We hear this word being tossed about, but what exactly is stress? Very simply, stress is our body's reaction to a demand for a change. This demand can be a reaction to a situation or event. Demands on our system can take several forms -- physical, emotional, or mental.
Stress has gotten a bad rap. We hear people talk about being "stressed out" by an offensive co-worker, an overbearing family member, dealing with an overflowing email box, or being overwhelmed by too much homework. Today, the word "stress" is mainly used as an adjective to describe negative or unpleasant events. But, if we go back to the original definition of stress by Hans Selye in 1936, stress is just a reaction to a demand...any demand.
So, what's the point of redefining stress to rebrand its image? Because if we want to perform at our best as humans, some stress is necessary and inevitable. Let's take wanting to do well on an upcoming test as an example. Some anxiety about doing well on the test (which in this case is a demand), motivates us to study. Even some nervousness on the day of the test helps us focus and remember what we studied. There is a relationship between performance and stress.
You might be thinking to yourself, there's a flip side to the test example above. Can't someone do poorly on a test because they were so overwhelmed by studying and then were so nervous during the test that their performance took a dive? Yup, we can also be overwhelmed by demands and as a result, do poorly.
This pressure-performance relationship was first described by Robert Yerkes and Dillingham Dodson in 1908 and is called the Yerkes-Dodson Law. This law tells us that we need just-the-right amount of pressure to perform our best and anything under or over leads to poorer outcomes.
Image from "Arousal & Task Performance" - Shorts in Psychology. Click the image for a video describing the Yerkes-Dodson Law
Reframing stress as any demand vs. a negative event puts us more confidently in the driver's seat of our lives. If we know that we can become stressed by doing things we love and by doing things that are hard, we shift our focus to be more mindful of resource allocation or evaluating how much energy we have to meet our daily demands in a healthy manner. In other words, do I have enough energy to do (fill the blank) right now, today, or this week? Everything we do is a demand. Good, bad, and ugly.
If we can see that everything we do is a demand and taxes our limited resources, then we can live with more intentionality. We can optimally function without feeling so exhausted, overwhelmed, and anxious. This is good not only for our health but also our relationships.
Ok, hitting and maintaining the optimal arousal zone isn't going to always happen. It's just not realistic, especially now (thanks, COVID). However, with an understanding of what stress really is and by paying attention to how we're feeling in the moment, we have the power to make choices. Some of those choices could include reducing our expectations, delegating, getting help, reducing distractions, shifting routines, or doing some mindfulness exercises.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, one of the easiest and fastest things you can do is breathe. It doesn't have to be complicated. Just aim for deep and slow breathing. It helps to keep count in your head, which can also keep your mind in the present moment, deepening this exercise. For example, breathe in for 5 counts, hold for 5 counts, and breathe out for 5 counts. Play around with ratios and find what works best for you.
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