Reframing Stress

My definition of stress for this purpose is along the lines of “the physio-emotional response to external demands/stimuli.” Stress doesn’t necessarily have to be negative: psychologists differentiate between “eustress,” that stress springing from demanding situations where a positive outcome is or can be expected, and “distress,” which is that which comes from situations in which a negative outcome is or can be expected.  Want some examples?  Basically, when TØP sing about being “Stressed Out,” they’re really singing about being “Distressed Out.”

Of course, that’s my undergraduate level understanding of psychology speaking – there’s a greater level of differentiation to be sure, but for current purposes I think that dichotomy will suffice nicely. It’s been a long time since I graduated college so my understanding is likely more than a little rusty as well.

There’s all kinds of negative jazz that goes down when you’re constantly experiencing your world though the lens of “distress.” Anxiety, perceived loss of self-control, feelings of lack of coping ability.  Which is ultimately what it comes down to for me: it’s a RESPONSE to these external stimuli, and our choice of response is ours.  In other words, we own our response and that the stimuli doesn’t inherently cause eustress or distress.

I find having a running partner – whether or not they know they’re my partner (which sounds far creepier than I intend…basically someone I use to pace myself) – creates a eustressful situation: it keeps me moving toward my goals.  I run more consistently,  longer, and better when I have someone else to run with.  I went for a run last night with someone whose a better runner than I am; I wanted to quit half way through, but I didn’t because I was responding to that potentially stressful situation by pushing myself toward the end of the run, by keeping up with him, by not quitting when it would have been easier to do so.  I could have gone the other way: quit because I was feeling uncomfortable, but I chose the opposite response.

There are variables in our life at play that affect our choice of responses: if your boss is being secretive about plans, or perhaps leaving you off invitations for meetings to which you should be invited, you could respond in several ways: “I can’t change the situation, so it is what it is…” to “I must be getting fired! What am I going to do?”

In the second scenario, is it really about the prospect of losing THAT job that concerns you or is the the ramifications of losing that job that concerns you: money concerns, job searching skills to brush up on, employment prospects…the list goes on. It’s the variables in our lives that affect how we will respond to those stressors: have we maintained our professional network and continued to develop skills or have we coasted? Have we been saving money for a rainy day or have we spent it as we got it?

I want to make that point without getting into a conversation around privilege – I get it, there are many many people who due to circumstances cannot make ends meet even with a consistent paycheck, never mind save a portion of it for a “rainy day,” for a great multitude of reasons. The fact of the matter is that folks in lower socio-economic levels are generally more stressed than higher income earners.  It’s really hard to find time to relax or work out, if you’re commuting between two part time jobs.

“Chronic stressors such as food insecurity, substandard housing, and greater exposure to violence have also been demonstrated to increase the wear and tear on biological systems.” (Schanzenbach, Mumford, et al., “Money Lightens the Load“)

I  also know many, many folks who make choices that inhibit that ability to save for a rainy day.  Here’s an example: Cigarettes consistently sell for more than $11/pack – or about the after-tax take home for an hours’ work at minimum wage.  There’s a choice to be made between saving that hour’s pay and buying a pack of smokes.  If you’re making $12/hour full time, your gross pay is $480.  If you’re smoking a pack a day, that’s about $77/week or about 16% of your pre-tax wages. This isn’t to say you should or shouldn’t smoke, this isn’t to place judgement on a choice to smoke, it is saying that it is a choice and a value judgement that it’s more important to smoke than it is to have that $77/week.  There are these variables and choices around every one of us, every day.  There are other, too many to name, variables that aren’t as easy to identify.

Back in 2017, the NPR podcast “Hidden Brain” did a piece on the “Scarcity Trap,” where the scarcity of needs causes the person experiencing the scarcity focuses the brain on that need. If money’s the problem, all you can think about is all the things you need – to the exclusion of future needs.  Perhaps quitting smoking would be more stressful than having that additional means for other purposes.

“Scarcity takes a huge toll. It robs people of insight. And it helps to explain why, when we’re in a hole, we sometimes dig ourselves even deeper. ”
– Shankar Vedantam, “Hidden Brain”

Everyone’s circumstances are different, and the purpose of this post isn’t to discuss why those circumstances exist, but rather simply to identify why someone may feel distressed. Also, it’s at this point that you may be interested in the full length version of the “Hidden Brain” story from above. As it happens, quite by happenstance this episode was recently replayed.

Feelings of helplessness or lack of control impact one’s ability to see the brighter side, or in other words, affect your ability to see how you can see the control you can exert. Part of that is taking control of the situation before it seems so far out of reach.  Amazon is really, REALLY good at connecting you to things you want, and makes it really easy for you to get them — until you max out your credit card buying them. You’re far more likely to pay attention to Amazon than the credit card’s website…or CreditKarma or any of the myriad credit scoring sites.

I say “part of that is…” and not the far more complete, “the key is…” because the key isn’t necessarily to catch it before you believe you’ve come too far, the key is to acknowledge your situation. “I’m drowning in debt,” “I’ve been written up a couple of times at work and if I mess up one more time…,” “My spouse has been really kind of crummy lately…”

I’m also aware of folks who have to work really, really hard to keep their status where it is – they’re exhausted because they’re always on point, always working to their full potential, meaning there is no leeway – a wrong step, a lost opportunity takes longer to recover from.  Which is why, I can imagine, bandwidth being so problematic.  There are no easy solutions in life – any life advice designed for a general audience will fall flat. Everyone has their unique situations, we all have courses to navigate. BUT because of that, you have to be honest with yourself. You have to know what your limits are – challenge what you “know,” but understand where you are currently and just how long it will take to build your capacity. Not everyone can do that.

That said, what I’ve found is that it’s rarely too late to course correct.  Certainly, when they’re tossing dirt over your body it’s too late; “rarely” is not “never”  but so much of progress is having the realization that you’re not where you want to be and working toward where you do want to be. It’s not getting discourages with incremental gains. Temporary set backs. Injuries. Whatever. But those are long term goals. You’ve got to be able to focus on the long term, and if you’ve got a deficit you’re not able to.

The eustress of working toward a future, further-out positive goal has to outweigh the distress of the negative feelings of the immediate situation. Feeling that deficit – “I’m so fat, and I’m not losing weight fast enough” – leads me to eat that bag of Cheetos. When I can focus on the longer term goal and realize that as long as I’m staying on track, I’m losing weight slowly and surely AND, more importantly, I’m losing body fat then I can concentrate on just drinking the glass of water.

Getting oneself out of a crummy credit score takes time. It takes concerted steps to pay off more than you’re spending, but it’s really hard to do that if all you can see if what you don’t have.  Its about maintaining control. Understanding where you are, understanding there are steps to take – even if you don’t know what they are just yet, and continuing to work toward them.  It’s about wanting that goal more than wanting the shorter term pleasures.  Losing THAT job would hurt, afterall we have THAT job to make ends meet, to pay for the things we need in life, but if we spend a little more time focusing on the future – tucking a little away – we could alleviate the distress of the current situation (am I going to lose my job?) by reframing saving for a rainy day as a eustressor.  Having enough FU money that you don’t really have to deal with worrying about whether or not you’re going to lose your job.

Whatever journey you’re on, whatever you you’re looking to become, it is at the end of the day a process. A process requiring long term commitment. It’s stressful – distressful – to see just how far/long it is to get to where you want to be, so be kind to yourself. Give yourself the opportunity to experience eustress – small milestones along the way. Its really about reframing the perception – stress is all about how you perceive it: if its negative, its distress.  If you want to run a marathon, you have got to start working on 5ks. Focus on them until you’re ready for a 10k…and a 15k…the marathon is someday, the 5k is the now. Chunks big enough to swallow.

Author: Mo

I consider myself a bit of a loner. I tend to think of myself as a one-man wolf pack. I like old school sneakers, baggy jeans, and oversized sweatshirts. I believe there is no such thing as a short sleeve dress shirt. I like neckties. I do not understand camping, car racing, or algebra – but I can camp and have been known to go a little faster than the speed limit. I have NEVER been known to do a quadratic equation.

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