Most humans perform best in a Goldilocks zone of a little but not too much stress. That makes sense: Stress puts some pep in your step, but too much can bury you. This article is about making a bigger Goldilocks zone. By learning to manage stress, you can stay not-too-hot and not-too-cold even when the world around you heats up.
First, there's an important difference between "chronic" and "acute" stress. Chronic stress is the baseline level of stress you feel at all times. If you're always "stressed out" that's chronic stress...and any way you slice it, chronic stress is bad. The Mayo Clinic notes that chronic stress puts you at higher risk for anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration impairment. And let's admit it: There may be nothing you can do to stop the chronic stress that hums along in the background of your life. That said, studies have shown successful ways to manage chronic stress, including social support, exercise and finding times to laugh.
But this article isn't necessarily about chronic stress. It's about acute stress — that project or challenge or surprise that takes you from a cold to hot, but then allows you to cool off again.
A classic study of the human response to acute stress comes from Pennsylvania small-business owners in the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Researchers interviewed 102 of these small-business owners and found that on the Subjective Stress Scale, which runs from 0 to 100, a level of perceived stress between 40 and 48 predicted the highest performance—business owners in this Goldilocks range of moderate stress were spurred to action and got the most done.
But here’s another interesting point: business owners’ perceived level of stress had nothing to do with how much they lost in the storm. The level of stress they felt was completely independent of whether they had lost 5 percent or 100 percent of their business in the flood. What this means is that acute stress, and the ability to keep stress in the productive Goldilocks zone, may not depend on what you have to deal with, but on how you deal with it.
This study of a Pennsylvania flood finds three general styles of coping with stress: people who deal with the stressful situation, people who deal with the emotional experience of stress, and people who use both coping strategies. For example, if you are stressed out about a project at work, you could spend a little extra time working on it at home (deal with the stressful situation) or you could get a massage (deal with the emotional experience of stress).
First, the obvious: People who deal with both the situation and with their emotional response to stress perform the best under pressure. But check this out: People who cope with the emotional experience of stress perform terribly until the going gets really tough, at which point they’re better off than people who just try to deal with the situation. And people who deal with the situation are strong until stress gets high and the situation finally overwhelms them.
Taken together, here is one powerful secret to dealing with stress: As a stressful situation grows past the point where you can reasonably control the situation itself, it becomes more and more important to control your emotional experience of the stressful situation. Going back to our example, if no amount of work will decrease the stress you feel about your project at work, you’d be better off getting a massage. That said, if you can handle the stressful situation, you'll feel less stress if you take care of things than you would with ten deep breaths and a yoga class.
Can you reframe meaningless situations to be at least moderately stressful so that you can harvest the motivation that comes with a little stress? On the other hand, can you dial back mind-crushing stress until you perceive it as motivating but manageable? If so, you can learn to be at your best even when life gets stressful.