What Are You Getting Out of Your Stress?

Redefining your stress level may help you let go of negative patterns.

Posted in , Jun 21, 2019

Describe your stress

“Worry is like a rocking chair,” said the great humorist Erma Bombeck, “It gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.”

I think of my relationship with stress this way—as something to say when people ask how I am (“Ugh, I’m stressed!”), something to think when I let myself down (“I’ll go to that exercise class when I’m less stressed.”) or something to occupy my mind with when I am feeling unfocused (“If only I didn’t have this long to-do list!”).

This is a pattern I’m trying to change, and what I’ve realized as I’ve taken steps down a more positive path is that I was getting something out of my relationship with stress. The problem was, I wasn’t getting anything good out of it!

To be authentically positive means to acknowledge the full range of emotional realities that shape our outlooks. But we can work at cross-purposes with our pursuit of optimism when we equate stress with productivity, self-worth and justification for negative patterns.

Now when someone asks how I am, it’s still okay to say, “I’m stressed!” if I’m legitimately pressed for time or feeling pulled toward worry by my day. But I have been practicing responding with a more positive version of the truth: “I’m looking forward to the weekend” or “I’m almost there on a work deadline.” Being honest doesn’t mean turning up the heat on my stressors; it can also mean focusing on the big picture of gratitude or (eventual) calm.

This approach is also helpful if I’ve skipped an exercise class or didn’t make a dent in my to-do list on a given day. I’ve tried to dial back the impulse to chalk up the setback to a vague notion of “being stressed,” instead taking a moment to focus on what is the true obstacle to progress. I might need to reach out to an “accountability buddy” to motivate me to get to class, or I might need to take a long, hard look at my list to see if I need to say “no” to a few things. 

Being more thoughtful about how I’m describing my stress to others and finding more positive ways to view it has helped me first notice and then release some negative patterns. What could questioning your definition of “stress” do for you?

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