Pursue What Matters
Episode 101: Stress is Not the Problem
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
In order to lead effectively, you must know how stress shows up at work. Because right as a leader, your job is to lead the people with all of their stressors, and anxieties. So you want to know what’s happening for those, you lead to understand when they are stressed, and the impact of stress on their lives on their work. And, of course, the impact of stress on your life and your work. Because stress can and does have a huge impact on your work and your leadership every darn day. And if we don’t understand it, it can take us down and it can take our teams down. So join me and let’s learn why stress is not the problem.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:42
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. So that might sound a little weird. I just talked about the fact that you need to understand stress, and how it shows up at work and as a leader, because if you’re not careful, stress will take you down. And then I just said stress is not the problem. What’s up with that. So I have done a podcast on reviewing a book called the Upside of Stress. And that would be a really good resource. For this podcast, I’m going to go over some of the same elements. But we are approaching it a little bit differently today. And you know, I talk about stress quite a bit, because our understanding of stress really can shift the impact that stress has on us whether that is a protective factor or a destructive factor for our health and well being. And so the way we respond to stressors, and the beliefs we have about the stressors in our lives, can actually have a huge impact on whether those stressors are beneficial to us or whether they undermine us. And so today, I really want to help you shift the way you approach your work. So that it can be something that strengthens you, and can even become a protective factor rather than an undermining factor for your health and well being.
Dr. Melissa Smith 2:20
And of course, every week with the podcast, my goal is to help you Pursue What Matters and to strengthen your confidence to lead. I try to do that with clarity, curiosity, and community. Those are the three areas that we really want to focus on. And today, I really want to help you primarily with curiosity, as you understand the impact of stress how it shows up for you how it shows up. For those who lead, you can be more effective, you can be more resilient. And of course, this relates to community as well. Because in leadership, we want to understand the impact of stress. And I’m going to have a really great podcast focused right in on those details coming up, so you can stay tuned for that.
Dr. Melissa Smith 2:21
But here is the thing. Stress is not the problem. We all think it’s the problem. But here’s what you need to be aware of. Right, you need to be aware of stress and the ways that it shows up for you. Because it can absolutely wreak havoc on your team and your decision making. But like I just mentioned, the upside of stress podcast, can really help you with this paradigm shift. So I will link to that episode in the show notes for this. But the the main thing to understand is that stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And so what makes the difference in terms of whether it helps or whether it hurts, and this is where we think about how we relate to stress. When you can find meaning in your work. And in your relationships, even if they are challenging, then you can have stress be a protective factor, or you can benefit from stress. But if you’ve if you’ve lost meaning in your work, you know, chances are good that you’re on the path to burnout and that stress is negatively impacting you. And so stress equals meaning that’s what I really want you to pay attention to. When you see stress in your life. You know, instead of saying this is bad, this is horrible. I need to get out of this. You could actually see it as a sign that you’re living in meaningful life because you have things that you deeply care about. And that are you know, that that you want to work hard for that you want to fight for. And so the goal is not to banish stress, but to actually shift the way you relate to stress.
Dr. Melissa Smith 4:42
Okay. And so, I’m going to talk to us a little bit about the biology stress. I’m not going to cover this a lot because I cover that in the upside of stress. But stressors come when our sense of normalcy is disrupted, right so think about this last year. That can that can have a big impact on us. And you know, the thing to pay attention to is like when normalcy is disrupted, in comes stress. So the idea here is safe landing aircraft don’t make headlines because everything went as normal. But the minute there’s a problem, right, that’s going to spike everyone’s stress. And so when you think about the greater violation to sense of normalcy, the greater that stressor is, and the greater potential impact that has to undermine you if you’re not careful. And so if you think about this global pandemic, right, that has really upset normalcy, and for some people, it upset there, it was a greater violation of normalcy than for others, right? for folks who are working from home exclusively. That pandemic, while certainly challenging, may have disrupted their sense of normalcy to a lesser degree. And so it would be a less stressful stressor, to pay attention to okay, but let’s think about the stress state on the mind and body, because it floods us everywhere. So of course, adrenaline sharpens our senses, our pupils dilate, our hearing sharpens our brain processes, what we perceive more quickly, we are focused, right? There’s not there’s not the inattention, there’s not the mind wandering, and less important priorities really start to drop away. And there can be with stress, a state of concentrated attention. And this can be awesome, right? Like if channeled well, because it can provide you greater access to more information about your physical environment.
Dr. Melissa Smith 6:41
And so this is, you know, one of the benefits of stress, we can experience a motivation boost from the endorphins, the adrenaline, the testosterone, and the dopamine. And it’s one of the reasons that some people might actually enjoy stress, because there is a stress rush. And this is known as the excite and delight side of stress. So it can increase your sense of confidence and power, help you to be more willing to pursue your goals,and approach whatever is challenging you. So rather than avoiding and retreating, you might approach it.
Dr. Melissa Smith 7:19
So right, stress is not all bad. When we think about the three common stress responses. They really have three very different biological profiles. I’m not going to talk about this here, because I’ve already addressed it. But the thing to understand is, first of all, most of us just hear about fight or flight. And we think that stress is bad. And you know, when it comes to fight or flight situations where we face mortal danger, that biological response is huge, it is out sized. And so when survival is on the line, the biological changes come on very strong. But you know, it might be we’re reacting to a mild stressor with a fight or flight response. And that’s why it can, you know, be very destructive to your health and well being over time.
Dr. Melissa Smith 8:13
So the first stress response is fight or flight or freeze. The second stress response is the challenge response. And so this is where we experienced an increase in self confidence. Our health and safety is not on the line. So it’s kind of that sweet spot of stress where we experience more self confidence, it motivates action. And it helps us to learn from the stressful experience. And so this is a really awesome place to be. This is what we think about when we think about flow, when we have a sense of purpose and can keep your focus and accept the challenges of your endeavor. And that can be really helpful. But when you when we think about the challenge response, right, it can help you to marshal your courage, your resolve and your resilience in the face of challenges as you continue your climb. And when I think about this, I really think about Winston Churchill. So I am such a geek about reading and history. I love learning more about people throughout time and just history is fascinating to me. And I think Winston Churchill during the air raids in 1940. In 1941, he was absolutely experiencing a challenge response where he was able to marshal his courage, his resolve and resilience. In the face of Wow, like almost insurmountable challenges. Of course, we know that they were able to make it through and obviously there was a big shift when Pearl Harbor was bombed. But Winston Churchill was able to keep that stress in that sweet spot, and it made him a better leader. It made him better able to do what was needed in the face of challenge. And then the third stress response is the tend and befriend response. This helps us to increase courage, caregiving, and it strengthens our social relationships. And so this is a stress response that motivates us to connect with others. And it is driven primarily by oxytocin. So pretty cool there.
Dr. Melissa Smith 10:20
So now I want to talk about the stress vulnerability model. Okay, and because I think this is can be a really helpful way to think about the impact of stress and how to kind of keep it in that sweet spot. And so when we think about the stress vulnerability model is a theory that a, you know, genetic or biological predisposition to certain mental challenges, right, like depression, anxiety, what have you. And like those, although that biological predisposition in combination with psychological and social factors can increase the likelihood of symptoms, it can increase your likelihood of actually developing mental health challenges, okay. And so when we think about stress, think about stress moving along a continuum. And stress is on so think about a table and think about, on the on the vertical axis, we have stress, and on the horizontal axis, we have vulnerability, and then moving out, that line moving out, we think about life, life events happening, we have our natural vulnerability threshold, which is different for each of us based on our biological predisposition, our psychological, and our social factors, that when we think about psychological and social factors, these are the protective factors that help us to be more resilient in the face of stress. So, you know, think about how you make meaning about your stress, if you have a sense of purpose about your work, the way stress impacts, you really shifts towards more beneficial effects for you. And so when we think about coping with stress, right, we all have different levels of vulnerability, some of those, we can control some of those we cannot control.
Dr. Melissa Smith 12:17
But one really great area of focus is looking at psychological and social factors that can be protected. So the meaning you make the connection you have with others. And of course, we’re going to talk a lot more about these as we jump into the solutions. But before that, I want to talk about stress and performance, right, because one of the things I talked about with the challenge response is that stress can make us more effective, it can make us more focused, it can really give us that that surge of adrenaline to perform, which is really incredible. And so the truth is that we need some stress in order to perform. If we had zero stress, there’d be very little motivation to perform. And so if our stress level is too low, you know, you might not care enough to prepare, we’ve all seen this, maybe with teenagers. But of course, if your stress is too high, you cannot harness your skills in order to perform. And so there is a very real sweet spot when it comes to stress, and performance. So when you think about this, I want you to think about performance on that vertical axis and stress level on the horizontal horizontal axis. And then I want you to draw a bell curve, right, so just a nice bell curve. You’ve all seen those before. And when you have too little stress, so right on, on the near side of that axis, when there’s too little stress, you’re underloaded. And what happens is you might be too laid back, you might be inactive, you might not be willing to take action on things you need to do the next, next block over right, as we kind of chalked out this bell curve is the optimum amount of stress. And this is where we’re motivated, and we can really do what we need to do. But as we raise higher and get to the top of that bell curve, that’s when fatigue starts to set in. Right and then we move over to the next block, which is too much stress or stress overload. And this is when fatigue actually leads to exhaustion, right and we’re not able to perform at our peak, we’re doing well, but it’s starting to take a toll on us. And then of course the last end of that curve. So this is far out where where the stress is high and the performance is low. We see burnout and this is where there is a breakdown in functioning. What motivation you had is gone, because you’re just depleted. We also in this burnout stage, see anxiety, panic and anger. And of course, you know, that makes us all less effective. And so I will link to this graphic in the show notes, so you can take a look at it. But I think it can be really helpful to, to pay attention to that. Because right there is a sweet spot for stress where it can be helpful. But we need to start to understand the signs of when are you starting to get to fatigue? When are you becoming exhausted? When are you burning out? Because obviously, we want to avoid that.
Dr. Melissa Smith 15:40
And so now let’s take a look at solutions, right? How can you move through the stress cycle, effectively, because stress is a thing, we’re always going to have stress as long as we’re facing challenges in life. And the key is not to avoid stress. Because first of all, that’s not a thing. That’s not possible. But we want to actually move through the stress cycle effectively. So we can discharge that stress. And if you think about animals in nature, that’s what they do, right? Like they discharge stress physically. And so I want to talk about some specific ways that you can do this. And this comes from the Nagurski sisters, and their excellent new book, entitled burnout. So the number one way to move through the stress cycle is through balanced movement. Okay, and so I want to read this quote from the Nagasaki sisters, you know how everyone says, exercise is good for you that it helps with stress and improves your health and mood and intelligence. And basically, you should definitely get some, this is why so this is the explanation. Physical activity is what tells your brain, you have successfully survived the threat. And now your body is a safe place to live. So physical activity is the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress response cycle. So physical movement helps us to reset our body, it’s really powerful.
Dr. Melissa Smith 17:04
The second solution, the second approach for moving through the stress cycle is breathing, deep, slow breaths, really work to down regulate the stress response. So this this technique, breathing is best used when stress isn’t at a maximum. So if you’re at a 10, breathing is going to be hard because chances are you’re just going to hyperventilate, that breathing can be best for coping with the aftermath of trauma. So after when you’re being flooded with thoughts, breathing can really help to down regulate the stress response, even as you integrate the learning from the traumatic experience. And that’s a normal thing. That’s not something to be avoided. But we do want to help down regulate that stress response. And basically, with the breathing, you’re telling your body, I’m not in danger anymore, and the stressor is gone. And now I need to cope effectively with the stress and slow deep breathing can help to signal to your mind and body that it’s time to slow down the release of the stress response.
Dr. Melissa Smith 18:12
Okay, so the third one, so balance movement is first one breathing is a second. And then we have a social connection. And this is powerful, right? The science of social connection is a powerful form of coping, you are just as likely when you go to a medical checkup, you know, if you are if you have some health concerns, right cardiac concerns, gi concerns, whatever your provider, if they’re familiar with the research, they are just as likely to tell you to go get a friend as they are to give you medication. Now we know that that doesn’t happen very often because there’s not a really great understanding of this research. But there is a robust so this is a quote from I believe it’s an NIH study, ‘a robust body of scientific evidence indicates that being embedded in high quality, close relationships, and feeling socially connected to the people in your life, is associated with decreased risk for all cause mortality, as well as a range of disease morbidities.” Right. So getting a friend getting close social connections, high quality, social connections will make you healthier, it will protect you from death, it will protect you from a range of disease morbidities That’s powerful. That’s really robust. Research there. So the other thing that we all just know practically right, that we’re social animals, and meaningful connection is one of the most important benefits, you know, of work and of you know, our social networks. And so, you know, we really want we don’t want to lose those benefits. And so especially if you’re thinking about your work situations now if you’re working remotely, how can you build meaningful connection, I’ve done a couple of podcasts on that topic. And so it’s really important to pay attention to. So one of the things about social connection is it signals to the body, that the world can be a friendly place. And I love that. And so that helps to down regulate that stress response.
Dr. Melissa Smith 20:17
So another solution to help you move through the stress response cycle is laughter. So this helps to increase our relationship satisfaction is also used to maintain social bonds, and regulate emotions. So you should laugh with those you love that makes a big difference. affection is another way that we move through the stress response cycle. So when we have the deeper social connection, and that loving presence, so this does not have to be physical affection, but it certainly can be hugs are really great, they increase the release of oxytocin, which is that friend and befriend, or the sorry, the tend and befriend response in action. And so physical affection is really great. But it doesn’t have to include physical affection. So this deeper social connection, loving presence, talking on the level is all part of affection. And then the next solution for effectively moving through the stress cycle is to cry, have you had those experiences where you’re like, I just need to cry. That is your body wishing and having a desire to complete the stress cycle. And so we don’t want to shut down those tears. We don’t want to shut down those emotions, because it is your body’s response to emotional intensity. And it can be incredibly beneficial. So let those tears come. And then the last thing that I want to talk about today, solution for moving through the stress response cycle is creative expression. And so creativity helps to create a context that tolerates and even encourages big emotions.
Dr. Melissa Smith 21:52
I love that way of thinking about it. And this again, is from the Nagoski sisters. So, “creative expression helps us make sense of our emotions, and our experiences. Creativity helps to validate and move us through the process.” Have you ever been in a creative endeavor where you feel those emotions come up? Right? For me, when I’m playing the piano, I can really connect emotionally. And sometimes I’m thinking about nothing. Sometimes I’m thinking about everything. But the creative expression can really help us to learn the lessons as we go as we move through life. And this is why like having a hobby, having things that you’re passionate about outside of work can be so incredibly helpful.
Dr. Melissa Smith 22:36
So there you go, there are some really good solutions grounded in research to help you take action. And remember that stress is not the problem, but how we relate to stress how we respond to stress really can make all the difference. And so head on over to my website to check out the show notes with the resources for this episode. And again, that is at www.drmelissasmith.com/nottheproblem. Okay, so that’s all one word. One more time. That’s www.drmelissasmith.com/nottheproblem, okay. And I hope that I hope that you will follow up on these solutions. They’re great. They’re simple, right? None of them are too complicated, but they can be real game changers. I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work in love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai