A Slap on the Wrist for Stress

Guest blog by Kevin Moore, Co-Founder of Big Dog Little Dog, mental health training experts

How do you think you’d fare in a three-question quiz on stress? One answer right? Two? All three?

What if I told you that the questions are more about your vocabulary than the technical subject of stress? One, two or three?

Now I’ll tell you that, of the 2,000+ people that I’ve delivered stress management workshops to:

  • About two thirds of people got question 1 right.
  • Pretty much everyone got the answer to question 2 (okay, so I give three hints…).
  • Less than 0.2% got question 3 right. Yep, over 2,000 people asked and, to date, just three people knew the answer.

Let’s see how you do.

First question: Is “stress” a positive or negative word? Decide your answer please, then read on.

To define the correct answer, it’s useful to define just what stress is. “A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances” sounds a bit too stuffy to me, so let’s instead make it:

“The feeling of being under pressure”.

Two important points are made using that definition. First of all, stress is a feeling. It’s an internal state of mind that we create ourselves – not some external stuff that we have little or no control over. And that’s important if we want to take ownership of our stress levels and how we go about managing them. Don’t blame this third party called stress, blame your brain!

Secondly, I’m sure that you’ll agree that being under pressure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The sprinter at the starting blocks needs to feel that pressure to get the positive effects of stress, and I’m sure we’ve all managed to pull a project out of the fire by performing outside of our normal levels due to a looming deadline or target.

So give yourself one mark if your answer to the question was “neither”. Just like “health”, it’s a neutral word that can be used in both positive and negative contexts.

So on to question 2: If “stress” isn’t always a negative word, what is the word in the English language for bad stress?

If you’re struggling, let me give you those three clues:

  1. We all know the word
  2. It has 8 letters
  3. It ends in the letters S-T-R-E-S-S.

Yup, give yourself one point if you came up with “distress”. But we don’t tend to say that within its context do we? Far easier to say “I’m really stressed” than “I’m in distress”. Far less stigma involved there.

So now let’s move onto the one you’ve been waiting for. Are YOU part of the 0.15%?

If “stress” isn’t a completely positive word, what is the word in the English language for good stress?

Want some clues again? Easy, have a look at clues 2 & 3 from the previous question. They apply here too.

Not so easy this time is it? But if you’re something of a linguist, it can be figured out, even if the correct answer looks more like Brexit-related stress than the positive variety.

Distress gets its name because the prefix “dis” is often used for negatives. Think dislike, disinterest, distrust. And we have a different prefix for the good things in life such as euphoria and eulogising, so the correct answer is eustress. Bravo to you if you got it.

But why have the vast majority of us never heard of the word before? Simply because we rarely speak of stress in its positive context.

So with the quiz out of the way, let’s focus on the crux of the matter – why an event/circumstance can be distressful to one person but eustressful to another. And the simple answer to that relates to our earlier definition of stress. It’s an internal response, so HOW someone’s mind responds to a stressor ultimately decides whether the stress is positive, negative or neutral. And at BDLD, we think that there are 5 factors involved when the mind makes that decision. 5 factors that happen to spell out the acronym W.R.I.S.T.

Well-being: First of all, what stress is generated is heavily influenced by that person’s current state of mind. We’re more easily distressed if we’re already near our stress threshold, or if we have other factors negatively impacting our mental health at the time. The better our mental health, the more positively we can react to a stressor.

Resources: If a new stressor enters our life, do we have the tools needed to deal with it? This might be practical resources, but also the right people around us to support and assist us. If we do, the stress that we generate is more likely to be positive.

Interest: When that stressor appears in our life, are we motivated to address it? Some people thrive on the pressure of targets, some dread them. So it’s no surprise that the first group are more likely to find those targets eustressful, the second group distressful.

Skills: Do we have it within our abilities to be able to handle the stressor successfully? If I know that I’ve got the beating of it, I’m far more likely to respond eustressfully to it.

Time: Can I give enough attention to the stressor? If it’s a work-related one, have I got enough space in my workload to be able to take this one on? Again, there’s a direct correlation between our capacity to tackle the stressor and the positive or negative effect it will have on our minds.

So there’s our “Wrist”. If you’re a manager, it’s always worth considering these 5 factors in your staff member before you give them a new task to do – the more of the 5 areas you can put a tick next to, the more likely it is that the colleague will generate the right kind of stress.

But just one final point. Just because YOU believe that they have the W, R, I, S and T doesn’t mean that THEY do. Please always investigate their view of these 5 areas before deciding the likely stress effect. Ultimately, if they perceive that any of those elements are missing or bad, that’s their mind’s truth, so take a guess what type of stress will get generated…