Monday, November 25, 2013

Inspired NOT Stressed

One of the most eye-opening discoveries in my graduate school counseling preparation was that everything is stressful and has been assigned a point value by Holmes and Rahe  on their stress scale. Even events people regarded as positives in life carry degrees of stress based on the amount of adaptation a person has to do in their life routine to adjust to the event. They connected the measure of stress to a likelihood of physical ailment based on the number of “points” accumulated in a year’s time.

Since the mid-sixties when Holmes and Rahe’s research was published, stress has become the catch-all boogey-man for any type of inconvenience we have (such as performance expectations at work). It becomes the reason for mistakes and the low-quality work. These interpretations of Holmes and Rahe’s work completely misrepresent what they believed about stress: it is necessary for life. Our reactions to the stressor are where the harm lies. Some current research reminds us of that understanding.

McGonigal cites a study that reported on the effects of the view of stress and health consequences, not the stressor itself. They re-discovered that our response to stress determines the likelihood of illness and even death. Holmes and Rahe assigned the points on their scale based on the general reaction people have to the event - not the event itself. That is why the birth of a child merited fewer points than the death of a loved one. Likewise, a promotion at work scores lower than losing a job. We generally experience less disruption to life with the first examples than the second.

Since discovering the work of Holmes and Rahe in graduate school, I have considered situations differently. I work in a stressful field - education. The challenges differ from school to school and some of them are entrenched and cultural. As long as they are challenges, I have the power to seek and implement solutions that may make them less challenging. When I call them stressors, I have given up seeking solutions.

I am glad that some are beginning to reframe the conversation around stress. For so many years so much misinformation spread so widely that if the number of times a lie was repeated changed it to the truth, then stress would be the villain. Replacing the false understanding of stress with a correct one faces an uphill battle at the start, but I believe it will be readily received: the old news about stress was a tale of weakness, but the new understanding is one of power! Shifting the conversation to our response to stress rather than the stress itself puts control over it within our grasp: we control how we react. We control the effects of stress.

We control our lives. There is no longer a reason to use stress as an excuse.

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