Distress, Stress “Management” and ReThinking StressJune 4 , 2013

Last week I shared some of the wonderful science behind ‘eustress’ or the ‘good’ stress.  This is the stress that helps you get moving towards your goals and marshal the right resources to get something done.  As this stress increases, your performance increases — at least up to a point.


You know what it is like when your stress is no longer helpful, like when you realize you won’t have the time to get all the work done, or you don’t have the skill to take a project to completion.  When that happens, your performance decreases — you might feel paralyzed or lose the perspective necessary for good decisions — which causes more stress, which leads to a further reduction in your ability to get things done.  We call this downward spiral distress.  

Preventing and or ‘managing’ distress has become a billion dollar industry. 

Traditional Stress Management Programs

But traditional stress management programs suffer from two fundamentally flawed assumptions.

  1. They assume that the effects of stress are only negative, that stress can only lead to deterioration in performance.
  2. They assume the only way that we can “fix” this problem is to reduce, manage or fight against the stress we feel in order to maximize how much stress we can handle before crashing into distress.

The problem is that stress itself is a fight or flight response to perceived threats.  Stress “management” programs remind us how bad stress is for us so when the inevitable stressful incident occurs, we get stressed about feeling stressed.   We think, “I’m not supposed to be feeling this” or “This is bad for me,” which multiplies the negative effects.

These traditional programs also set up stress as something to fight against.  They teach us to resist or try to control our response to the stress we feel.  This reinforces the fight or flight response, and effectively opens another front in our war on stress.  These traditional trainings miss the fact that stress is not an enemy to be avoided or defeated, but can be a useful ally in reaching our goals.

ReThink Stress

By changing your mindset about stress you can significantly change your own stress response curve.  By viewing stress as something that can be helpful to you, you can change how the stress affects you.  As was demonstrated in the Yale studies, this simple change can improve your performance, health and well-being.

This Week’s Challenge

Check in with yourself right now.  Is something stressing you?  Get curious about that stress.  What are you saying to yourself about it?  How does it make you feel?  Does it drive you to focus more on the tasks at hand or pull away?  Where do you notice that stress in your body?  Over this week, check in whenever you notice you are feeling stressed and ask yourself these questions.  No need to judge it or do anything about it at this point, just observe and note what’s happening.

Over the next several posts, I’ll be sharing the three steps of the ReThink Stress program which will help you change your mindset about stress.  So stay tuned.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

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