Optimizing Your Stress - Part 1
"Too much tension and the string will break. Too
little tension and it will not play.” - Buddha
We have all heard of the importance of being able to relax as the
world about us seems to become more tense. Excess stress is associated
with myriad psychological and physical maladies, but so is insufficient
stress. Stress or tension in the right form and amount stimulates
growth and motivation and is essential to our well being. Exercise,
for example, is a form of stress placed on the body that, when combined
with adequate rest and nutrition, results in improved physical health.
Ultimately we are best served by finding the optimum balance between
tension and relaxation. To do this, it is important to be able to
distinguish between positive and negative stress, to find one’s
own optimum level of stress, and learn how to both increase and
decrease the tension to maintain our balance. In this first of three
articles on optimizing your stress levels, we examine what stress
is and how to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy levels.
Stress, in the most general terms, is any force acting on a person
which requires that person to change, in some way, to adjust to
that force. Heat, cold, walking up stairs, even entering a dark
or bright room are forms of stimulation that require a change of
us. This adaptation process is at the root of all growth and learning
so without it we would shrivel away.
When studying human performance on simple and complex tasks, researchers
have found an “inverted U” relationship between acute
stress and performance levels. The Yerkes-Dawdson graph depicts
With very low levels of stress (i.e. arousal) performance is low,
perhaps because of low motivation. Performance tends to increase
with increased stress up to an optimum point and then begins to
drop off rapidly. Although this relationship was found to hold for
task performance, it also seems to hold for many aspects of our
From exercise to general life satisfaction, there is an optimum
level of stimulation that we do best with. Finding and maintaining
that optimum level is the key to a productive, and stimulating life.
How do you know what your optimum level is? This takes a level of
self-awareness that usually comes only with experimentation.
Here are some rough guidelines, though:
- For acute stress (i.e.,
that experienced at any given moment) if you feel bored with something
you’re doing, it just isn’t stimulating enough and your
arousal (stress) is too low. If you feel anxious and tense, then
perhaps it’s too stimulating. When we are at our optimum level
of arousal, we usually feel motivated, excited, in tune.
- Similarly, for overall stress levels, if you feel bored with life, uninterested
in things around you, and perhaps even depressed, then you may be
suffering from insufficient stimulation (stress) in your life.
- Alternately, if you feel overwhelmed or otherwise experience
symptoms such as negativity, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness,
mental confusion, indecision, excess anxiety and fear, irritability,
stiff or sore muscles, frequent illness, or sleep difficulties,
(See Symptoms of Stress for a more
complete listing), then you may be suffering from excess chronic
or sustained stress.
By learning to increase and decrease our level of arousal, we can
maintain an optimum level much as a home’s thermostat maintains
a set temperature.
By being aware of how you feel when you are at your optimum level
and by choosing to experience that in whatever you do, you are setting
your internal "stress-o-meter" to your optimum level.
When you feel under-stimulated, you can simply use one or more means
of increasing your motivation level.
When feeling over stimulated, you can use relaxation or stress
buster techniques. We can’t always control the circumstances
around us that impact our lives, but we can regulate our reactions
to them. Awareness of your stress level and a commitment to yourself
to maintain control over it is a path to grace.
In Part 2, I will outline
two important tools for reducing stress: the ultimate relaxation
skill, and personal stress-busters.
Copyright © 2002 Phoenix Life-Coaching.
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Stephen Renfrey, Ph.D
Words of Wisdom:
“I never believed in trying to do anything. Whatever I set out to do I found I had already accomplished.”
-J. W. Goethe