There’s a good kind of stress and a bad kind. This post is an introduction to the different types of stress and what we can do to get to a more regulated, connected place.
Pretty much all of my clients are stressed. Most of them are doing too much. But that’s not really why they’re stressed.
What’s causing their stress isn’t the volume of work they’ve got, it’s the feeling of fear and anxiety about what will happen if they don’t do it. I can feel the internal roar as I write that: we’re also quite attached to our stress, these days. It’s what makes us who we are, and that’s all part of the story.
Good stress: Endurance Stress
This is the stress which your body experiences when you’re running hard, dancing hard, thinking hard, working long days or otherwise stretching your ability to perform.
It builds muscles, both physical and neurological. Endurance stress is what gets the job done: it’s the extra hour of humping. It releases feel good hormones which help us recover physically and emotionally. Endurance stress builds resilience.
On its own, endurance stress is responsible for the great feats of human achievement. The freediver fishermen. The minute mile. Anyone who looks after small children. Endurance stress is great! (But if you’re burnt out already you need to go very gently with this stuff).
When you combine endurance stress with the second kind of stress it leads to overwork and burn out: and that’s what most of us “stressed out moderns” are experiencing.
Bad stress: Connection Stress
Humans are wired for connection: we need each other, we need to feel in sync with each other. The prospect of being out of sync – because of conflict or disapproval – is really, really upsetting. But most of us ordinary western humans are trained quite early on that we can’t bank on continuous connection. It’s only available if we’re good. If we play nicely and work hard.
We don’t feel basically safe and able to rely on love and positive attention regardless of whether we succeed or fail.
This infuses everything we do with a frisson of danger. The stakes are high. Did they like my facebook post? Am I wearing good colours? Or what about: did I do the open heart surgery right, am I fucking up my kids?
We become mice on a dynamo wheel that’s powering god’s love.
Connection stress alters the meaning we attach to things, which is particularly important when we’re stretching ourselves in any area of life.
Questions like “how many people have booked on my new course”? should be a simple case of numbers, cash flow and “shall I do a bit more marketing”.
Of course instead it’s “do enough people love me, is that enough for me to feel safe and deserving of affection, am I allowed to do this, have I done enough to earn my existence on this earth?”
Connection stress is really hard work.
Connection stress is basically this: I am at risk of being isolated, rejected or shamed if I don’t get this right. This is the stress which most of us are really immersed in. It’s the underlying tension which drives a startling amount of our activity in the world. It makes everything life or death and that, on a daily basis, is really no kind of fun at all.
When you combine connection stress with endurance stress – stress on your body to work harder – it creates a cocktail which leads quickly to burnout.
Connection stress stops us from thinking straight, and performing at our best. It shuts down the release of the feel good hormones which help us recover and grow strong.
The Solution to Stress
What’s really interesting is that when you reduce your connection stress, your ability to cope at an endurance level goes up: you can cope with more, because you’re not burning up energy worrying about what will happen if you get it wrong.
You also become more efficient, and able to make better choices about what you do and don’t need to be focussing on.
Technology is, apparently, making things easier for us: we don’t have to walk ten miles to school, church, market or whatever. We don’t have to wash our clothes by hand, dig the garden, or build our houses. We have a hundred shortcuts to make life “easier”.
But we are more stressed than ever before.
When you have too much connection stress and not enough (healthy) endurance stress, you lose the opportunity to discharge your body, so the stress builds up.
You can deal with connection stress in one way and one way only: practice loving yourself regardless of what you’re doing, how well you’re doing it or whether you even feel good.
For most of us messed up humans it's a life’s work to get this down, but there’s nothing like beginning, so:
Breathwork meditation is incredibly powerful because you are practicing being with yourself – the ultimate connection – moment to moment, unconditionally. Listening Partnerships help you practice connection as you work through your yuckiest feelings, the ones you’re sure earn you instant disconnect. Gently rewarding yourself regardless of performance. I get to go to bed early anyway! Because I’m lovely!
If you want to achieve anything in your life, whether it’s a vegetable plot, a high flying career or functioning relationships - and do it without destroying yourself in the process - you have to get connection stress down.