What We Talk About When We Talk About Stress

By Susan David

I’ve discussed the importance of recognizing that stress is not all bad, and that it can serve as a signal of what matters to you and a tool for growth.

This begs the question, though: How do you distinguish “good stress” (discomfort that helps you grow) from “bad stress” (stress about stress, or stress that might be unhelpful)?

Here are a few tips.

Find the want to behind the have to.

Stress is often born from a sense of obligation or shame. We feel burdened by something we feel we have to do. (Some recent have to goals I’ve heard: “I have to give that person feedback.” “I have to go to another meeting.” “I have to be on dad duty today.”) 

It’s all too easy to wrap ourselves in “have to” language that imprisons us and breeds resentment and rebellion. It can be useful to step back for a moment and consider whether there is a want to goal behind the have to, something related to our values. Maybe the reason you feel you have to be involved at your child’s school is because you want to make sure they’re getting the best education possible, or perhaps you have to stay up late to finish the project for work because you want toset yourself up for a promotion. 

Once you understand the intrinsic, values-based reasons why you want to do something, it can restore your sense of purpose and help alleviate the associated stress. Importantly, this is not about faking it or whitewashing. If you cannot find a true want to behind the have to, it might be a sign that change is in order.

Consider whether you’re using the word “stress” when you actually mean something else.

Nowadays, we tend to throw around the term stress very loosely, using it as a blanket explanation for whenever we’re feeling challenged. To investigate whether you’re actually stressed or experiencing another emotion that you’re not noticing, try getting granular.

Instead of giving yourself the vague diagnosis of “stress,” see if you can be more specific. Try out statements that start like “I’m noticing that I’m disappointed about…” or “I’m realizing that I feel fearful of…”. 

This gives you the opportunity to pinpoint the emotions that are causing your stress, like apprehension, guilt, or fear of failure. Then you can move forward from a place of understanding, initiating change rather than remaining stuck in discomfort.

There’s no way to go through life without experiencing stress. But hopefully, you can use the tips above to respond to your stress in ways clarify your values, lessen your suffering, and identify the root causes of your feelings.

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