Everyone deals with stress from time to time. Some people more than others. But what is stress actually? And how do you deal with it?

29-07-2015 -  by Kevin Van der Straeten


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Everyone deals with stress from time to time. Some people more than others. But what is stress actually? And how do you deal with it?


Hi Benjamin.  


Hello Kevin.  


Welcome in the studio. Today's topic is stress, but what exactly is stress?  


Yes, so thank you for having me, Kevin. Stress... It means a lot of things. What do you think about when you think of stress?  


Too much work.  


Too much work, yeah. So something that's too much. Something... Generally, one thinks of stress as something negative. And in a sense it is. But I'd like to broaden the term to give a deeper understanding of what the phenomenon of stress entails. And the thing is: for me stress is a level of stimulation. And the stress that we refer to, the negative kind of stress, is an overstimulation. It's too much, too long stimulation. But of course, we need stimulation. Where would we be if there wasn't any stimulation. It would be boring, right?  


Yeah, indeed.  


This is where the saying comes from: "life begins at the end of your comfort zone". So when things are comfortable; not stimulating enough, We need to get out of there to make life interesting again.  


When we come on stage here in the TV-studio, there's always a little bit of stress. But that makes it even better, because you're more focused and...  


Yeah, and you get the adrenaline. You're awake and it gives you the feeling that you're alive. And this is actually what people report: "a good level of stimulation gives you the feeling that you're alive". So it wouldn't be right to say: "try to not have anything that stimulates you or stresses you too much". But we have to find the right level. And that's where things are going wrong. A lot of people have a level of stimulation that is way too high and that is sustained for way too much time. It's as if you would, ehm... Well, it's nice to go to the gym, for example. So you go for an hour and a half. But what we do... And it is often mentally and emotionally. What we do at work: it's like going to the gym all day long. And then we come home, and then we do it again. Because then we open our PC again and we continue working. And it's like we're in the gym 12 hours a day, but in our head. So in the end, we're just exhausted. Because of course you know: mental energy also takes physical energy. It works on our emotions, on our relationships.  


And when exactly is it becoming too much for us? Where is that border?  


Well, it's hard to say, because it's different for everyone. But there are several signals, and what I often do with people, is that I have them make an alarm profile in which they make a collection of signals that tell them: "now it's really time to start pushing on the brake".  


And what kind of signals are those?  


So there's 4 dimensions for us in energy and stress and how we are. And the first is of course the physical, which is actually the first kind of signal that a doctor is going to watch. So: headaches, stomach aches, lack of sleep, sweating, not feeling like having sex anymore... So things like that; becoming ill. A typical example is: when people work for a long time and then they go on holiday, the first two of three days they are sick. That's actually a signal that the stimulation that they have in their daily work is a bit too high, because their body has to compensate for the overstimulation.  


Okay, so that's why?  


That is why, that is why. So people that have the right kind of stimulation at work... Normally when their holiday starts, they can just jump right into it and they're fine. So this is what we do of course. Imagine that you tense your arm like this and you do it for an hour. Your arm is going to be very tired, and when you let go it's going to start hurting. So afterwards the pain comes. After the adrenaline, only then do you feel what's been happening to you. It's what happens with work. We're so into it that we don't feel our body anymore. And the moment we stop, the tension goes out of our body, and our body says: "ohh, now I really need to recuperate". And then all our immunity goes down and we get sick. So the physical, that's one thing. But of course there's also the emotional, and often actually a lot of stress that saps our energy, so the kinds of stress that take most energy are often the emotional, and the relational, which is the fourth dimension. Why emotional? Well, because we have less defence against it. So emotional, what is that? That's our feeling of happiness, but also our anger. Are we able to cope with things that are coming our way? I use the concept of elasticity when it comes to the four dimensions. How flexible are we and how flexible are we in dealing with the stimulants that come from our environment into our lives. So the emotional... How do we see what's an emotional signal to see that we're overstressed? For example: we become grumpy, or moody, or melancholic, nostalgic, angry, or maybe even a bit bipolar... You know: happy, unhappy, happy, unhappy. We feel a bit unhinged emotionally. So that's a second dimension. A third dimension is the mental. It's our brain. Are we capable of taking in new information? Are we able to focus, to concentrate on things?Are we able to make decisions? So people that are very tired or very stressed, they'll do one of two things, or both. They'll either make black and white decisions, or they won't make decisions at all. And they'll postpone them. So a typical sign of stress is actually for example not making decisions. And saying: "ahh, I'll do it later". But then of course the important decisions are lying there, and what happens? You get even more stress. Because all the untied knots are given us stress in the back of our heads, saying: "oh, you still have to do this". But the more tired we are and the less flexible we are, the less we can deal with those things. So that's the third dimension, and the last, the fourth dimension, is the relational. And of course you know: when you're stressed, you're less tolerant for your environment. And it's often the people that are closest to us that have to suffer for the things that we suffer elsewhere. And it also has something to do for me with the feeling of usefulness, of sense. Like: what am I doing here? What is this job to me? Those things also begin to suffer when we're stressed. So what I've been saying to people is: "Make yourself an alarm profile for the signals that for you indicate in every one of the dimensions..." And I often say: take two or three in every dimension. "Take those things that for you indicate that it's becoming too much, and that you need to step on the brake". For example for me it's when I have a headache in the back of my head. Or when I become irritable in traffic. Then I know: okay, something's up. Because I don't have it normally, and when I have that I know I'm getting into trouble.  


Okay, but from the moment you are aware of all those signals, how can you do something about it?  


That's an important question. So there's two aspects to that, and the first is: you need to know. You need to be conscious of the fact that you're stressed. Because too many people aren't even aware of the fact that they're stressed. Because they're so enveloped in their activities and in what they have to do. And you know, you get up: "okay, get my clothes on, take my children to school, go to work, traffic jam..." Always so busy that they don't have the time to stand still and to think: "okay, how am I doing?" How is my body doing? How am I feeling? What's my energy level like? So the first thing that people need to do is to stop and feel how they're doing. If you don't do that, it's impossible to do anything about stress, because you'd say: "why would I? I'm fine". "See? I'm still walking!" And what happens is that people keep on walking and don't stand still until they drop. That's what you see with a burn-out. People just keep going until they drop. And until the last minute, you'll ask them: "how are you?" And they'll say: "fine!" And then they drop. So the first thing we need to do is really stand still and feel how we're doing. And this is one of the things that mindfulness and meditation and things like that do want to free. But the same thing with sports, just hanging out and reading a book. It's just being present, being here, feeling how you are. It's a first thing. The second thing of course is the solutions. We have three tracks for that, which are progressively harder to change. The first is our state, our physical state. We're going to work directly on our energy level and our stress level. So the energy level, it's like our battery. The body has a battery and it provides the energy to deal with the stimulants of life. So one thing is: we're going to enhance our battery and create as much energy as possible. How do we do it? Sleeping well, eating well, relaxing, physical exercise... I'm not saying Olympian sport.  


That's stress again.  


Exactly, it's too much. But they say that even twenty minutes a day is perfect, just walking. Ten thousand steps a day, that's like a typical armband thing. That's great. And of course, having fun. We forget to have fun, but that's one of the things that emotionally gives us energy. Emotional positive energy. So when you're feeling angry, upset, depressed, having fun with friends and in your social network, and really playing in some kind of way, like frisbee or whatever, gives a lot of positive energy. And the other part is discharging. Because our body takes the tension, takes the stress and translates it into physical stress. And the stress stays there, even when the stresser is gone. So we need to discharge that energy so that it gets freed for other things. And another, of course, is our way of being who we are. Personality, habit, choices, values and convictions... And a first typical thing there for example is that certain people have a profile. They have certain sensitivities towards stress. For example: pleasing. Pleasing others. Wanting to always please others even at the expense of one's own energy. And of course that can be detrimental to our stress, because as long as our environment isn't happy, we're stressed because we need to do something to make them happy.  


But that is who you are. Can you change that?  


Yes, absolutely. But you can already feel that it's a lot harder than the state. With the state you can just do it, eat better, sleep well, but this is harder and it often takes a coach or some... Actually it often takes something nearly dramatic to happen for someone to realize: "okay, if I keep doing it this way. If I keep pleasing people or being a perfectionist at this level, it's going to cost me my energy..."  


Especially for a perfectionist, to change that...  


Yeah, it's difficult. And there's also a lot of pressure to be perfect. If you look at it: we have to have a perfect job and a good career and a perfect family and good friends and you have to look good as well. So there's a lot of pressure to do well in life. And a lot of people try to translate that in: "it has to be perfect, so they can't criticize me". But yeah, it's what I see when I coach people. It's that a lot of people lose a lot of energy trying to be perfect. And at some point, when... I hope it never comes to the point where you get a burn-out, but when you burn out literally from trying to be perfect and at some point you need to take back gas. So I try to do it and give the insight before people actually crash. But it can absolutely be changed. The only thing that's hard about it, is that we then have to give up something. For example, a perfectionist has to give up part of the quality that he likes to give. Someone who likes to please, has to be able to accept that he can disappoint people. Are you able to disappoint people? And it's something that has a cost. Every benefit has its cost. Especially when it comes to our personality.  


But there also was a third pillar?  


Yes, that's our environment, our surroundings.  


Can you change those?  


Of course, you can.  


You can move, of course?  


Yeah, you can run away and change it. That's the hardest part, you can see that it gets progressively harder to change those things. But it can be changed, and I'll give you maybe five factors that induce stress in our environment, so that you can maybe look specifically at those aspects. And the first is control. How much control do we have over our environment? And it is scientifically proven that people that live in an environment where they're more the victim of their circumstances than that they are the architect of their circumstances, they have more stress, because of course you never know when it's going to come and you're powerless to do anything about it. And a second thing that ties into that closely, is the predictability. When we know when certain stresses are going to come... For example, an accountant knows every month at the end of the month. I have to... It's going to be 4 or 5 days of hell.  


You can prepare for that.  


You can prepare for it, exactly. And subconsciously we prepare ourselves to get over it. But when it's unpredictable, for example a customer services representative... You never know when the client's going to call, what they're going to say, how bad it's going to be. How long it's going to take. So that actually gives extra stress. Another thing is the perception: is it going to get better or not? Is it actually getting better? Another thing is an outlet for frustration. So are we able to vent or discharge, like I said, our frustrations.  


You have somebody to talk to, for example?  


Yeah, for example. They also show that you can vent your frustration in any way that you like, so you can also do it in a destructive way, but then that's good for you but bad for the other person. And often they'll give it back to you. So then it creates a perpetual cycle. But yeah, having someone to talk to or someplace to vent your frustrations is very important. And a last thing is of course social support. If we have a social support network, then we are a lot stronger, a lot more flexible. Imagine that you as a person have one little elastic band to deal with stress. And then you have a great support network, so that when something happens to you, you add like fifty other elastic bands that are dealing with that thing together with you. Imagine how much more flexible you become. So the social network is actually really important. And maybe that's the last tip that I would give, is that people, when they become stressed... One: they forget to have fun, and two: they forget to see their friends.  


Yeah, because they have no time for that.  


Exactly, and that's exactly what makes sure that we will become less flexible or more stress sensitive. So a first thing that I would say to people that are stressed right now, is: "call your friends and do something really fun". Simple and direct.  


A lot to think about, thank you Benjamin.  


Thank you for having me.  


And you at home: thank you for watching our show. I hope to see you next week!


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