stress level = 🙀
how to judge if it’s gone too far
Let’s start with a fun fact before I get too serious about stress. Whilst Monday was the annual day where love and all things romantic get the limelight (I do hope your postbox was overflowing), today dear readers, is apparently World Hippo Day. And there you have it. One day it’s hearts, the next it’s hippos. 🦛
This is nothing to do with today’s blog.
I’d like to talk today a little bit about stress. Because of my work leading both individual and group coaching sessions, and because I am a living, breathing, human being, the conversation around stress is something that I encounter pretty much daily. There seem to be certain roles, industries and sectors that don’t seem to have a moment to catch their breath the last couple of years, and even those that maybe felt that they did have a bit of a hiatus, are now feeling like life is back to full pelt with such a vengeance and are reeling from a non-stop ride on the busy train. Sound familiar?
You will have your own version of this, but mine involves juggling day-to-day work responsibilities with planning for the future and getting new products and ventures off the ground, coupled with being a trustee to three wonderful organisations, a husband who is now back on the travel bus with work (plus studying for a master’s degree on the side) let alone the pièce de resistance of parenting, being a good friend, daughter, partner, plus the incessant housework, life admin and taxi servicing. Now, I’m not moaning — I’m more giving an example of one reasonably ordinary life, and when you stop and think about it, it’s all a bit dizzying.
I find it interesting that it has become common practice for us to say, “I’m so stressed,” when life is getting too much for us. When we are feeling like we can’t breathe, when the balls are not being just dropped but lost under the sofa, when we worry that we are forgetting things, making mistakes, underperforming and so on, we finally say “I feel so stressed”.
But do we understand stress? Maybe not, especially if we reserve the word stress just for these moments.
So, what is stress? Experts will tell us that stress is a biological response to any challenging situation. We are in fact designed to experience stress and respond to it. We need to — it saves our lives, motivates us to move, get things done, react, respond, adjust. So, when you have an important deadline to meet, and you feel the pressure, it can push us to get cracking and get done what needs to be done. Stress motivates action, it can actually boost our performance and focus. There’s nothing like a hard and fast deadline with possible consequences to sharpen the focus and the mind. Therefore, we can take from this understanding that we actually need stress in our lives. In and of itself, it is a part of life that is both necessary and at times incredibly useful.
But. And there is a big but (no, not just the hippo’s).
There is a big difference between being regularly exposed to stress that improves your performance, to being exposed to so much stress and pressure that it impedes your performance. Let me explain with a very useful diagram that might help you spot where you are in relation to your own stress levels (thank you Skills and Education Group for first showing me this).
Let’s look at the stages of stress.
1. Minimum pressure = Low performance.
If there is no real pressure, nothing that means your mind has to sharpen and focus, no deadlines, no clarity, no objectives, no challenge, we often do the bare minimum. Our performance is low, and our sense of wellbeing is low, not due to too much to do, but by too little, and by sheer boredom.
2. Average pressure = Average (or perhaps average +) performance
This is what might call competency, comfort, a good place to visit, and definitely a place to stay for a while. As we move towards the top end of average pressure, you can see that the performance hits its first of three peak performance moments. We can perform consistently well in this space, but — it doesn’t give us our best performance. You could say that this is the day-in, day-out, training space for our performance.
3. High pressure = improved performance
Interestingly, when we feel a sense of stretch, we up our game, up our performance and sharpen our thinking. You’ll have your own stories of when you haven’t quite had all the tools and all the experience that you have stretched to meet those demands and your performance has upped its quality. It’s a place of stretch, it is GOOD for us, but we do need to come back out of the place of stretch and recoup in the comfort space, at least occasionally. You’ll perhaps know for yourself what that balance looks like as we are all different.
4. Very high pressure = Mixed performance
This is interesting. You can, in moments of very high pressure (let’s say the recent final of the Australian Tennis Open for example) play the game of your life. But could even Nadal or Medvedev play the Australian Open every day? Of course they couldn’t. Nobody would suggest that they could. But some of us are living the equivalent of our own Australian Opens on a daily or weekly basis. It is not sustainable, and therefore your performance is under strain, and becomes inconsistent when expected to live in this zone for more than a short burst. This is what is interesting for us all having been through the pandemic. I achieved some things during the lockdown periods that I am incredibly proud of. But I know that I cannot maintain that level of stretch and strain all of the time — I start making mistakes, getting tearful, tired, grouchy, lethargic, demotivated. This zone is a risky space that we do need to visit, but to stay there too long will begin to push you too far.
5. Maximum pressure = Poor performance
When those high levels of pressure are too sustained over a period of time (a few obvious sectors of society spring to mind here during the pandemic) our performance is adversely affected. This space is where burnout, exhaustion and breakdown live. Crisis.
The ability to sustain that level of stress is not a failure within you. It is the natural response to more stress than you or I were designed to handle. I am sure many of you reading this resonate with these descriptions. Perhaps you have found yourself in the crisis zone, or you at least recognise it as somewhere you’ve visited. Perhaps you’re standing on the border looking over thinking that any day now, if something doesn’t change, that’s where I am going to be living. And that’s frightening.
What can we do about this? Well, this is a good question, and one I appreciate does not have any easy answers. I also don’t want this blog to be so long that you don’t have the time to finish it, because it’s such an important subject and needs yours and my attention.
1. Diagnose where you are right now, and how long you have been there. How much longer are you comfortable to stay in that space? As you can see, staying in any of these zones for too long can be detrimental, so decide how much longer you can take it.
2. Talk to others. Talk to your family, talk to your colleagues, talk to your boss. If you are the leader, open the conversation. Talking is not useless – it is helpful. It is needed. Use this graph to help explain where you are right now, and where you’d like to be, by when.
3. Small changes are still changes. Honestly, I am dreadful for wanting to incorporate momentous new habits into my life that are largely unrealistic and then don’t happen. Making small changes adds up over time. Pick something, make the change, do it every day for a month, feel proud, then add in something else.
4. Spot the moments of stress. Pay attention to yourself and your reactions to situations — when did you feel that your response was not proportionate (both internally in your thinking or externally in your behaviours). What had happened throughout that day, before that moment, leading up to that situation? Track back, work out what especially triggers you, and learn from it.
5. Practice some silence and solitude. Noise and demands are everywhere. Our brains are noisy, having very little space and time to get away from the information overload that we live in. Whether you prefer a walk in nature, or a sit on the sofa, some mindfulness, yoga or prayer, *do something* that incorporates some quiet into your life. I am one of the noisiest of people but I promise you, this is a game changer for us all.
6. Learn, then adapt.
I am learning from those that know so much more than me. And to this end, I have enlisted their help, so that we can bring that learning to the masses. I’m so excited to say that in the spring, we will be ready to share with you our very own sidekick response to the wellbeing conversation. It’s in post-production as I write, and I am so proud of it — mainly because we are gathering from the collective wisdom on this subject, and bringing it to you in a way that could really make a difference to your life. If you want to be the first to know about this when it is ready, then you can register your interest (whether you are thinking about your employees or yourself — or both) here.
I hope you feel heard and understood today. In summary, there’s a place for comfort, stretch and strain. But they are all places to visit, none of them should be our permanent residence, if we want to be healthy, happy and in a place where we are able to grow and develop.
Happy hippo day,