Mastering the Balancing Act:
Why Understanding and Regulating Stress Is Essential
PUBLISHED IN NOVEMBER 2023
We all experience stress. It has become an ever-present companion in our daily lives and can feel like an uninvited guest that often overstays its welcome. Though stress, in many ways, is a double-edged sword; understanding how to wield it effectively is a skill that's becoming increasingly vital.
Type of Stress
When it comes to stress, there are three main types to keep in mind:
- Too much stress is Distress or Hyperstress
- Not enough stress is Hypostress
- The good stress, Eustress, which is pronounced /juˈstres/ or ‘you-stress’.
This is the type that is ‘one size fits all’, it is the balance or the ‘sweet spot’ for stress.
A Suspension Bridge
The analogy of tension wires on a bridge is an excellent way to understand stress, both in a positive and negative context.
Too much tension, and it is a catastrophe; the wires snap, the bridge collapses, cars fall into the water, and lives are lost.
Not enough tension, and it’s a different type of catastrophe: sagging and swaying, creating unsafe driving conditions, and even collapsing under heavy loads, again leading to loss of life.
But, positive stress is when the wires have enough tension for them to hold their structure, and then it has a function that is safe and reliable.
Our nervous system is like those wires on a suspension bridge: we need to find our sweet spot - our balance. What happens if we don't?
Negative stress Type 1: Too Much Stress - Distress or Hyperstress
When we have too much tension, we snap, and everything collapses. When stress becomes overwhelming and prolonged, it has hugely negative physical and psychological consequences. Releasing stress effectively is the key and without having great strategies to do this, it can result in "breaking" down, affecting our quality of life. We can suffer things such as anxiety, depression, and physical health issues.
I have experienced this first-hand.
Way back when I worked in tertiary rehab, with a client base of Acquired Brain Injuries (ABI) and Sensory Impairments, I used to put a lot of pressure on myself; there were tight deadlines, and the clients’ needs were demanding; they wanted a job, and they wanted to achieve that in a month.
This was in the face of assessing and implementing workplace accommodations and employers who were nervous about OH&S and, sadly, at a time when discrimination and stereotyping were everyday norms.
At the time, I was completing my Masters and expecting my first baby. There was a huge restructuring happening in the organisation. And the workplace itself was full of uncertainty and fear. The constant stress of meeting high expectations, several life challenges, and being in uncertain conditions began to take a toll.
I suffered severe anxiety, and eventually, the overwhelming negative stress led to burnout; I actually lost my ability to speak. I didn’t know how to release the stress at the end of the day. I was going to withdraw from my Masters, even though I only had my final assignment to submit, and I was done.
Thank goodness my husband stepped in and offered another solution to reduce the stress, which I might add was not releasing or regulating the stress.
This might sound all too familiar. But, then, there is the problem of not having enough stress. Yes, just like bridge wires, this too, can be harmful for us.
Negative Stress Type 2: Not Enough Stress -Hypostress
Yes, there is such a thing as not enough stress. The absence of adequate stress is like that bridge not having enough tension on the wires. In this case, the structure may become ineffective because it lacks the necessary stability. Similarly, a lack of challenge or stress in our lives can lead to boredom, complacency, and a lack of growth. Without some degree of tension or stress, we may not reach our potential and remain stagnant.
It has been a long while, but I can confess to having this experience too;
Even further back, when I was in my teens and early 20s, I had a simple and uncomplicated life; My husband had a well-paying job, I worked in a factory, and we earned enough to pay the bills, a car and all the mod-cons we wanted and save for a home.
After work, home duties didn’t take much time or energy, so I watched cartoons, prep’d dinner, and ate dinner with my husband. I was as predictable as they come, doing the same routine for years; there were never any challenges, and I didn’t create opportunities for growth.
While some might envy this stress-free life, I felt a sense of stagnation and dissatisfaction. Luckily, I had a moment of insight and flashed forward to the consequences of a life unlived. It was being a grandmother in later life and having no exciting stories of adventure or hardship overcome, and victories won to share with my grandchildren that seemed like an ultimate disaster.
Thank goodness I turned that around, and now I get to enjoy sharing so much with my grandchildren, many of whom subscribe to my blogs, vlogs, and other fun things. I typed that with a big smile on my face; I love them and so many others so much.
Positive Stress: Sweet Spot - Eustress
In contrast to negative stress is having it ‘Just Right’ - just the Right Amount of Tension. Imagine a bridge with tension wires with the perfect amount of tension to bear the traffic load passing over it.
Positive stress is like the tension in those wires – it's the force or pressure that allows it to function, to hold its structure, so it is useful. In this way, stress is positive, necessary, and beneficial.
Without this tension, the bridge would be weak and unsafe. This is a great analogy for the necessary stress we experience in life to meet challenges, learn, and grow.
This type of stress can motivate and lead to personal development when managed appropriately. Eustress can push us to reach our full potential and perform at our best. When this stress is appropriately managed and released when the task is done, it leads to growth, improved performance, and personal development.
A personal example might help to illustrate the importance of some tension in our lives…
To celebrate our daughter’s 18th, rather than a ‘pub crawl,’ she wanted to do a 30 km fund-raising walk for the Fred Hollows Foundation. As the date loomed, it served as a positive stressor.
It pushed all 4 of us on the team to stick to our training schedule, maintain a healthy diet, and set personal fitness goals. As the day approached, we gained more focus, even though we felt a mix of excitement and anticipation.
The day was not without its challenges, but we successfully completed the marathon with a sense of accomplishment, our team boasting the youngest and oldest participants on the day.
Most Important Stress Regulation Tip
The most important thing to remember is that life will bring tension all on it's own. You will have a deadline to meet, an exam to complete, or a project you want to ace.
Life will keep you on your toes and help you perform at your best. Your job will be to not add pressure on yourself like I did in my negative stress example. I added extra stress when I had challenges or deadlines, mainly in these three ways:
- Worrying What Others Think
I often put extra pressure on myself by worrying about what our friends, family, or colleagues would say if I failed. Now I realise I used to work with so much tension in my body and noise in my head, I made my job more than doubly hard.
This is a big one. I doubted and questioned my abilities, wondering if I was good enough to tackle the challenge and if I was as good as others. Those nagging thoughts made it hard to be clear, make decisions, or second-guess my decisions and created a lot of unnecessary anxiety. You've got what it takes; believe in yourself!
- Imagining Failure
Ah, the fear of failing – it's a major stress inducer. I didn’t realise how much bandwidth it takes to play out worst-case scenarios in my head, imagining everything going wrong. But it was just a mental movie. Of course, picturing failure meant I had no space to focus on what I could do to succeed: take small steps, learn from any missteps, and keep moving forward.
Balancing Stress Is the Key to a Happy and Productive Life
Unlike the adage about marriage, ‘You can live with it, and you can’t live without it,’ you can actually live with stress, and it's all about finding that balance – not too tight, not too loose – just like those like the tension wires on a bridge.
You know, like when Goldilocks found that sweet spot, just right. Balancing stress is like when you want to pluck a guitar string - you want it tight enough to make a good sound but not so tight that it snaps or so loose that it just flops around.
So, how can we create the tension that is enough but not too much. Here are three easy ways you can implement right now:
- Set Clear Goals: Define your goals clearly and break them down into manageable steps. Having a roadmap helps you stay focused and motivated, as you can see your progress.
- Embrace Challenges: Don't shy away from challenges; instead, see them as opportunities for growth. Stepping out of your comfort zone can be exciting and create that sweet eustress.
- Actively Destress: Take regular breaks to recharge and practice self-care. A well-rested and healthy mind and body perform best under pressure. At challenging times, it is essential to use de-stressing strategies to regulate your nervous system. Check out my reel on stress management
Eustress is all about finding the thrill in your tasks without overwhelming yourself. The balance comes when you actively de-stress your system when you feel distressed and create and embrace meaningful challenges in your life.