I spend a lot of my time talking and thinking about and giving people tools to manage stress.
This is partly because for a really long time stress was mostly not a good thing in my life. I didn’t recognise it or manage it very well, and it was very much at the root of my digestive issues. And of course, I’m human and do still get stressed.
Stress is nearly always viewed in a negative light, but is stress always bad?
Well, spoiler alert, the short answer is no.
While I’ve written about the effects of chronic stress on health and, in particular, the gut, there’s a little more to the stress story.
Good stress: the stress performance curve
Not all stress is bad.
Stress at the right level actually boosts performance as shown in the Stress Performance Curve below (aka Yerkes Dodson curve).
The left hand side up to the top of the curve shows our performance increasing arousal (stress). In fact, with no stress our performance is weak. And honestly life would be rather boring if we just kept doing what we’ve always done, staying in the same place, from year to year.
Growth and change is good!
I can think of countless examples of things that I found difficult and yes a bit stressful, from starting new jobs, to working for myself and even moving country. But they were all worth pushing myself towards. I would have missed out on so many life experiences if I’d chosen not to walk towards stress.
It’s all about getting the right level of stress for you (and you might need to experiment a bit to work this out). This will actually move over time as your comfort zone expands with experience.
You can probably think of many of your own examples when something felt difficult or scary, but by trying something and gaining experience it felt less scary and you benefited in the end.
So yes, get some good stress in your life!
Applying a little mindfulness to stress
Working with stress in your body is also another great way to explore mindfulness.
Our instinctive response when it comes to difficult emotions is to turn away. But how would it feel if you just sat with the stress?
A sometimes challenging but rewarding mindfulness exercise is to recognise and be with feelings, including stress, rather than running from them.
This can be summed up in the RAIN of self-compassion. The practice is to Recognise, Allow, Investigate (with kindness) difficult feelings, and to be Nurturing with what you find. I find that it often soothes them and allows me to be less harsh on myself about what I’m experiencing.
So ultimately being stressed can also be a chance to get to know yourself a little better, to become more emotionally resilient and to become more attuned to the present moment. It really isn’t all bad!
I’m certainly not suggesting that you live with chronic stress that’s making you unwell. However with a little practise you’ll start to recognise when you are stressed, and whether it’s the good or bad type; with this your comfort zone and your experience of life will expand.
Are You Too Stressed to Be Productive? Or Not Stressed Enough? – Harvard Business Review
Feeling Overwhelmed? Remember RAIN – Mindful (by Tara Brach)