By Jim Davis, Ed.M, MA

“I’m overloaded”; “I’m underwater”; “I’m struggling here man” – those are three direct quotes from three different people currently sitting in my email inbox. Real, high-quality leaders, feeling overwhelmed.

Leaders are looking for “less stress” in their lives. Makes sense. Stress can be painful, frustrating, and make even small tasks feel more difficult.

But what is stress, exactly? Is there a difference between good stress and bad stress? Can we learn to thrive in the presence of potential stress and grow from those experiences?

Stress for Growth

“Stress” is a signal-response mechanism that allows us to adapt to the demands of our environment. We need it. When a muscle is strained under resistance, it repairs to accommodate future versions of similar strain. The stress associated with a long-distance run, for example, results in a variety of adaptations (muscular, metabolic, cardio-respiratory and more) that lead to enhanced fitness.

We can run farther, faster, and with more efficiency because we thoughtfully strain the system, then allow for recovery. This concept applies to the body (physiology) and the mind (psychology). Stress can be good.

To evaluate your current level stress, it is worth noting the difference between stress quantity and stress quality (how many potential stressors you have in your life, versus how good/bad they are). Everyone has a unique threshold within those domains. An excessive amount of stress, or an extremely negative stressor can create a tough situation.

Additionally, the negative relationship many have to the term is a reference to chronic stress, which refers to the sustained presence of stressors without sufficient opportunity to recover. Chronic stress is the culprit behind much professional pain.

Potentially stressors are all around us, and they are not going anywhere. To navigate our relationship to stress, we first have to understand it.

Understanding Stress

There are three primary systems in the body which coordinate to manage stress: the voluntary nervous system, the autonomic nervous system, and the neuroendocrine system.

The voluntary nervous system is the most obvious. It controls conscious movement. It’s the one filtered through the primary motor cortex of the brain and sends commands to the body. Decide to lift your cup of coffee, then do, then thank this system. It gets you where you want to go.

The autonomic nervous system is slightly more complex and comprised of two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for what we commonly refer to as “fight or flight” responses. It preps the body to respond to demanding stressors without conscious awareness. When you walk into a packed room for a company-wide presentation and the hairs on your neck stand up, your sympathetic nervous system is at work. In the presence of a significant obstacle or threat, your heart rate will increase alongside the rate of your breathing, and your pupils will dilate so you can more accurately perceive potential threats. Glucose levels in your bloodstream will elevate so that muscles, should you be called upon to use them, will have quick and easy access to fuel.

This is a good thing. Without this stress response, our ancestors would have been eaten by wolves many years ago. Without this form of ‘stress’, we would not have the opportunity to exist (and complain about the stress in our lives).

The parasympathetic nervous system refers to the series of “rest and digest” responses. It is the counterbalance to the sympathetic nervous system. Among other necessary functions (like eliminating waste, reproducing, and repair/create tissue), this is the state in which you recover from the demands of your “fight or flight” actions. Here your heart rate drops, respiration slows to a comfortable pace, and pupil dilation returns to normal.

These two systems work like a seesaw, when one is up, the other downregulates, and vice versa. When the human system is functioning well, they balance each other out.

The third system, the neuroendocrine system, works in concert with the others. It produces the hormones – namely, cortisol and adrenaline – which prepare our bodies to manage obstacles and threats. Cortisol has the ability to increase glycogenesis, providing fuel for our skeletal muscular system. It also stimulates brain activation and use of our senses. Adrenaline increases heartrate, blood pressure, and expands air passages, among other performance enhancing functions. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, these are the hormones it pairs up with in order to meet the demands of a situation.

Again, they are necessary. They are the reason we survive as a species. But there is a cost…

Chronic Stress

Every ounce of energy expended produces equivalent exhaust. There is a conversion, a remainder. Think of the exhaust coming out of the tailpipe of a car – that is what remains when fuel has been converted into the energy which propels the vehicle. If a car continually burned fuel but did not release exhaust, think of the damage it would do, building up within the vehicle and polluting the system. This is the concern with modern, chronic stress.

We no longer live in an environment where fending off a lion or tracking down an antelope is the main priority. In modern environments, technology is designed to hijack our attention and retain it. Social media offers a barrage of stimuli which keep our pupils slightly dilated, our heart rate slightly elevated, our blood sugar levels at a slight increase. Our environment keeps us slightly stressed, always.

Add chronic stress to significant societal disregard for rest and recovery, and we have a problem. Consider that for a moment. How well do you sleep? For how long, on average? Do you take time to consciously recover from the stressors in your life?

Odds are against it. Americans have been sleeping fewer and fewer hours per night over recent years, down one full hour since the 1940s, to a measly 6.8 hours per night. The CDC recommends 7-9 hours for adults which makes us, on average, a sleep-deprived nation. Sleep deprivation makes accurate assessment of work, relationships, and other potential stressors far more difficult.

So perhaps it is not the amount of stress in our lives, but our perception of the quality of that stress due, in part, to the way we do or do not relax.

In other words, it might not be an overactive sympathetic nervous system, but the lack of balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Again, not too much stress, but too much chronic activation of “fight or flight” which tamps down the activation of “rest and digest”.

Next Steps

Perhaps instead of aiming for ‘less stress’ we should be aiming for ‘more balance’.

This might mean a leader has to take a few things off their plate. They might need to delegate. It might mean that they need to intentionally rest. It might mean that they need to worry less, forgive themselves faster, get some exercise and go to bed early.

After working with a client for nearly a year, he found himself in a set of personal and professional situations that had the potential to be overwhelming. After a particularly challenging day, he sent me this message: “so I went for a walk. A year ago this would have crushed me. Thank you.”

Work to understand. Make more thoughtful decisions in the presence of understanding. Leaders, it won’t always be easy, but it will certainly be worth it.

REACH OUT for more,

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