April is Stress Awareness Month.
Are you stressed? As you are reading this, there is a good chance that you are. I’m not clairvoyant and I haven’t hacked your phone. It’s an educated guess. I know this simply because if you get our blogs you are likely a knowledge worker, and you are living in 2022. It’s been a heck of a ride recently.
Let’s say I’m right, you are stressed. But how do you know that you are stressed? What is it – specifically – that tells you that you are stressed? Are you ‘need a couple of good night’s sleep to sort this out’ stressed, or ‘call the folks in white coats’ stressed? Many of us have simmered in a soup of stress for so long that we actually have no idea how stressed we are.
I’d best define my terms here, because ‘stress’ is understood different ways. There is ‘good’ stress, that gets us into flow and has us perform at the highest level, and there is ‘bad’ stress, that is part of the deal for humans and is no problem if it is acute and then passes, but is corrosive when it becomes chronic and seems inescapable. Both are fascinating concepts to explore, but given the obvious thrust of Stress Awareness Month I’m going to focus on the latter.
For years, decades even, I had no real ability to distinguish how stressed I was. As far as I could tell, there were no flashing lights on my dashboard to indicate I should slow down. They were there, but I simply didn’t know what they meant. Mostly, this was fine. I was in 6th gear, or I was ill.
It took me decades to work out that my body wasn’t just for moving my brain from place to place. It does that – and much, much more – but it is also a dashboard, and is constantly sending signals about what it needs and what is causing it distress.
Our systems work pretty well when there is acute stress or pain, but if the stress goes on too long, our brains dial down the feedback to protect us. So we can be doing things that are physiologically damaging but not getting clear signals about the nature and gravity of the problem.
After a few metaphorical health-related car crashes, I began to be able to distinguish that there actually had been some pesky lights flashing as I sped into the curve.
That’s why one of the exercises we do with our seminar participants is so helpful. It’s about helping them to refine their sense of how stressed they are, and when their stress levels are moving into the danger zone. Doing the exercise helped me to better understand the sequence of how stress manifests in my body.
It starts with a bit of tension around my eyes. Not a headache exactly, just a slightly painful tightness. Too much screen, not enough pillow. If I miss that signal, it moves to my neck. Muscles that are designed to stretch easily and allow my head to point those eyes in pretty much any direction begin to get tight as piano wire. Pulling a neck muscle when putting in a contact lens is a strong sign things might not be optimally tuned. My next cue is when my ribs stop moving easily when I breathe, and the middle of my back starts to seize up. If I don’t catch that I get a numb-ish ache in my lower back, that eventually leads to an unpleasant tingling down the outside of my left leg.
My pattern is – for you – irrelevant. That there is a pattern, that it is predictable, and that you have one too is an opening for change. Your pattern will likely be different. For some the signals start with indigestion and end in a migraine, and for others it opens with consistently poor sleep and ends in a panic attack.
The point of the exercise is to give our participants a ‘distant early warning’ system for their stress. For those who don’t know of it, the DEW line was built in a previous time of nuclear tension, during the Cold War. It was a series of huge radar stations stretched across the top of North America, designed to detect incoming bombers in plenty of time to be able to do something about them. The DEW line is no more, but the idea of it is still useful. Can you begin to recognize the symptoms of oncoming dis-stress earlier and earlier, so you can get ahead of the migraine or panic attack and take evasive action when your digestion alerts you there is a – as yet small – problem. Having a six point scale (tight eyes to tingling leg) where once I had two (FAST! and OFF!) gives much more power to intervene and head off the worst effects.
“And how do I do that?”, you may well ask. For me, there a few go-to moves:
- Sleep. This is pretty much always the place to start. If I’m getting stressed this is the first think I check: have I been consistently getting my 7-8 hours?
- Tighten the filters on what I allow into my GTD® system. When clarifying my inboxes, I’m much more aware of needing to decline or incubate new opportunities
- Re-negotiate existing commitments. The best way I’ve found to do this is during my Weekly Review®. Sometimes, even when it isn’t due for a few more days, I’ll slip one in mid-week as it is the best way for me to restore a sense of perspective to all I have on. I give special focus to what is optional and can be moved to ‘Someday Maybe’, and what is in fact never going to happen, and is a ‘no way, baby’.
So it is stress awareness month. Take a moment to check your own personal DEW line. All quiet, or are there ominous signals? If the latter, the better you understand them and their sequence, the better your chances of avoiding your own personal nuclear event.