Stress is Necessary

by Carolyn B. Thompson

Carolyn B. Thompson
Training Systems, Inc.
221 Vermont Road
Frankfort, IL 60423

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Stress Is Necessary!
by: Carolyn B. Thompson

Stress is necessary! The only people with no stress are dead - no kidding, stress is simply a behavioral adjustment to change. The body is under stress from breathing, walking and eating just as the wire a tightrope walker walks on is under stress. If the wire weren't under stress - slack - the tightrope walker would fall. The same is true of ourselves, without stress, our bodies and mind wouldn't perform. The key is to find the right amount of stress for each of individually!

We're constantly told we should try to reduce the stress in our lives. Yet even that can seem overwhelming--as if you'd have to change your whole lifestyle to achieve that objective. Stress is necessary! Somewhere along the line stress got a bad name. Few people hear the word stress and think, "Oh, this is good, let's see how I can get some more!" Stress isn't bad or good, it's just a natural physiological and psychological reaction to a change to the body and/or the circumstances surrounding the body. The physiological reactions we see that we call stress are preparations for fight or flight. Getting rid of stress therefore is tantamount to getting rid of coughing or sneezing - natural reactions to a stimuli. The idea is not to get rid of stress but to maintain our own optimum level of stress. If we go above our optimum level we are in the Panic Zone (it's 5 minutes to 6, you must get the contract finished and into Federal Express and you're hyperventilating). If you go below your optimum level of stress, you're in the Drone Zone, you literally don't have enough energy to perform ("run me over with a truck, I don't care").

You need to know where your optimum level is so you can maintain it. One way to do this is through biofeedback. Another, less expensive way is to watch yourself on a day when you were great, everything went well, you got so much done and you were pumped! That's your optimum level, but how to maintain it? Know the physiology of the stress reaction.

Do you know what physiologically happens to your body when you're above your optimum level of stress? Your heart beats faster, your pupils dilate, your muscles tense, your breathing increases, the blood flows away from your limbs to your brain and adrenaline and many other hormones are pumped into your bloodstream in buckets. You need this response, it protects you. Back in caveman and cavewoman times, if a saber tooth tiger was about to eat your head off, your heart rate would increase to pump more blood to your muscles so you could fight or run (flight). Your breathing would increase to oxygenate all that extra blood because blood without oxygen does the muscles no good. The muscles would tense to prepare to fight or run. Your pupils would dilate so you could see better. The blood would flow to the brain because your brain needed blood to think, "What should I do, fight or flight?" And the excess adrenaline would give you the strength and agility to fight or flee. This was extremely important in caveman times, it kept you alive. In the 1990's, it'll only get you into trouble if you don't know how to harness the power of the stress reaction because you can't go around punching people and you can't run away because they'll just fax you!

So, if you want to maintain your optimum level of stress, all you have to do is recognize how fast your heart is beating, how fast you are breathing, etc. When it goes above that level, you need to do some form of stress reduction. Most of us already use some form of stress reduction - some people deep breathe, others walk, read, listen to soothing music, eat, smoke (I'm not recommending this, just commenting that this is what some people do), exercise, sleep, meditate, get away from the stressor. After you do one of these, you feel calmer. But don't you find that sometimes after you feel calmer - heart beating slower, breathing slower, muscles less tense - the least little thing can send you right back into the Panic Zone? You must choose exercise like walking or even deep breathing. Listening to soothing music, sleeping and eating will reduce the heart rate and relax your muscles, but they won't touch the adrenaline. Once adrenaline is released into your blood stream in excess quantity it remains there for up to 48 hours. That's two whole days that you're ready to fight or flee, and it doesn't take much to provoke you. Exercise physiologists have proven that exercise, some form of body movement, is the only thing that will reduce that excess adrenaline!

Now, you say, but I do exercise and I still seem to have more stress than is productive! That's because we tend to do our stress reducing exercise when we have a stressful event. You've seen the list, death of a spouse, get married, kids go away to school, Christmas, get a traffic ticket, big meeting today, boss upset with you. These are big deal stressors, they don't happen every day - if you have death of a spouse every day, we have to wonder about you! The real stressors are little, so little we don't label them as stressors, and therefore don't do our stress reducing exercise, so we have more stress than makes us productive. You must exercise every day to keep that adrenaline at bay. Deep breathing is exercise, but it won't reduce adrenaline from 48 hours to 0 like running the marathon will. Not all of us are marathon runners and the idea is to keep moving when you're above your optimum level of stress. The worst thing you can do is sit still - move your arms, deep breath, tense and untense your muscles - it's better than nothing.

The real deterrent to being at your optimum level of stress is the little stressors that occur everyday. We don't recognize them as stressful, so we don't do our exercise and they build up. I call it Cumulative Stress Syndrome. Remember, stress is a behavioral adjustment to change and the first change of the day is - getting up in the morning, and into a room that is not the same temperature as where you just were. Then you get into the shower, previous to this you were not wet! Next you go to get dressed - it's ripped, dirty, doesn't fit anymore, or your child borrowed it. Then you go into the kitchen and put your cereal in the bowl and you have - no milk! Then you get in your car and you have - no gas. Now, if you can somehow manage to get yourself out of the driveway, you get on...the highway - this is a calming experience! By the time you get to work you're wiped! You're already above your optimum level of stress and I didn't even say that it was raining or your child was standing at the door asking you to sign a permission slip or that there was an accident that made you late! Plus, because of the 48 hours of adrenaline you can add this morning's commute to last night's and yesterday at work and yesterday morning. So exercise every day.

Now for those of you who don't like exercise, you could do less of it if you prevented a few of these cumulative stressors from happening. Most of the big deal stressors are going to happen - if you are married, eventually your spouse is going to die, that's how it works. Christmas is going to happen every year whether you choose to participate or not. But you could, now here's a novel idea - you could get gas before you come home at night. You could lay your clothes out the night before. Before you put your cereal in the bowl, check and see if you have milk and if you don't, get a bagel on the way to work!

Laughing is also exercise. Laughing really gives your diaphragm a workout, and studies show that laughing hard for one minute is equivalent to the cardiovascular workout of running a mile - it won't do anything for your thighs though! In addition to the exercise value it also releases endorphins, which are brain chemicals that block pain. That's why when you're very upset (stressed) and someone tries to make you laugh, you grit your teeth and say "don't make me laugh, I'm mad and I want to stay that way", because you know from past experience that the minute you crack a smile you'll already start to feel better. That's because of the endorphins. You know the candy PEZ? In your brain you have a PEZ, and when you smile or laugh PEZ opens his head and out comes Tylenol, Advil, Extra Strength Tylenol, and the more you laugh, the more you get and these drugs are legal! So laugh, laugh, laugh - not in the bosses face when they're upset with you or at anyone. Just laugh by yourself!

Ever wonder why two people have the same exact problem and one goes on about their day and the other falls apart? It's not what happens to you, it's how you perceive it. In a world where so much feels beyond your control, there's one thing you can control--the way you respond to stress. If you exercise and laugh more, the things that happen around you that used to send you into the Panic Zone will not bother you - in fact the energy that those events generate serve only to help you take action!

Stress is necessary - it can make you perform at your best and increase your productivity if you know how to harness the power!

Carolyn B. Thompson is the President of Training Systems, Inc., a customized training and HR consulting company that helps small and medium sized organizations enhance their ability to recruit, inspire and retain quality employees and improve performance through training. Training Systems, Inc. also provides training design and delivery services to training companies and the training departments of large companies, and professional and trade associations. Carolyn B. Thompson is an experienced trainer and consultant knowledgeable in the challenging area of employee recruitment, inspiration and retention. She is an exciting, inspirational trainer who leads people to learn. She has written articles for prominent magazines, has been interviewed for Chicago's TV Channel 26, the "You're Hired" radio show, Safety & Health, Small Business Computing, Business Week, Working Woman, Redbook and Inc. magazines, been the subject of articles in the Daily Southtown and Star newspapers, as well as written chapters in several books. Most recently, Carolyn produced a two-tape audio cassette set entitled "Straight Talk for Employers", has written a book entitled "Creating Highly Interactive Training Quickly and Effectively" and is writing a book about on-the-job training for Crisp Publications.

(c) Training Systems, Inc. 1999

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