Can ongoing stress be your friend?
Can stress, especially ongoing stress, be a positive thing? Many say it can turn into our friend. Do difficult or troubled situations spell opportunities?Can stress, especially ongoing stress, be a positive thing? Many say it can turn into our friend. Do difficult or troubled situations spell opportunities?
I remember the moment clearly. I was riding my bicycle in a heavy rain shower, cursing the weather when Auntie Joop was approaching me in the opposite direction of the bicycle lane. In her electrical wheelchair, dripping wet. “What are you doing out here, Auntie Joop? It is raining cats and dogs and you are soaked!” I yelled in the roaring wind. “Well”, she replied stoically, “I am not made of sugar, am I?” She was her usual optimistic self in a situation where I felt annoyed and grumpy about something I could not change.
A similar feeling came over me recently, when I heard someone saying, “Whenever you feel stressed, just see stress as a good friend!” I wondered how is it possible that people can turn something that does not feel good or pleasant into something positive?
We are what we think
In her TED talk, psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains that ongoing stress is bad for you but mainly when you actually think that stress is bad for you. So if you change your perspective on stress, your body will adapt its response to stress because your body tends to believe what your mind tells it. Of course, this insight is not new. Neuroscientists discovered years ago that simply thinking about training your muscles actually makes your muscles a bit stronger. Likewise believing that our physical responses to ongoing stress are good and not bad will prevent these reactions from having a negative impact on your health. It sounds appealing but is it that simple or easy?
To me, this insight appears very useful when dealing with limited periods of stress. For example, when you are studying for a difficult exam or preparing a presentation for a room full of critical peers. Stressful, yet you know there is an end in the near future. But what if the stress lingers on without a release moment? Such as when you receive yet another job rejection and you know your family’s finances cannot hang in there much longer. Or when you are really worried about the consequences of a serious illness. Or when you feel neglected or lonely every day at work. Does it still work to embrace ongoing stress as a friend?
The world is your oyster!
In my interpretation, “The world is your oyster,” originally written by Shakespeare, means the world is yours to shape. It is up to you to choose what to do with your life. Go wherever you want to go. However, undauntedness is what one lacks when confronted with lingering, repetitive stress. In such situations, Shakespeare’s oyster may be the right illustration of how we can turn a lingering negative into a lasting positive.
When an oyster eats, its sucks in plankton. Sometimes, a small grain of sand, a tiny piece of seaweed or even a parasite also slips in. This small, irritating, annoying and uninvited houseguest is trespassing. When the oyster fails at getting rid of the unwanted intruder, the oyster protects itself by encapsulating the unwanted object in a very thin layer of mother of pearl, and then another one and another one until a beautiful pearl forms. A pearl we humans are willing to pay a lot of money for, a valuable object of desire.
Recently in Yerseke, a beautiful small town in Southwestern Netherlands famous for its oyster banks, a fisherman dug up an oyster carrying 21 pearls in its shell. 21! In the oyster universe, I am sure this oyster must have suffered severe ongoing stress. But he coped! Daring us with an interesting question. What annoying, itching, ongoing issue or problem can you turn into a pearl?
The value of annoying, itching and ongoing issues
What the oyster teaches us is that stress, even when it lingers on for a long time, can give us something valuable, something good. In her TED talk, Kelly McGonigal explains that the body also produces high levels of oxytocin when we experience ongoing stress. Oxytocin is also known as the cuddle hormone because it urges us to connect on a social level. It heightens our levels of empathy and makes us turn to others for support and help. At the same time, it enables us to give support and help others. Connecting with and helping others is like a well-thrown boomerang. It makes us healthier and works wonders for our resilience. Stronger social connections, friendships and a bigger capacity to cope with the setbacks in life are the human equivalent of the oyster’s pearl.
Auntie Joop passed away some time ago. But when I am out there on my bicycle, fighting the windy, rainy Dutch weather, I smile and think to myself: “I am not made of sugar, am I?”
Don’t let annoying, itching and ongoing frustrations linger for too long. With a little help and support, what is bothering you now can later turn into a pearl. Connect with TTI SI for tools and solutions to address and manage the stress levels that may be invading your world, or that of your team.