The 3 Ms of Understanding Stress
Stress is either the cause of, or the result of, much of what is wrong with us in the modern world.
It’s time you knew about the kind of stress that’s holding you back from getting where you want to be, and how to deal with it.
For far too long I’ve seen and read many useless and often harmful approaches to what so-called ‘experts’ out there say about ‘getting rid of stress.’ Crazy ideas like opening windows to breathe in fresh air, going for a walk, shouting affirmations to yourself while looking in a mirror, or walking on hot coals, none of which have anything to do with reducing stress levels.
In this article, I’m going to give you an overview about stress – and what to do about it – the correct way. In fact, the only way. My methods work, because they’re based on the truth about stress, not a handful of gimmicks that set you up to fail from the word go.
If you don’t know what stress is, you can’t fix it.
Our lives today are complicated, aren’t they? We’re overworked, often underpaid, hassled, harassed, hurt and hungering for relief from everything we’re faced with.So it seems sensible to want to get rid of all our stress, right?
Well, actually, no.
The fact is stress is wired into us. Without it, we’d lose a vital part of our entire human system that was made to protect us.
Now, you might be thinking, ‘Come on Ches, are you telling me stress is a good thing?’ Let me explain.
Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘fight-flight-or-freeze’? It’s where you come up against a potentially dangerous or life-threatening situation. You have to make a decision whether to stay and deal with whatever’s causing the threat, or run away from it.
Either way, if you didn’t have your in-built stress system, you’d be totally ill-equipped to do either. If you choose to run, your stress system is wired to gather all the chemicals and brain activities it needs and channel them into one major resource to provide the support you need so you can get out of there fast. I’m sure you’ve heard of having an ‘adrenaline rush’. Well, that’s a part of what your stress system gives you to help you retreat from danger, sending blood surging through your muscles, getting your heart and breathing apparatus ready for the sprint you’re going to make.
If instead of fleeing you choose to stay and confront the threat, you not only need adrenaline to keep you on top form, you need other brain chemicals to help you think clearly, rationally and make the right decisions. Again, your amazing stress system is there to provide the relevant support for the type of situation you’re facing.
But the fact is, you NEED stress. And what’s more you can’t get rid of stress! Let me repeat that: You can’t get rid of stress. It’s our survival system – a perfectly natural and vital bodily process.
What, then, is the problem?
Why are you, like so many others, constantly ‘stressed out.’ What’s gone wrong? Is your stress system malfunctioning? Are you mentally ill? And most importantly, what do you do to put it right?
Let me first explain what stress is NOT:
Stress is not a MEDICAL condition.
Many people make the error of thinking stress is a medical issue and it’s easy to understand why.
When you have uncontrolled levels of stress, stretching over long periods of time, or frequent spikes that go off the chart, you become vulnerable to a wide range of ailments. These ailments can affect your mental toughness, your emotional stability and your behaviour. While it’s true that high stress levels that aren’t addressed correctly can lead to total burnout, most approaches to dealing with stress focus on how to treat the burnout!
It is the affects of stress that receive the attention of medical and health practitioners, psychologists, clergy, employers, family and other caring and concerned individuals. Of course the correct course of action as any ailment or disability however caused, requires the attention of appropriate professionals.
However, it needs saying that many people erroneously assume they are treating the stress. So the stress that wasn’t a medical issue to begin with has now been side-tracked while the symptoms become the key focus of treatment! Indeed, the only thing being treated is the ailment resulting from the stress. What seems to be forgotten or perhaps ignored, is whatever caused the stress. No wonder this does nothing to alleviate your over-stressed state!
So it can be of no surprise that once the ailment has been treated and you have been restored to your former self, you remain wide open to finding yourself returning to that debilitated, less than your usual self position, once again.
Looking at it another way, if anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication was the simple answer, you wouldn’t suffer from stress. Sorting out your stress has nothing whatsoever to do with taking medication. That might give you a quick fix…but I believe what you’re seeking is a long term solution. If the cause of your ailment is not adequately addressed, then after you stop taking the medication, what will happen? It’s a vicious and problematic cycle.
Sometimes stress is defined as some kind of MENTAL issue. But that’s wrong too.
Stress is not a mental issue or a psychiatric diagnosis. Stress is a normal part of life. Used properly it helps you take action, feel more energised and get results. But if you’re often overwhelmed by stress, if you feel you can no longer control your stress level, you could be in trouble. For example, you might develop a mental health problem like anxiety or depression. Neither are an inherent part of your mental process.
Now, you might be thinking, ‘Just a moment, Ches. Surely not being stressed is all about positive mental health, so how can it not be a mental issue?
You weren’t born with depression or anxiety. They are simply the result of past or present issues, whatever might be going on in your life presently, and all manner of thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
When you think and feel and behave as if you are constantly under attack, when everything is a crisis situation, when you behave like everything needs to be done now and your life has more demands than you can adequately satisfy, you expose yourself to experiencing uncontrollable levels of stress.
Let’s look at a few examples for the sake of clarity. The traffic intersection is down to two lanes due to construction and it takes about five extra minutes for you to get through and proceed on your route. But while you’re being held up, you freak out and start to mumble and curse…or you become anxious and stressed because you think this will put you a good 30 minutes late for your appointment or arrival at the office.
Suppose you step out to go shopping at the local food store between meetings and there’s a queue, a bit busier than usual. You become frightened you’ll get back late to the office and be reprimanded.
Or perhaps you’ve been invited out to meet up with colleagues and friends and the babysitter does not arrive on time, or even worse, cancels at the last minute. It’s not the end of the world and it’s not a real crisis situation.
The problem here is that you see everything as a crisis and you constantly have your stress levels that are way too high, for far too long, and they are in three words…out of control.
We’re not born with built-in levels of stress so intense they make us miserable. As I said, stress is actually a part of our normal body function. It’s there at the ready, when it needs to be used.
So here comes the absolute fact – the 100% truth – about the stress you think you’re having to deal with in your life.
The problem is not with stress! Getting your stress sorted out is all about Management.
Stress is a MANAGEMENT issue
This is the 100% truth about the stress you think you’re having to deal with in your life. The one who creates it, promotes it and drives it is…wait for it…YOU! Yes, you! That’s why getting your stress sorted out is all about MANAGEMENT, because only you can control your stress. It’s not about tea, potted plants, fresh air or warm baths. It is, and always has been, all about you.
That’s right. It’s about managing your stress, not trying to eliminate what cannot be eliminated.
Our built-in stress mechanism is supposed to return to a balanced state after dealing with a dangerous or life-threatening situation. But if we don’t manage our stress properly, then everything – whether it’s family problem, a traffic jam or simply having to wait a long time in a queue – seems to demand a fight-flight-or-freeze’ response.
Who says that not meeting a deadline, or missing a flight, is on par with coming face-to-face with a hungry bear?
It’s our own thought processes that we’ve allowed to get out of control. And the more negative scenarios we build in our thoughts as to what the potential outcome of our situation will be, the more likely our stress system will be kicked into a constant state of ‘fight-or-flight’. Then all those chemicals and processes won’t get back in balance, and so the body won’t return to normal. It will be in a constant state of stress. That, of course, leads to all kinds of physical and mental health issues, some very serious. Perhaps you are suffering from some of them right now.
But here’s the good news.
When you manage your stress properly, this constant ‘every-part-of-my-life-is-stressful’ thought process is eliminated and things do get back to normal.
(Perhaps I should really call it the 3 Ms of Misunderstanding Stress, because so many people become very concerned about whether or not there is something seriously wrong with their brain.)
Your goal, then, is to manage your stress, not try to get rid of it. The key to a satisfying life that includes manageable levels of stress, is to figure out what you can control and what you cannot.
So, what are you doing to manage your stress? Are you going for a walk, breathing in fresh air, or are you interested in mental skills training to learn how to manage your stress?