October 6, 2023 — Lawrence Sharrett, M.Ed, M.Div., MSc

Be Still & Notice (Reflections & Research Edition)

Stress As Instruction

Existential approaches to psychology emphasize anxiety as a great teacher for those who want to learn. Often when anxiety is high, stress is also high. And the many mental or physical health symptoms are directly related to stress levels.

“You had better figure it out before it figures you out,” was the advice given to me during a rigorous counseling internship in a hospital in the United States. The colleague who shared this with me was aware of my own anxiety symptoms in relation to the trauma I was observing and serving on a daily basis. It was one of my hardest life experiences to find my way through lessons of that secondary stress, trauma, and anxiety by walking through pain, heartache, uncertainty, and death with many people and their loved ones.

One counselor who walked with me through this time of service and learning helped me learn more about how stress works. Interestingly, he let me figure it out as I experienced it. It was only later that I came to understand the personal experience from a broader framework of how stress works in our lives.

In his book, Presence and Truth, author Chuck Thompson categorizes stress in four categories (Thompson, 2011):

    1. Stage One: Balance- In this stage, stress is present but we are managing it relatively well physically and psychologically. He suggests that people are often in balance by accident, which is what makes it hard for a person to notice when their life is becoming unbalanced.
    2. Stage Two: Unbalance- In this stage, there is a unique set of signs that indicate for oneself that things are out of balance. The flow of life is no longer manageable, and we may begin any number or combination of things that can tell us we are out of balance. These signs could range from nail biting to games to mindless videos to eating more or less to sleeping more or less to clinging to others or withdrawing from others and more. These signs vary from person to person, but each person has a relatively predictable personal pattern that indicates something is off. It could even be something one does infrequently when relatively balanced but then does more frequently when unbalanced. Each individual must diligently notice one’s own “constellation of signs” to indicate the state of stage two.
    3. Stage Three: Sacrifice- In stage three, our productivity begins to suffer and we are then required to sacrifice something we know to be important for our functioning. This is a stage where high-achieving people often ignore their vulnerability as humans at the expense of accomplishing yet another task. People do this and do it well sometimes, but it does “catch up to a person” if they are not able to adjust to all the warning signs. When a person is in the stage of sacrifice, Thompson suggests that the only way to avoid an escalation to stage four is to reduce the demands on oneself. Strategies such as self-talk, mindfulness, exercise, etc. are all good if they are employed early enough (like in stage 2); however, when one is in a chronic state of sacrifice when it comes to stress, the only solution is to reduce demands. Reducing demands can take a variety of forms: 1) eliminating something 2) prioritizing one’s demands and letting some things go 3) establishing an end to the demands or 4) reducing the quality of performance by lowering the expectations on one’s performance. People in this stage of stress most likely find themselves there because they feel pressure to do well. Letting go of high performance is one of the hardest things for these people. Those who do this, depending on their work environment, may need to deal with the criticism of colleagues, which gives additional stress to the mix for some personalities. If a person is unable to yield to the required option of cutting back, then a progression to the next stage of stress is inevitable.
    4. Stage Four: Deterioration- In this stage, a person has been unrelenting and stubborn to all the signs and symptoms their body has been trying to tell them. From this point, more significant physical or mental symptoms could appear. The body and mind will force the individual to slow down, shut down, or deal with being sick. Whatever the medical issue here, it must be addressed, but the deeper issue is related to stress management, blindspots, and stubbornness. And this provides yet another opportunity for an individual to learn from the lessons of stress and anxiety while recovering from stage four deterioration.

As a guide for managing stress, Thompson (2011) suggests:

  1. Know the things that fuel you, and pay attention to their effectiveness because they will help you know which stage you are living in.
  2. Avoid pointless self-sacrifice
  3. Know your “constellation of signs” and pay attention to them. Be still and notice.
  4. Don’t get caught in the excuse of, “I know I need to do more X, but I just don’t have time.” Reduce the demands before you slip into stage four.

 As you reduce demands, just be prepared to piss off some people along the way. Make the adjustments necessary. “Figure it out before it figures you out!” Then get back to your work-life balance of healthy generativity.