference between human beings and other living things is the level of complexity. As far as we know, the human brain and nervous system is the most complex organ in the entire universe. This means that the set of needs that a human being has to meet, to function well, are the most complex of all living organisms. This also indicates that it is more difficult for us to get our needs met compared to other living things and therefore it is more likely that things could go wrong.

Research and observation over decades and centuries has yielded the following list of needs for a human being to thrive. We can think of these needs as ‘nourishment’; whether we mean it in the sense of physically nourishing our bodies with nutrients, or mentally nourishing our sense of self, each one of these needs must be met – in the right balance – for a person to be physically and mentally healthy.

  • Unpolluted environment (air, water, soil, etc.)
  • Nutrients (air, water, fats, proteins, carbohydrate, vitamins, minerals)
  • Physical comfort
  • Rest (to recover, refresh, refuel, repair, rebuild)
  • Movement (exercise)
  • To feel secure (both in our environment and in our sense of self)
  • To have a sense of control over our lives
  • To receive and give attention
  • To feel part of a wider community – a sense of belonging to the group
  • To feel acknowledged, valued and respected – a sense acceptance in the group
  • Friendship – a connection with others where we can be our true selves
  • A feeling of achievement and competence
  • To feel our life has some meaning and purpose
  • To have time alone to think

With any of these needs, it is possible to get too much as well as too little. The key word is ‘balance’. With all of life’s daily challenges, it is impossible and unrealistic for any of us to remain in a state of perfect balance all the time but that is exactly what our brains try to achieve (known as ‘homeostasis’). To this end, a healthy human is born with an innate ‘guidance system’, a set of tools that it uses to seek out ways to get the nourishment it needs. The following is the list of tools, abilities and functions that form our ‘guidance system’ – collectively known as our ‘resources’ – that we use every day to get our needs met:

  • Bodily systems enabling us to take in and use the nutrients we need
  • The unconscious and instinctive part of our brain which regulates our internal environment and monitors our external environment to ensure our continued, healthy survival
  • Feelings/emotions/sensations that draw our attention to possible unmet needs
  • A brain that can store memories from which we can learn and improve
  • The left side of our brain: enabling us to see the world in its component parts; use language to represent concepts; analyse and question; sequence and plan; think logically and rationally
  • The right side of our brain: enabling us to see the world as a whole; think metaphorically; get the gist of things; understand symbolism; read between the lines; pattern-match and connect similar experiences and knowledge to help us navigate and make sense of the world
  • Imagination: our internal movie screen, which enables us to escape the present moment, think back or forward in time, see ourselves in different situations and solve problems
  • The ability to build rapport and form bonds with others
  • The ability to sleep, allowing us to recover, refuel, repair and rebuild physically
  • The ability to dream whilst asleep, allowing us to discharge any incomplete emotional arousal from that day and so start each day mentally afresh
  • An observing self: the ability to step back and be objective about ourselves; see ourselves in the bigger picture
  • Our own unique character: a personal, individual blueprint; our own set of innate abilities, talents, strengths and drivers; inbuilt templates seeking to be fulfilled

 

With the lists of ‘needs’ and ‘resources’ in mind, we can now understand better the three situations in which we may become overwhelmed or stressed.

  1. The situation we are currently in, is stopping us from getting our needs met in balance.

There are many situations that people find themselves in, which prevent them from getting their needs met. Children, for example, may grow up in households where they experience neglect, abuse, lack of due care and attention, lack of support and acknowledgement, even violence, etc. leaving them feeling insecure and unconnected, lacking a sense of control over their lives. This will result in high levels of stress and feelings of unhappiness and low self-esteem. Adults may find themselves in relationships or jobs where they do not feel safe, respected or valued, or where they do not feel they are achieving anything meaningful. Again, this will result in feelings of stress, manifesting as anxiety, frustration and general unhappiness. 

  1. There is damage to our guidance system (our toolkit of resources).

By ‘damage’, we mean some form of brain impairment, whether temporary or permanent, whether present from birth, or caused through some form of accident, through self-harming behaviours such as drug use or through traumatic experiences. Physical damage to our brains can prevent its intended functioning and so make it difficult or impossible to use a particular resource, for example, cognition or memory. People born with a particular disability may struggle with cognitive function or may not have adequate ability to build rapport and so find it difficult to make friends or be part of a wider community. Self-abusive behaviour may significantly damage and impair normal brain function whilst the repercussions of trauma can leave someone’s instinctive alarm systems in an overactive state.    

  1. For some reason, we are lacking the skills we need to get our needs met.

Although we may have been born with the templates and the potential for optimising the use of our left brain, right brain, imagination, observing self and rapport-building skills, these are tools that we have to learn to handle well. We learn how to use these resources through our experiences and our interactions with others. If our sources of information (family, friends, neighbours, teachers, media, etc.) demonstrate poor use of these resources, we can easily be misinformed, pick up bad habits and fail to ever learn the skills that will help us get our needs met in a healthy way. If we learn bad habits from an early age, we will have many years of bad practice and accept them as normal. We will not be able to see that our own learned behaviours are preventing us from achieving well-being. A very common example would be a child growing up around an anxious parent. Rather than learn how to make good use of their imagination to solve problems, get pleasure from life and rehearse success, they learn to misuse it and overemphasise all the potential risks in the environment, thus creating a feeling of insecurity and lack of control. If they are prone to excess worry, they are also less likely to try new experiences, and so miss out on important learning opportunities which could give them a sense of achievement and help them get more needs met.

 

These three scenarios of where stress occurs, highlight that stress is always negative and always drawing our attention to either a bad situation, damage (which may or may not be repairable) or missing skills. Therefore, the idea that stress could be a good thing is probably based on a different use of the word or a lack of appreciation of the harm that stress can cause to our capacity for resilience, our wellbeing and general health.

Some people may use the term ‘stress’ to imply a period of hard work and intense focus. Many of us like to take on difficult tasks, work hard and be busy. We like to feel challenged in our work and enjoy that sense of achievement and accomplishment as we complete our tasks. People may say they enjoy or need the ‘stress’ of having plenty on and feeling productive and motivated. My argument is that the feeling they are enjoying is not stress at all but a feeling of being ‘stretched’.

Feeling stretched in what we do features heavily in our innate needs. We have a need for achievement and to feel competent. This, in turn, helps us achieve status, acceptance and belonging in our groups. We also need meaning and purpose in our lives and one way of getting this need met is through being stretched in whatever we do. I maintain that ‘stress’ is that point where we have become too ‘stretched’. There is an optimum level of stretch but as soon as we go past that point, we enter into the stress zone. Therefore, no amount of stress is good for us. Just like an elastic band, it can maintain its elastic strength so long as it is not stretched too much.

 

Conclusion

The take-home message from this article is that it is important to have a good understanding of the difference between being stressed and being stretched. Happiness, wellbeing, feeling in balance and resilience are achievable, most of the time, if we get our needs met in healthy, balanced ways. Feeling stretched in what we do helps us meet several of those needs. Feeling stressed prevents us from meeting our needs. It is therefore crucial, in the first instance, that we recognise feelings of stress when we have them and then focus on how we can bring ourselves back into balance.

It is unrealistic to think we can go through life without ever feeling stressed but, if we have high awareness, we may then be able to use good strategies. We will either need to improve the situation we are in, repair or find coping strategies to deal with damage, or start to learn the skills that are missing. Whether we help ourselves or seek help from others, applying this knowledge will provide the quickest route back to feeling well.