Your Current Stress and Well-Being Levels

    When Mike was diagnosed with lung cancer, he was stunned. How could this be? He was only forty-five years old and he had been a nonsmoker his whole life. Cancer…me…really? he thought. He was married with two young children he wanted to see grow up and find success and meaning in the world. He was working for a major company and was rising up the corporate ladder, making it to midlevel management the previous month with a substantive raise. And suddenly, out of nowhere, his doctor gave him this news that left him speechless and worried. His life had seemed to finally be coming together in a good way—like all the puzzle pieces that had once been scattered were now fitting neatly into place—and now everything was scrambled again. Needless to say, his stress was high. Mike’s diagnosis, coupled with the increasing demands of his new job and the continual needs of his kids, brought him to a breaking point. As Mike talked more with his medical team, he learned that he was lucky to be in the early stages of the disease and that his five-year survival rate was approximately 50 percent. Still, part of him felt as if he could see the finish line of his life. He consulted other professionals and began to do research, mostly on the Internet. He was surprised to hear a couple stress experts say that stress is an opportunity and something that can be viewed in a positive way. No way, Mike thought. That’s both insensitive and insulting for them to say that! Clearly, they’ve never had real stress. If they did, they wouldn’t say that. It turns out, those experts were right. We’ll return to Mike later in this chapter.
    What Are Your Stress Levels? Before we dig into the nature of stress and ways to approach it, let’s pause for a moment to review your life areas and experiences and explore your current stress levels in different situations. Using the form below, write down ten to fifteen situations—big and small—in which you feel stress. Consider all the domains of your life, such as work, school, family, relationships, health, parenting, leisure, community, and spirituality. Be sure to write about specific situations; for example, not just My job, but Giving a presentation at the weekly team meeting or Interacting with Jody on the big marketing project. In the area of relationships, you might write, Calling my dad because he is sick and agitated or Getting in the door after work and managing my kids’ snacks, homework, and transition from school. After each specific example, write down the intensity level of the stress you typically experience in that situation on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 and 2 indicate a very mild, lowintensity level of stress and 9 and 10 reflect a very strong, high-intensity level of stress. Although there are three columns for these ratings, fill out only the first one for now. You’ll be invited to return to the other columns later in this workbook.
    This is not meant to be a formal assessment; rather, it’s a way for you to take stock of your current stressors and stress levels. Now that you have identified your stressors and how much they affect you, let’s try an experiment. Your Stress Mind-Set Consider two points of view, or mind-sets: “Stress is harmful” and “Stress is helpful.” Here are some statements associated with each mind-set: 1. Stress is harmful: • Stress blocks my learning, growth, and productivity. • Stress worsens my health and zest level. • Stress should be avoided because its effects are negative. 2. Stress is helpful: • Stress enhances my learning, growth, and productivity. • Stress improves my health and zest level. • Stress should be used because its effects are positive. Write down which of the two statements you agree with more strongly. Is it “Stress is harmful” or “Stress is helpful”? Consider the reason(s) you chose that statement. Jot down the first things that come to your mind: If you’re like most people, you think stress is harmful. Stress is generally thought of as bad—something negative that hurts us. In part, this is because stress has gotten a bad rap over the years. And some of that is for good reason. There’s no doubt that stress can hurt us, negatively impacting us on all levels—physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. Too  much stress, called distress or chronic stress, can bring on certain diseases and disorders, make existing pain and chronic illnesses worse, and lead to such problems as anxiety, depression, isolation, and burnout. Chronic stress and poor coping are connected not only with bad health, but also with worsening relationships, decreased concentration, and a host of other negative effects. You might notice that you speak of stress from a perspective of being upset, such as, “I’m so stressed and exhausted today from all this extra work my boss gave me” or “I just can’t handle my kids anymore—they’re climbing up the walls, and I’m so stressed!” Many of us picture stress as a big black blob that takes over us and crushes our body and mind. When you’re upset, you can feel it in your body’s physiology through such means as an increased heart rate, a headache, shallow breathing, tightened muscles, light-headedness, or nausea. It’s uncomfortable to feel stress. Research studies show that stress is most likely to be harmful if, because of stress, you feel inadequate, you feel out of control or a sense of meaninglessness, or you isolate from others (McGonigal 2015). I have reframed these three categories as the “three H’s” of stress risk: helplessness, hopelessness, and hiding. Given all this, how can stress possibly be good for us? Stress researchers like Alia Crum and Kelly McGonigal at Stanford University have been examining stress and the mind-sets associated with it for years. They offer statements and beliefs about stress to their research subjects, similar to those you just read. Then they test their subjects on several measures, such as how well the individuals manage their stress, how high their well-being levels are, physiological indicators like levels of stress hormones in their body, and various measures of life functioning. What they consistently find is that people who believe that stress is helpful are more satisfied in life, less depressed, more productive and happy at work, and have greater confidence that they can cope with life challenges. They find more meaning in the struggles of life (McGonigal 2015). You might be skeptical about this. Have the people who find stress helpful simply experienced less stress in their lives, as Mike suggested at the start of this chapter? Researchers have examined that possibility as well and have found that people with both mind-sets experience suffering and stress equally. In other words, stress is a ubiquitous part of life that cannot be omitted for anyone. We all have stress, but we don’t all have the same mind-set about it. Can Stress Really Be Something Positive? Stress is a fundamental requirement for growth. Mike came to this realization a few months after sitting in the hospital exam room receiving his initial diagnosis. But it did not come easy. Shortly after leaving the hospital, Mike felt his world was crashing down on him and he became depressed. He tried to spend constant time with his wife and kids, as if to cling to every moment he had left with them, although his focus wasn’t there. His body was there, but his mind wasn’t paying much attention. The other areas of his life weakened. He took a medical leave from his job, so a primary source of personal meaning and accomplishment vanished. He disconnected from his friends and disengaged from his hobbies and sport activities. His sadness level was at an all-time high, he spent far too much time in bed, and he felt unfocused. He was riddled with worry about his family’s future and his impending doom. Yet even though he stopped participating in so many activities and therefore had more time, it didn’t change his stress level. In fact, he felt worse. Mike was caught in the narrowing effect of stress. The narrowing effect of stress works like this. When stress has a hold of you, your attention begins to narrow and hyperfocus. This is your brain’s way of attempting to drill down to the problem at hand to try to fix it. Sometimes this can serve you well, such as when you feel a sudden increase of tension as the congested traffic on the highway moves down to one lane and there is construction on either side. Your attention narrows closely to the road, centering your vehicle, keeping a lookout for construction workers, and attending to the proximity of the car in front of you. The narrowing effect of stress has worked to your advantage in that situation. But if you are about to give a work presentation and feel your stress and anxiety elevating, the narrowing effect of stress might not be so helpful. You might narrow your focus to one person in the audience you think will be critical of you. Or you might narrow your thoughts to feeling that you aren’t prepared or that you will make a mistake. Whatever you have narrowed your attention to, you have limited yourself to. In this case, your stress is doing you a disservice. In Mike’s case, after several weeks of depression and withdrawal, he started to reflect on his behavior and gain some insights about himself. He realized he was not participating in his health or his healing. He was not taking any action to help himself. This was obvious to others, but Mike had been too lost in his thoughts to see it. One day, Mike thought, I’m a hypocrite. I used to be so open to new possibilities, improving myself, and doing new and interesting things for my family. And now something goes wrong, and I do the opposite and close off. It was then that Mike realized, This is not me. I’m someone who improves on things. Thanks to challenges and pressures, I’ve grown my whole life—with my job and with my parenting. I can do the same with my health. This cancer can be an opportunity for me. This stress will make me better. His mind-set was shifting. Although the same challenges remained for Mike, he slowly returned to his previous health habits, social connections, and activities. His confidence grew. His unique stressor became his opportunity—it was a chance to become stronger. He began to look at his lung cancer as a catalyst for change and a personal reminder of the value of his relationships. He began to challenge himself in new ways. He forged new friendships with his neighbors, and he revitalized connections with relatives with whom he’d lost touch. He and his family started to travel and explore places they’d never seen. He took up coaching his son’s basketball team for the first time. And even though the demands of his job would likely be too great during his treatment, Mike realized he didn’t want to quit working. So after discussions with his boss, he shifted to a part-time consulting role that would allow him to stay connected to the company and contribute his skill set to the younger employees. What happened here is that Mike brought his character strengths to the forefront. The natural curiosity and openness he’d always had paved a pathway for him to stay open to the new opportunities his stress brought forth. Much of this centered on relationship building. When his cancer treatment started, he turned it into an opportunity to use his curiosity to meet new people also undergoing treatment. He used his self-regulation strength to stick to a disciplined health routine, and he used social intelligence and love to connect with the many people in his life. The last time I met with Mike, he was doing well. I would actually describe him as thriving, meaning that he was physically and mentally strong and was taking advantage of new opportunities while adeptly handling adversities that arose. He remained committed to his mind-set that his stress was going to continue to help him all the way to the end of his life. This shift in his beliefs about stressors marked a turning point for him. In my observation, it was one of the most important elements of “reclaiming his life,” so he could live in ways that were fulfilling. When it comes to life stressors, many people do not reach the insights or conclusions that Mike did. But it’s a perspective that can be learned, and our strengths play a big role in that. Mike learned to use his strength of perspective to keep his eyes on the bigger picture of stress, the reality that stress has the potential to help him or harm him and that he holds the key to that decision. Would he learn to wield stress to his advantage, or would he crumble under the weight of it? Let’s break down what I’m calling the “positivity of stress” into two levels: eustress and motivating distress. Eustress In the mid-twentieth century, Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye coined the term “eustress” to refer to good or positive stress—something that causes some upset, concern, or worry, but is ultimately a positive situation or positive stressor. Examples include preparing for your child’s birthday party, going on a family vacation, retirement, moving into a new home, or getting promoted at work.
    Wadifa Club
    writer and blogger, founder of Dog food planet .

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