For years we've heard about the dangers of stress. The warning goes something like this: Allow tension to sneak into your life and don't be surprised when indigestion turns into ulcers, fatigue results in burnout, and innocent nail-biting leads to serious binge-eating. But wait a minute. Some experts now are claiming that stress has another side. They say that when carefully harnessed, it can serve as a positivenot negativeforce in your life. It can boost your productivity, keep you interested in what you do, and make you more interesting to the people around you.
"Stress can create an adrenalin charge," says Charlotte Sutton, an associate professor of management at Auburn University who frequently teaches stress management seminars. "We move faster, are more effective, and have more energy. A lot of people tell me that without stress, they don't get very much done."
Here are some tips on how to tap into the upside of stress in your life.
HIRE A STRESS MANAGER
"Being overwhelmed wasn't an option," recalls Julie-Allyson Ieron about her reaction to the news that a publisher wanted her to develop a book titled Names of Women of the Bible. The problem was that Julie had a full-time job, and all writing assignments had to be tackled on weekends and holidays. Added to this pressure was a tight deadlinefive months to finish the book. The opportunity had the potential of panicking this first-time author, so instead, "I broke down the project into manageable bites," says Julie. "I decided to write about fifty-two women, which required fifty-two outlines that would result in fifty-two chapters. I looked at the calendar and figured out how many chapters I needed to research, outline, and write each weekend to complete the job on time."
Then she "hired" a stress manager to keep her on schedulesomeone who was strong enough to hold her accountable to her goals. "I called in my mom and showed her my writing schedule," she says. "I gave her permission to keep tabs on me. Most weekends, that meant she would drop in two or three times as I was working. If she saw that I was puttering around, she would gently nudge me back to my writing."
They agreed on two conditions: First, Julie wouldn't complain when her mother reminded her of her work quota; second, her mother would be gentle and loving in any admonition she delivered. "She helped me stay on task and get the allotted work done each dayno more and no less," says Julie. "When I reached my weekly goal we would go out to dinner, watch TV, or find some other way to kick back. Once or twice I tried to push myself past my limit and found I sacrificed effectiveness. I knew that would serve no purpose other than to burn me out before the project was done. My mother helped me pace myself."
ADJUST YOUR ATTITUDE
The Bible teaches us to "be strong and courageous; do not be terrified; do not be discouraged" (Joshua 1:9). Often the way we size up a demanding situation determines whether the stress we experience serves as our ally or acts as our enemy. If we think we're unworthy to meet a challenge, that feeling of unworthiness will produce negative stress. If we remember we are God's creation, we'll welcome the opportunity to use our God-given talents. Our enthusiasm will produce positive stress that will push us to perform at our peak.
"Assume a positive viewpoint," suggests Dennis E. Hensley, author of Positive Workaholism and an associate professor at Taylor University. "Rather than saying 'No one will hire me for this job because I'm too old,' a senior applicant can adjust her attitude and say, 'I have more experience than anyone else interviewing for this job!' Rather than saying, 'No one takes me seriously because I'm so young,' a newcomer to the job market can say, 'I'm fresh out of school with state-of-the-art skills, and I have youth and energy on my side!' Phrase everything in positive terms and stress becomes an asset, not a liability."
IGNITE THE SPARK
We may never qualify for the Olympics, but we can all learn a lesson from world-class athletes who clamp headsets over their ears as they wait their turn to compete. Whether they're listening to a favorite motivational speaker or a tape of inspirational music isn't important. What matters is that they've identified their personal strategy for pumping themselves up and getting their butterflies to fly in formation. These instant pick-me-up techniques blot out distractions, help them focus, and infuse them with a spurt of positive energy.
What works for you? Some people carry a favorite Scripture verse or a few lines of poetry to review immediately before plunging into a stressful situation. Others rely on a funny cartoon that causes them to laugh, and the laughter releases an adrenalin rush that carries them through an ordeal. Each of us needs to determine our individual way of igniting the spark that fires our positive emotions.
"I can't remember a time when I didn't carry some kind of planner with me," says Julie Ieron. "I trust my planner to carry the details, and this frees my mind to concentrate on the important things in life." It also reduces negative tension caused by arriving late, forgetting appointments, losing phone numbers, and scheduling obligations on top of each other.
One key to harnessing positive stress is having time to prepare for demanding situations and time to rejuvenate between them. More than 40 percent of adults who participated in a recent survey admitted they felt they were on a treadmill and couldn't get off; almost double that number said they would like more time to "stop and smell the roses." A carefully designed calendar that shows a month-at-a-glance can ensure adequate smell-the-roses time. It also indicates days that contain too much or too little stress.
"Choose a planner you can customize," advises Julie. "It shouldn't be too complex or time-consuming to maintain, and it shouldn't make you feel guilty. Instead, it should free you to do the things God created you to accomplish. Make sure it helps you unify your spiritual, church, home, and family lives rather than merely keep track of professional obligations."
As you study the month ahead, try to gauge the stress level of each day and each week. Equalize your obligations so that too much stress doesn't leave you drained on Monday and too little stress doesn't cause you to feel stagnant by Wednesday. Just for fun, create your version of a perfect day. What activities does it contain? Try to include as many of these activities as possible in your schedule.
"If you get into a negative stressful situation, sometimes you have to stop, step back, and start again," says Dr. Ken Cooper, who touched off the fitness boom in 1968 with his book, Aerobics, and whose latest book is Can Stress Heal? "I use stress to make me productive, but when I've reached a point where I can't be creative anymore, I take a walk or work out in the gym. Then I come back and am productive again."
For Cooper, now sixty-seven, a typical workout includes ten minutes of stretching, a two-mile run, a seven-minute walk, and a series of strength exercises. It's fortunate for us that what he does is less important than why he does it. Exercise breaks the routine, grabs our attention, rids us of tension, and refreshes us as we mobilize our positive stress for the next challenge. What kind of exercise is best? The country's leading fitness activity is also its simplest: walking.
In her stress management seminars, Charlotte Sutton asks participants to jot down their activities of the past three days and organize them according to priority. Each activity is assigned a label: critical, important, and unimportant. Too often the activities that students categorize as "unimportant" are those that serve as rewards for a day well spent or a job well done. These "unimportant" activities reduce negative stress and replenish positive energy.
"We all need down time," says Charlotte. "Whether it's music, a warm bath, an hour of television, or a movie with a friend, we need diversions from whatever is stressful in our life." But we should choose our rewards carefully because like stress, they come in two varietiespositive and negative. Rewarding ourselves with an outfit that we can't afford or a dessert that we don't need may provide a positive lift that dissipates into negative stress when the bills come in or the pounds go on.
"Often just getting a job done and off your 'to-do list' is a major reward," says Charlotte. If a genuine reward is in order, she suggests using the occasion to make a new friend. "Invite someone to share the relief and pleasure you feel at having completed a job. Go up to the person and say, 'I've just finished an important project. Will you go out and celebrate with me?'"
It is possible to make stress your ally, not your enemy. So take advantage of that adrenalin rush and be positively stressedfor a change!
HOLLY G. MILLER is a TCW contributing editor, adjunct professor of communication at Anderson (Indiana) University, and author of several books.
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.