Thoughts on the Concept of “Stress”

Understanding Emotions

Stress is a real mechanical phenomenon. The picture with this article is a graphic showing a “finite element stress analysis.” It’s important to see how pressure on one part of the material can affect the strength of the material — and perhaps cause it to fail.

It is also a real physiological phenomenon. If you are cold or you have exerted yourself beyond your normal limits, you are in a depleted physiological state. You are more likely to catch cold, be injured, etc.

But I am not convinced it is a helpful concept to describe a psychological phenomenon.

The problem with applying “stress” to psychological phenomena

In a previous article, Mitigate “Stressful” Events, I argued that the emotional experience of “stress” is better understood as the way it feels when you stifle thoughts and feelings that are creating overload or conflict. This stifling is a volitional action. The feeling generated is the feeling of pressure.

The problem with using the concept “stress” to refer to psychological issues (as opposed to mechanical or physiological issues) is that it implies that the cause of your emotional state is the external situation. But the cause is your evaluation of the situation and your choice of how to handle it.

People often think that they have no choice but to deal with difficult situations in a way that creates this feeling of pressure — as if there is a huge load on you and you will break, beautifully analogous to mechanical stress. But this is a mistake. You do not need to grit your teeth or apply pressure to yourself or force yourself to achieve ambitious goals.

Unfortunately, many good people mistakenly think that in order to go by reason, you need to apply pressure to block out the competing thoughts and feelings. In fact, this blocks off your access to the full context of knowledge and values, which you need to consider in order to identify and take a rationally selfish action. Such misplaced effort creates tunnel vision, kills your creativity, and feeds a vicious cycle of burnout.

There are always options. I share some in another article, Three Principles for Releasing the Pressure of Perfectionism.

The general point is that if you want to achieve ambitious goals, you need to motivate action by values, not threats. Only routine, uncreative work can be performed under pressure. And if you do perform under pressure, you learn to hate the work.

The rational alternative to pressure

Rather than pressuring yourself to “do the right thing,” the rationally selfish approach is: Listen, so you can judge, so you can act to gain a value, not avoid a threat.

First, don’t stifle any thoughts and feelings; rather, give contrary motivation a fair hearing. You need to listen to everything coming up. You do not know what is in your actual self-interest until you sort this out. Don’t assume you already know.

Second, eliminate any crow overload involved. You cannot think or be rationally selfish if you are overloaded. Your mind is not functional. You literally cannot judge the truth, value, or importance of any idea if you do not have space in the fringes of awareness to hear answers to questions, inklings, feelings, etc. Often, crow overload can be reduced by offloading to paper.

Ultimately, you can always eliminate crow overload by adjusting your purpose to be manageable. As my husband, Harry Binswanger, says, you “reduce the assignment.”

Reducing the assignment is not equivalent to “take a smaller step.” Sometimes breaking a project into smaller steps makes it seem like you’ll never finish. You may start feeling hopeless. Instead, you may need to change your purpose to be more abstract — figure out what you can do at a high level to get some quick payoffs. Being able to switch at willl between more concrete and detailed and more abstract and big picture often helps you see new solutions to old problems.

Third, break the vicious cycle by shifting your atttention to values. Motivate every action by appeal to values, not threats. This is what gives you maximum creativity for finding a good way out of a conflict.

Even deadlines need not require pressure

This last, motivating by appeal to values, not threats, is sometimes difficult when you have a deadline. The terrible things that will happen if you don’t finish on time seem foremost in your mind and they do create a sense of urgency. Indeed, sometimes people think they work better under deadline pressure. This may be true if they don’t know how to motivate themselves without fear. But this is no way to live.

Fear is not the only source of urgency. Nor do you need to pressure yourself to feel urgency. You can create urgency through self-direction. You do this by taking the threats seriously. A threat is a threat to a value. Once you clarify what values you want to gain by finishing on time, you can also use that value-oriented perspective to figure out how to prioritze the undone work so that the most valuable work gets finished first. When you see you can get your top values, you are motivated to put in a burst of effort. And if that’s not quite enough to get you over the hump, then and only then you can remind yourself that you want to make a shift; you do not want the status quo.

In another article I talk a bit more about Urgency vs. Pressure. And of course, there is much more material on this particular issue in my membership program, the Thinking Lab. We are in the middle of a 10-lecture series on self-direction. High productivity without pressure — or so-called “stress” — is possible.

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