by Ros Kitson
I read an article recently detailing how stress can actually be a good thing for us because it helps us rise to challenges and improve our performances. I think the author was thinking about the kind of stress we face when we’re trying to achieve a project we’ve chosen to do. For example, training for a marathon.
I found I did agree with most of the content, but as a practitioner who works with stress with clients, I was concerned that this might be giving out a message that we should be accepting of all the stress in our lives. This I definitely disagree with. So I decided to reflect on the difference between the type of stress discussed in the article and the type of stress that, if left unresolved, can make us very ill.
So, how do we differentiate between them? Well, I believe it comes down to two things: choice and power. I’ll deal with each in turn, although they are intrinsically linked.
Lack of choice, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, is synonymous with stress: we get stressed when we feel we have no choice in a situation. For example, if we’re expected to work late, and we feel that we have no option but to do it, we might end up with resentment or anger or similar, and very likely with stress. If it’s only once, the stress might be light, but if it goes on for a substantial length of time, or if we have to give up something important to work late, the stress may well be higher.
On the other hand, if we were asked whether we’d like the chance to work late and earn overtime or time off in lieu and we choose to do it, our stress levels will be much less. We might see it as an opportunity to bring in more income, or earn some more leave which we can take at another time of our choosing. That reward will drive us through the extra work and give us something to focus on.
Another example of lack of choice is where people around us behave in a way which we don’t like. We might want to change that person (which we’re unlikely to be able to do) or we might feel we can’t leave the situation. Both of these are going lead to lack of choice in our situation and therefore stress.
However, if we can choose to accept this situation in order to gain a bigger goal, we may be able to cope better as the focus on the bigger goal can distract from the stressful part. An example of this is someone doing a stressful job as a stepping stone to where they really want to be.
The good news is that we can always return to choice by changing our perspective on a situation. This will either help us to accept it and find some good in it, or give us the courage to change it, thereby removing the stressor from our lives. We can’t always do this alone. We often need a good therapist to help us.
The power issue is a bit more complicated. It comes down to whether we get our power from within ourselves or from external people and situations. If we look outside ourselves for power, then we may well find we suffer from stress as we we are allowing others to make choices for us. If we acknowledge ourselves as the true source of our personal power, then we make the choices we want to in our lives. I would suggest that most people lie somewhere between the 2 extremes and so will have areas of their lives which work for them, and other areas which work less well.
So, let’s look at why we give away our power. It might be because we’re getting something in return which makes us feel safer. As kids, our parents or carers hold our power and they do this to look after us and keep us safe while we learn how the world works. If we feel unsafe in the world as an adult, we might try and regain that safe feeling by giving our power away to someone else who offers it.
Other times we give away our power because we don’t feel strong enough to create our power ourselves. This has a lot to do with our self-esteem and our self-confidence. If these are low, we are more likely to look externally for approval. If we need this approval more than we need to be autonomous in ourselves, we will find we give away our power.
It may be that we’ve just learn to do it and it’s nothing more than a habit we’ve never questioned. We might have seen our parents give away their power and feel this is the “correct” or “proper” thing to do. We might have been taught that we must do whatever our boss tells us to do, or we’ll get disciplined or maybe even sacked. We may believe we must do whatever it takes to fit in with our social group in order to remain popular and be accepted.
These strategies may well seem fine on the short term, but if we follow them for any length of time, we are likely to come up against a conflict between our own personal truth and the external pressure. It’s highly unlikely that someone else will only want for us that which we want for ourselves.
Once we come up against this conflict, we are back to lacking choice and hence we have stress.
The more we give away our power, the more we will find our energy depleted. This is extremely dangerous for our health as our energy is what sustains us.
If we create our power from within, we become stronger. That kind of power energises us. We become strong enough to stand on our own two feet and make the choices we really want. We stop being fearful of people and situations because we know they hold no power over us unless we choose to give it to them.
When we make a choice, we know our reasons. If stress creeps in, we can review why we chose it and whether to continue to choose it or to make another choice to walk away. If we know that the reward at the end is going to be worth enough to us, we might choose to keep going in spite of the stress. Remembering our reasons, can help us get through the stress without resentment or anger.
Choice is empowering – it gives us power from within rather than from outside. So when you next feel stressed, ask yourself whether this is good or bad stress and whether you are prepared to accept it or not.
Tags: choice, emotional health, stress