Respond to Stress with Your Strengths

    I was never very good at math, nor was I especially interested in it. I would avoid math homework for as long as I could, and when I finally got to it, I would suffer through it. Thus, it came as a surprise to me that I would create an equation for how to think about, understand, and manage your stress. This simple equation can help you view your stress in a concrete way: S = P – C (S)tress = (P)ressure minus (C)apacity Stress refers to the total amount of pressures and demands you are under after you consider your various capacities, resources, and adaptations. Going by this equation, there are only two ways to successfully manage your stress: decrease the pressure you are under or increase your capacity to handle it. Simplistic as this sounds for something as complex as stress, it at least gives us a starting point. Pressures and capacities are wide-ranging and versatile. To best understand them, we should view them from a biopsychosocial-spiritual perspective. We can have biological pressures, such as bodily tension, illness, and disease; psychological pressures, such as depression, anxiety, anger, and self-defeating thoughts; social pressures, such as isolation, teasing, rejection, neglect, and difficulty relating to people; and spiritual pressures, such as experiencing a lack of meaning or life purpose. In addition, each segment of life comes with its own pressures, such as work demands (long hours, taking on extra projects), parenting demands (driving kids to after-school activities, taking care of their basic needs), school demands (homework, studying for exams), family/relationship demands (handling conflicts, feeling unloved by a partner, struggling to make enough time for your relationship), and so on.
    Likewise, there are a range of capacities we can engender, such as biological capacities (getting an optimal amount of sleep, healthy eating); psychological capacities (creating feelings of peace and joy); social capacities (spending time with friends); and spiritual capacities (doing activities that promote meaning, spending time in nature). Capacities also involve your character strengths and your many other positive qualities, such as your interests, abilities, and resources, all of which will be explored in this chapter. The goal of this equation is to look at stress and understand it in a different way, not to bring your stress level to zero. The equation is also immediately practical. If your pressure is particularly high or your capacity level especially low, then you’ll no doubt experience ongoing stress. But if your capacity is particularly high, then your stress is probably well managed and/ or does not occupy much of your attention. We can look at the equation and make some general interpretations of it in relation to stress. If you have an extreme level of either “pressure” or “capacity,” then the descriptions below will likely be spot-on. But even if your levels are more midrange, you can still use these four alternatives as a launching pad for understanding your stress: ↑P, ↓C = Overwhelmed. The low capacity and resources for managing the high degree of pressure you are under is the perfect recipe for distress. ↓P, ↑C = Content or bored. Despite having plenty of resources and strengths to use, your low amount of pressure might be intentionally created to not have to handle challenges, or it could be a source of distress. ↑P, ↑C = Engaged. In this scenario, high resources and potential meet the high degree of pressure. This could be an optimal scenario for you and an opportunity to experience flow states where you are “in the zone.” ↓P, ↓C = Autopilot. Without much pressure or capacity use, there is little choice but to go through the motions in life, not particularly present to or challenged by much around you. This could be a source of distress. Again, these are gross generalities for the many layers of pressure and capacity that are at play. They are offered to give you a general idea of where you might fall or the direction in which you might be heading. This chapter will emphasize the hidden potential of our character strength capacities, particularly the fact that the enhancement and use of these capacities is a central element of stress management and can transcend our pressure levels, whether they be low, moderate, or high. Our strength capacities can release our best external resources and our internal abilities and passions.Boosting Your Full Capacity Do you believe you can turn your stress into something positive? The more you enhance your strength capacities, the more likely it is that you will answer yes to this question. Chapter 2 raised a couple key points that are important reminders as you make your way through this chapter: 1. All 24 character strengths matter. 2. Your signature strengths matter most (in many situations). When you think about stress management, you never want to lose sight of either of these points. You will be enhancing your capacity whether you build upon those strengths that are already natural and strong for you or whether you build up your nonsignature strengths. All 24 of your character strengths serve as energy reserves that you can tap into or develop. As I mentioned in the book’s introduction, your strengths are already there, waiting to be used by you. But sometimes this might not feel true—you can feel weak, lost, and anything but empowered. I recall a story about Amaya, a novice martial artist who was training with a master in a small group at a karate studio. She had been training for two years but felt insecure and unsure of herself. Her group consisted mostly of stronger boys, all of whom were further along in their training. The time came each week during the class when the students were to pair off and spar with each other, practicing their karate skills one-on-one by doing the punches, kicks, and blocks that they’d been learning while in the simulation of an actual fight. They wore forearm and elbow pads, applied tape and light padding over their hands and feet, and adhered to certain rules, like no hitting below the belt or above the neck. Amaya dreaded this part of the class. She always felt like it was a sanctioned way for her to get beat up in a controlled setting. She persevered because she knew it would make her tougher and because it was just part of the class. One week as she squared up with her male opponent, her master turned to her and said, “Hold up! Are you ready?” “Yes, sir.” “You don’t look ready,” observed the master. “I’m in my fighter’s stance, sir. I’m ready,” Amaya explained. “Do you remember what’s inside you?” “Sir?” “Do you remember what’s inside you?” he repeated loudly. “Uh, okay, yes,” she muttered.
    “Tell me.” “I am strong,” she said in almost a whisper. But she was relieved that she’d at least had something to say. “What?” “I am stronger than I know,” she said, not believing the words, but trying to get through this exchange as quickly as possible without all her fellow students hearing. “Say what you feel. Look inside. Then speak.” Amaya paused. She wanted to do as her master asked. But she wasn’t sure what to do or say. Would she say the wrong thing? At the very least, she figured, she could just repeat herself. She stood there, in position, sensing her master’s firm yet encouraging presence, knowing the rest of the class was waiting on her. She felt her body in that moment—it felt solid and tough; the two years of training had done her well. She was aware of the surprisingly calm and concentrated state of her mind. She noticed warmth radiating within her. Something turned inside her. She felt a chill. Then, turning her head slightly in the direction of her master, she looked him in the eyes and spoke loudly: “I’m stronger than I can even possibly know!” The words came out firm and powerful. She commanded them. Owned them. And actually believed them. “Now you’re ready,” said the master. We could argue that Amaya had turned to inner character strengths such as self-regulation, bravery, perseverance, and maybe even zest, hope, and love. The particular strengths matter less than the takeaways of finding empowerment at times of stress, discovering strength when you don’t even know or believe it’s there, and realizing that there is always a strength that can be accessed. We just need to remember to look. Sometimes we need a reminder to not overlook or forget about our strength capacities. At other times we might need to practice using a strength—deliberately rehearsing a strength. In either case, character strengths are like muscles. When you exercise them, they get stronger and grow. When you don’t exercise them, they stay the same or weaken.
    Wadifa Club
    writer and blogger, founder of Dog food planet .

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