Stewarding Stress

Stewarding Stress: Stress Part 2

While everyone would like to know how to better steward their stress, it’s crucial that you read part 1 to understand where we’re starting from in this blog.

So if stress is inevitable and there’s a spectrum of it being good or bad, how can we steward stress instead of trying to avoid it at all costs?

Stress and Productivity

It’s important to understand that stress has what’s called a curvilinear relationship to productivity. That means that too little stress isn’t good, but too much stress is also not good. There’s a sweet spot that we want to experience in times of work and growth.

Let me make this clear; we should absolutely experience times of no stress or as close to it as we possibly can. Rest is essential to sustaining healthy rhythms. So while there is a “sweet spot,” it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have rhythms where we intentionally create moments of little to no stress.

That being said, understanding that some stress is good changes our perspective and helps us realize that stress can be a tool when used correctly.

This is good news! If something in my life is unavoidable (which stress is), then I’d rather it be something that I can leverage for good and not just have to accept as a bad thing only.

The right stress motivates us. This is why deadlines, accountability, and goals typically help people get started and finish. It’s providing the right kind of stress to keep us productive and motivated.

What about when we have too much stress?

Too much stress can shut you down. When stress stays high, we can become anxious and overwhelmed.

Constant stress can create what some researchers call “allostatic load.” This causes increases in cortisol (the stress hormone), increases in insulin production, increases in inflammatory responses, increased likelihood of adrenal insufficiency, etc.

Not good stuff.

When this is sustained over time, we can be overwhelmed, burn out, and experience adrenal insufficiency.

So what can we do to make sure that we’re experiencing eustress and not distress? Well, understanding the difference between stress, worry, and anxiety will help us with that.

Stress, Worry, Anxiety, and Perspective

We’ve already defined stress as the soul and body’s response to changes in our environment and circumstances. So if that’s all that stress is, then why can stress be such a detriment to our health and wellbeing?

That’s because stress can often lead to worry. While stress often leads to worry, stress doesn’t always necessitate worry. Let me explain

In the context of stress, worry is when we appraise or perceive the changes we experience as negative. Now obviously, there are changes that truly are bad, and there’s no “looking on the bright side” the moment we encounter them. However, much of our day-to-day changes that compound our stress may not always need to be perceived as bad.

The truth is we don’t often like change, not because the change is bad but because the change is, well, change. When we’re inflexible and don’t create expectations for margin and inconveniences in our lives, this can lead to appraising almost any change as negative creating potentially unnecessary worry.

Once worry has been established, it provides the environment for anxiety to fester.

I move from worry to anxiety when I encompass the change that I perceive as negative with fear and dread. This then affects our thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. For some people, when stress leads to anxiety, they can respond by showing signs of nervousness and wanting to cry. Others can show signs of frustration and wanting to blow up. Some may not feel any emotions in particular and can just become forgetful and have difficulty keeping focus.

Anxiety, unfortunately, can have a lingering effect. Meaning that once it starts to present, even if the change that initially caused the stress and worry resolves, the anxiety and symptoms of it can persist.

While stress is inevitable, our perception of each stress event doesn’t need to demand worry.

How to Steward Stress

So how can we better steward stress whenever those changes occur so that it doesn’t lead to worry, which can lead to anxiety?

1. Manage your expectations

There’s a lot of talk of stress management, but often that can come down to expectation management. If we expect our day to go a very certain way, even slight changes can bring about worry.

2. Build in margin and flexibility

This goes into the first point, but it’s important that while it’s great to schedule and plan, we shouldn’t budget our resources down to the smallest unit. There will always be unaccounted-for minutes in the day. There will be unexpected costs and money that will be spent. People typically won’t respond exactly how and when we’d like. We even let ourselves down. It’s important to have plans and goals but build some breathing room.

3. Focus on hope

While platitudes like “look on the bright side” can seem trite at best, it is important to foster optimism. How many countless stressful situations did you walk through, and you couldn’t imagine getting through, but you did. Hope is vital to prevent unnecessary negative appraisals of change that we experience.

4. Identify a great social support system (family, friends, your Small Group)

Connection is important because healthy relationships reflect truth to our situations and identity. This way, you don’t get stuck in the echo chamber of your stress. It can get claustrophobic and isolated when you allow stress to develop into worry and then anxiety. Others will help pull you out.

5. 5-5-5 breathing

Breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, and then breathe out for 5 seconds. This is helpful for regulating your nervous system so your sympathetic and parasympathetic responses can get back in balance.

Hopefully, this two-part series has helped you identify stress, recognize how it can be good or bad, and steps you can take to leverage eustress while regulating and guarding against distress.

This way, when stress comes, and it will, you’ll be better prepared to steward it as a tool.

If you want to learn more about dealing with stress, check out this teaching I gave at Rock City Church with Pastor Chad Fisher.
Dr. Andy Yarborough
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