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5 things we need to know about stress

anxiety man

Everyone knows what stress is and, for the most part, we try to avoid it all costs. We have work-related stress that might include deadlines, aggravating coworkers, or even an authoritarian boss. We have home stress, which might include fixing things, endless cleaning, and even raising children. Last, but certainly not least, we have financial stress, which usually includes managing money, paying bills, and denying ourselves items we want but cannot afford. So what in the heck is good stress?

I am writing this article from the perspective of a 43-year-old Soldier who has less than 10 working days left before retirement. That’s right. After 24 years of service (20 active duty years), I am hanging up the dog tags and moving from Army green to corporate blue. That sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? Well, I thought so about a year ago and now that I stand at the precipice of retirement, I feel like I am looking over the edge of a cliff with nothing but a bottomless chasm before me. Am I stressed? You bet I am!

I have read a lot of research about “good stress,” and I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing good about stress. 

I have determined instead that there is only short-term stress and long-term stress. I have come to realize that in both cases we ultimately have to deal with stress. Allow me a few minutes to illustrate what I have discovered.

You are jogging through the neighborhood and all of the sudden a dog dashes toward you barking and snarling. You get a sudden flood of both adrenaline and endorphin, which boost your ability to run faster and feel less pain. This is the sympathetic nervous system engaging what experts call the fight-or-flight response. The dog chases you for a moment but once you are out of his territory, or perhaps once he reaches the end of his tether, the dog stops and you escape. Your body then has a parasympathetic reaction, which calms your racing heart and allows you to return to a more normal state. You feel some relief. Keep in mind this is what experts call “good stress.”

angry dog creates anxiety

In a second situation, you find yourself at work. You are hustling on a project (sort of like jogging). Your boss comes into your office and starts yelling (sort of like the barking dog). Your heart races, your fists and jaw clenches, and you once again feel that fight-or-flight response. Once the tirade is over, the boss leaves (sort of like the dog reaching the end of his tether). You rub your temples and take a deep breath, knowing that you still have work to do. Your body calms a bit. You might feel a little relief that he is gone, but the real relief comes when you finish the project and the boss is happy (even if only for a short time). Supposedly, this is also “good stress.”

Now, I am curious. How are these two situations different? Is one really good stress? In my opinion, there is only one good thing both have in common. Both are short-term stress. Let’s look at some other situations.

You have been engaged to be married for several months. There is excitement in the air as you near the big day! You have been planning for the perfect ceremony and a wonderful reception afterward. This is a time for joy and happiness, right? Well, it is supposed to be but, second only to a funeral, marriage is the single greatest stress-causing event of our lives. I know it is hard to believe but, in most cases, especially a big wedding, there is so much work and preparation invested that the event becomes a massive burden of stress. Imagine a roof holding fresh snow from a winter storm. It is light at first, but then it accumulates and becomes packed. The more snow that falls, the denser the snow becomes and, as a result, the roof bears a heavier burden. What happens if the snowstorm becomes a blizzard? Could the weight become too great over time? Could the roof collapse under the strain? This is what experts call “bad stress,” but I call it long-term stress.

snow cabin

I started this article with an introduction about my own retirement. In many ways, it is akin to a wedding. I have made a ton of plans with my family, such as preparing to move. We had to enroll the kids in a new school. We had to buy a new house. My retirement check is considerably smaller than my active-duty pay, so my wife and I had to make a new plan for income or try to reduce our costs of living to allow for the pay cut. As a result, I decided to open a clinical counseling franchise. This was, in essence, a huge business venture costing us time, money, and even more planning. WOW…talk about a wonderful, long-awaited opportunity that we thought would be a time for celebration but ended up being painfully stressful! Ironically, we have been more on edge, less pleasant, and kind of like that roof under the weight of dense snow. My wife’s nerves are shot, and I feel the crushing weight bearing down on me like an avalanche of snow.

As I considered the old references to good stress and bad stress, I had a moment of inspiration that I wanted to share. First of all, if you like the terms good and bad stress, then fine. Use them. If you are like me—more a realist than an optimist—consider changing the wording to short-term stress and long-term stress. Second, instead of thinking in terms of good and bad stress, let’s just say stress is neutral but can be affected by how we perceive it. The reason is simple and related to goal setting and planning.

A short-term goal that is easily achievable can provide us with a little boost of self-esteem once we get it done

Instead of looking at the stress itself as good (i.e. helpful), let’s call a spade a spade and say stress is simply stress and then give credit to the achievement of our goal, which helps us feel good about getting things done. Everyone likes a little closure now and then, and checking off something we set out to do is always a positive thing. Look back at the example of jogging. Is it a good feeling being chased by the dog (giving credit to the type of stress we feel), or is good actually escaping the dog (giving credit to success)? The chase is about fear, but the escape is about accomplishment!

Let’s look at the long-term side. Before I wrote this article, I believed that “bad stress” included those things we couldn’t really change that ultimately had negative effects on our health (mentally and physically). That is just demoralizing. Not only do you have to endure seeing that authoritarian boss day after day until you die, or find a new job, or retire, but now you are keenly aware that the stress related to that daily interaction is actually causing anxiety and affecting your health. Wow, that is tantamount to torture! I propose something a little different.

In the marital engagement example, what if we simply broke the entire event into smaller pieces? Would it be a little more manageable? What if we built a timeline that started with the engagement and ended with the wedding vows. Along that timeline, we build smaller goals that delegate some of those arduous tasks to competent people. We could be free from the stress and still enjoy the sense of accomplishment along the way. Think of it like adding support buttresses to the roof covered in snow. Each support beam takes pressure off of the roofline. For example, could you hire a wedding planner? Would that person be a great support pole under your roof? What about a caterer? Would your stress drop knowing the food was taken care of? Could you ask a family member or friend to make the arrangements with the church, minister, and reception hall to alleviate your burden dealing with those things?

What if you are in the long-term stress category at work? Imagine that authoritarian boss and a heavy work load. Is it possible to delegate some of the work to others? Is it possible to build a working group to attack a large project in a short time frame? Even if you are the proverbial one man show, can you go to others for support? If nothing else, a good friend can listen to you vent and offer some advice, but there are professional counselors, religious leaders, and other coaches who can help outside of work. So, here is what I have done in my own life. I had my dad and my father-in-law help me find a new home. This saved us about 700 miles one way, traveling to see possible homes we liked on the Internet. I had the real estate agents arrange everything so that all my wife and I had to do was make one trip and then sign the contract to buy.

I chose to go with a franchise instead of building a new business from scratch for employment after I retire. I no longer had to wait for employers to accept my resume, interview, and then hire me. I am now my own boss. I also enjoyed access to a professional franchise staff that helped the business with initiating operations. I didn’t have to do any website, policy, or internal operations development. It all came with the franchise. I turned to a CPA for financial assistance to help me with the changes in income, expenses, and taxes. These experts eased the burden tremendously.

Lastly, I turned to the US Army for my final move from South Carolina to my new home 700 miles away. These professionals are handling all of the packing, shipping, and unpacking of my household goods. That is an amazing service all by itself.

Step back and look at the big picture. With enough help, maybe even an entire team of support, long-term stress can really become short-term stress

Let me repackage this article in terms that makes it even easier.

1.     There is no good stress or bad stress; it is simply a mental/emotional burden that must be carried.

2.     Stress is neutral but can be affected by how we perceive it (and deal with it).

3.     We can improve our self-esteem by accomplishing goals, which alleviates short-term stress (finishing things).

4.     Long-term stress can be divided into manageable goals along a timeline.

5.     The burden of stress can be carried/supported effectively by experts, friends, and family.

My final word of advice is to realize that we experience stress daily. Stress from a smelly garbage can in the kitchen is easily rectified by taking out the trash. Cutting the grass, paying bills, even making supper are similar examples. If we ignore these things, they compound and become problems. Weddings, career decisions, raising children, and even planning for retirement are all long-term situations that seem wonderful but come with long-term stressors. We must recognize what we can do. We can then plan well, delegate when possible (ask for help), and then feel good about getting it all done.

 Good luck

Curtiss Robinson
Soldier, Mentor, and Coach

PS—I still have stress, but I have mitigated all that I can so that my roof won’t collapse under the strain, and now I can get things done without pulling out my hair.