Understanding and Mastering Stress: A different approach

Nearly everyone has experienced “stress”.  It is an overwhelming feeling that:

  • Things are not going right for you
  • You are being asked to do too many things at one time
  • You do not feel qualified or equipped to handle what is being asked of you

You have heard others, or have said yourself, that you are “stressed out” and that chronic stress can, over time, damage you physically.

But, have you ever wondered what stress is?

Mechanical stress

Think about what happens when a physical support on a bridge is overstressed or fatigued.  It breaks and the bridge collapses.  Put too much physical stress on a wooden pencil by bending it and it snaps.

Psychological stress

Psychological stress is, by analogy, similar. When you perceive that too many demands, or expectations, are being placed on you, your capacity to handle the load is surpassed and you feel overwhelmed.

Now, here is something you may not know.

You need a certain amount of stress in order to function.  Think about a clothes line.  If it is too loose, you can’t hang anything on it.  Too tight and it snaps.

I. The Yrkes-Dodson Law and Overwhelm

The Yrkes-Dodson law captures this relationship between too little and too much stress.  The graph below was copied from wikimedia

On the left, you can see the word “Performance”.  Another word that could be used here is “effectiveness“.  On the bottom, you see “arousal”.  Another word that could be used here is “stress“.

In order to understand the Yrkes-Dodson Law, think about being asleep. If your arousal level is too low, as when you are asleep, you can’t effectively do anything except, perhaps, dream.  As you wake up, your arousal level increases.   Perhaps, you need a cup of coffee to get you going.  You get to work, check your schedule, set your priorities and you are ready to go.

Being ready to be productive is “optimal arousal” on the curve.  You don’t feel stressed but  you are energized.

If  your boss, or circumstances, begin to pile more responsibilities on you, you will move  past your optimal arousal level and your performance (effectiveness) begins to drop.   You are feeling anxious or stressed.

Anxiety is another word for stress.  Three of my earlier posts directly address the emotion of anxiety and I have a chapter on anxiety in my book Emotions as Tools: Control Your Life not your Feelings


There are a few ways you can deal with this type of stress:

1. Take a deep breath.

Taking a breath lowers your physiological arousal so you can go on to step 2.

2. Prioritize.

Look at all the tasks facing you and prioritize them in any way that works for you (most to least important, easiest to complete to most difficult, time involved to complete the task from least to most, actions you can take from delegate through postpone to eliminate).

Having a plan  brings order to the tasks facing you.

3. Make a plan.

Once you set your priorities, make a plan to deal with the issues one at a time, and execute your plan.

This step moves  you back on the curve into your optimal range.

Eustress vs Distress

Stress that is enervating and moves you into your optimal zone is called eustress.

Stress that moves you past your optimal zone and lowers your effectiveness is called distress.

II. A definition of psychological stress.

Stress ==> Expectations ≠ Reality

Stress happens when what  you expect to be  taking place(your expectations) is not the same as what is actually going on (your perception of reality.

This approach to stress fits into Yrkes-Dodson but can be applied more broadly.  In many situations in which you find yourself, you will have an expectation regarding the way things should be.  You have expectations:

  • about work,
  • about your relationships,
  • about how your computer should work,
  • about your kids
  • and so forth

While you may, or may not, be aware that you have expectations and they won’t become an issue unless they don’t pan out, you do have them.

It is only when the reality of your situation violates your expectation that you feel stressed and you become very aware of how you think things should be (your expectations).

Handling psychological stress.

There are two possibilities here, both of which are designed to reduce stress by aligning your expectations with your perception of reality.

  1. You can reassess your expectations and adjust them to match reality.
  2. You can reassess and adjust your perception of reality to match your expectations.

In the first strategy, your assessment may tell you that your expectations were unrealistic.  You believed the other person would do more or act differently than they did but you either did not do your due diligence, did not carefully read the contract, or misunderstood what was supposed to happen.  When you realize that you have erred with unreasonable expectations, you make an adjustment, your expectations match reality, and your stress is gone.

In the second strategy, your assessment might tell you that you have misperceived reality.  The other person is doing exactly what you expected and you incorrectly judged them, reacted inappropriately, or just misunderstood.  In this case, you adjust your perception of their actions, the match between expectations and reality is reestablished and your stress is gone.

You now have a more adaptive view of stress and some suggestions for mastering it.

Thanks for reading and I welcome your comments.


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