Stress Isn’t Always a Bad Thing

by Dean Heffta
Clarus Results

When the word “stress” comes up, for most of us the reaction is negative. We believe that stress is bad and should do our best to get rid of as much stress as possible. 

A fresh perspective may be in order though to get us thinking about stress differently. First, rather than looking at stress as a single thing, consider there is both healthy and unhealthy stress. Healthy stress? Yes, research out of UC Berkeley confirms what we can see in our own lives: short-lived, “acute stress” events actually prime our brain for improved performance. 

Reflect on experiences from early in our lives: a challenging term paper in school, attempting to parallel-park for the first time, or a seemingly unachievable deadline early in your career. Each of these events in the moment may have brought us anxiety, fear and uncertainty. We had to develop courage and dig in to bring out our best. 

When we go through those acute stress experiences, they provide focus and cause us to grow as people and as contributors. Without those “stress” events, we would continue on at our same level of capability and competency. Read a different way: without stress, we wouldn’t grow! While the stress is scary in the moment, it can actually be welcomed by a different response, such as: “Oh, this is a challenge that is going to force us to grow!”

There is, however, stress that is not healthy. That’s the chronic stress that doesn’t provide growth, but instead causes persistent, ongoing and nagging anxiety. Often this type of stress—while it feels like it’s because of someone else—is actually of our own doing. We feel the pressure to adapt to someone else’s expectations. We take responsibility for other people’s relationships. We expect a friend to behave how we would, rather than be who they are. And the list goes on. 

The late Edwin H. Friedman’s view on the problem of chronic stress was tied to the lack of “self-differentiated leaders.” He observed that too often, organizations lack effective leadership (of note: leadership is a function, not a position) that could maturely deal with the emotional systems around them. Leaders, regardless of position, may succumb to trying to be liked, “caving in” to others’ anxiety and impatience, or end up blaming others for their own challenges and problems. 

Self-differentiated leaders are able to remain emotionally connected to the people around them, but not be bogged down by others’ demands or immaturity. This approach to leadership refuses to feed the chronic stress caused by pacification and taking responsibility for the emotions of others. It focuses on clear vision, conviction to values, and a recognition that only I am responsible for my own emotions and responses. 

Strong leaders seek out challenges (stress) that get them and their team closer to the goal. They respond to problems with a “What can we learn?” approach rather than “Why me?” victim thinking. The best leaders see stress the same way strain strengthens the muscle. They understand that smooth seas don’t make good sailors. iBi

Dean Heffta is principal consultant with Clarus Results, LLC, a Peoria based leadership development and business consulting firm. 

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