Seven Reasons to Listen to Stress

Stress has become a liability of 21st century living. It affects one in five of the working population, and is currently the biggest cause of sickness absence in the UK. Stress can drain us physically, disrupt our mental well-being and fray our emotions, robbing us of our quality of life. Armed with self-help books, stress-management courses or sunshine holidays, we battle to keep this modern-day plague at bay. But fearing stress as an enemy to be fought off may not be the best way forward.

When the writer Parker Palmer was learning to abseil, he began to lose his footing against an emerging hollow in the rock-face. The more he struggled to avoid negotiating the uneven surface, the more tangled up and off-balance he become, till his instructor shouted down: ‘If you can’t get out of it, get into it.’ When stress threatens to get you into a hole, facing into it and tuning into the message it holds for you personally could carry you through to a more satisfying way of living.

1) Stress is good for you: Listen to the level.

Suffering from stress is not the same as being under pressure. In fact, we all need a certain amount of pressure to function effectively. Too little can result in a casual aimlessness that ultimately leads to stagnation.

A deadline can help us focus our energy on completing something instead of letting it drift away. An exam, interview, or creative enterprise involving others, from performing a play to planning a party, can bring a frisson of nervousness that enables us to rise to the occasion and produce our personal best.

Stress, it has been said, can be fantastic or fatal! Are your pressures helping you to perform or leaving you in pieces? Are you over-stressed to the point of burn-out or under-stimulated to point of rust-out? Listen to your stress levels and reflect on the impact they are having on you.

2) Stress is personal: Listen to the patterns.

I once worked for a short while in a local radio newsroom. One journalist told me, ‘The best thing about this job is that you come in every morning with no idea what you’re going to be doing that day.’ For me that was one of the worst things about it.

One person’s stress is another’s stimulus to action. What may inspire one may crush another. Some people find a lot of noise and company overwhelming; others wilt if left quietly alone for too long. A practical task may be a chore or a challenge depending on our aptitude and interests. Our particular stressors teach us much about our personalities, preferences and needs. Listen for recurring patterns in how you respond to different pressures to discern your particular stress profile. They may highlight areas you want to re-adjust to minimise unhelpful stress and capitalise on creative stimulation.

3) Stress can be your body talking: Listen to yourself.

When the heat is on we sometimes pay attention to outside pressures at the expense of looking after ourselves. We skimp on sleep, stay on the go and forget to eat. Our ‘to do’ list takes precedence over the call simply ‘to be,’ so vital to our sense of perspective and overall health.

If we are not adequately feeding ourselves, addressing our emotional needs and relationships, or our physical needs for rest, our system eventually warns us not to take our well-being for granted: Our minds go into overdrive or refuse to concentrate; our emotions erupt in irritability or tearfulness; our bodies feel tired or in pain.

Take some quiet time to listen to yourself. Is your body weary, registering headaches or other pains? Is your mental activity and behaviour characterised by restlessness? Are your emotions on a short fuse? Such symptoms may contain an urgent message to adjust your pace of living. As Lily Tomlin puts it, ‘For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.’

4) Stress can point to unresolved issues: Listen to your past.

Our society does not deal very easily with death: The bereaved often feel pressured to pull themselves together, and some put aside their own grieving to care for those in distress around them. Eventually the stress of just trying to get on with life becomes overwhelming.

Some losses are less obvious. A situation may prove stressful because it touches on emotions linked to difficulties in our early years. How parents or other powerful people in our lives have treated us makes us sensitive to echoes in our experience with current authority figures. Becoming a parent in itself can trigger emotional memories of childhood.

Set aside time to listen to your past. You may soon register the emotional need you’re squeezing out. Earlier material can take longer to surface. If a situation evokes a disproportionate reaction, reflect on when you have felt like this before, and whether you can recall the first time you did so. Today’s stress may highlight a need to mourn yesterday’s losses.

5) Stress can mean unreasonable demands: Listen for the source.

When a person cannot cope with the demands made upon them, the result is stress. This often arises through a changed situation: a new boss or job-role; a relative’s illness or infirmity; loss of a partner through death or divorce. Even a welcomed event such as a child’s birth or a desired house-move means change and potential stress. But the problem is not always ‘out there.’ High expectations of ourselves can collude with outer demands to make things intolerable. We may also have a tendency to take on too many tasks and responsibilities in the first place, increasing the stress summed up by T Lake as trying ‘too hard and too often to do the impossible.’ Stop to listen for the source of your stress. It will help you disentangle others’ demands from self-imposed expectations, and bring wisdom about where to direct your energy in reducing your stress levels. Do you need to address your outer circumstances or your inner mind-set?

6) Stress can prompt a re-appraisal: Listen for your priorities.

A friend of mine once juggled two jobs. One night, as he sped down the motorway, his arms started tingling and he could not see properly. Stopping the car, he staggered to the phone box to call the emergency services. The medical diagnosis was a ‘stress-induced crisis.’ For my friend, it was time to choose just one line of work.

We often carry on regardless, till accumulating stress pulls us up short, forcing us to re-appraise what we are doing and where we are going. This may involve realising that more is not always better; accepting our human limitations, and recognising that the ability to do something is not in itself a reason for taking it on.

Listen for your priorities. Which, of all your activities, are most important to you? Trying to do everything can mean little satisfaction in anything. Stress can teach us what we really want to hold onto, and where we need to let go.

7) Stress can reveal new directions: Listen for the possibilities.

Negative stress carries an accompanying sense of being trapped. We become locked into seeing ourselves as victims of circumstance. But what threatens to push us to the point of breakdown can be used to bring us to a point of breakthrough.

Reducing stress involves recovering our capacity to make choices. If the organisational and environmental stress around you is unbearable and inflexible, you still have the ultimate option of leaving your situation. The author Greg Anderson observes, ‘When we change our perception, we gain control. When we commit to action, to actually doing something rather than feeling trapped by events, the stress in our life becomes manageable.’

Listen for new possibilities. Be prepared to question old assumptions; to explore options previously dismissed. The resulting insight may mean you decide to stay where you are, knowing you are there now by choice and not compulsion. Or you may find that stress gives you courage to try a creative new pathway.

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