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Q: My stress at work is affecting my relationship. I work in a high-stress job, and I find that I often have to take my work home with me, and even go into the office on weekends sometimes. I’ve started to find that my stress levels are affecting my relationships. Aside from the actual time I’m spending working, I find I don’t have the same energy and passion in my personal life to really dedicate myself to my partner, and even my friends. I often miss social gatherings, dinners, and even phone calls because of my life of work-life balance. What do I do?
A: Leonard Bernstein, renowned American conductor, composer, and pianist, once said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.”
This sentiment summarizes what so many of us grapple with. At any given point in our lives we have a number of responsibilities we juggle, all seemingly competing for top priority. How can we possibly create a plan to balance work with relationships, personal time, and the unexpected things that inevitably happen at the worst times?
“Are you kidding me, your parents arranged a two-week visit and they are coming next week? The timing couldn’t be worse. What? Yes, of course I love your parents and know you haven’t seen them in a while.”
It’s not hard to relate to the ongoing challenge of trying to manage the work-life balance. I discovered I was off by six days on the deadline for this article. Yikes, how did I miss that?
Sometimes noticing our reactions to stress leads to self-criticism adding to the stress: “I should have paid closer attention.” “Why didn’t I handle this better?” “Get your act together!” The general stress-enhancing characterization is, “What’s wrong with me?”
A 2018 Gallup poll indicated that stress levels for Americans are among the highest in the world and it’s getting worse — more Americans expressed feeling stressed and worried in 2018 than in the previous decade. It’s no wonder that stress is one of the biggest contributors to serious health and relationship problems if left unchecked.
There’s a fair amount of research we can draw on to begin to address ways to approach stress and develop some positive strategies. One might think that all stress is bad, however, that is not true. As counterintuitive as it may seem, there is such a thing as positive stress. To figure out work-life balance issues it is helpful to know the difference. Perception is a key factor.
Negative Stress (Distress)
Distress is the type of stress that takes its toll on our physical, emotional, and relational lives. We all have built-in levels of resilience to various degrees along with skills we learn and develop over time in managing stress. Our ability to deal effectively with stressful life events will vary with the timing and intensity of those events.
There are bound to be times in our lives when the external stresses exceeds our internal resources and ability to effectively cope. While the reality of external events may account for our stressed condition, beliefs, attitudes, and unrealistic expectations may also contribute to the stressful experience. For example, struggling with perfectionism may be at the core of somebody’s stress. Distress is predictable if we don’t give ourselves permission to make mistakes. Successful outcomes often occur only after a period of trial and error. Can we perceive unsuccessful attempts as information, or as failure? We are back to perception and interpretation.
Chronic stress is a very serious health risk leading to increasing cortisol levels (which is bad) and impacting immune functioning, hypertension, heart disease and heart attacks, to name a few health consequences. Distress has been linked to brain functioning and a reduced capacity to generate new brain cells (neurogenesis). Weight gain is associated with distress. Calories consumed when distressed go directly to the belly because digestive functioning is much less efficient. Putting that together with comfort eating, it’s not hard to understand why chronically stressed people are often overweight and being overweight adds to the stress.
Not surprisingly, distress is also associated with depression and anxiety. The time, energy, and enthusiasm we normally might have to do the things we enjoy like exercise, social activities, or being with our loved one may seemingly all but disappear. Recognizing, yet feeling trapped in an unhealthy lifestyle is, well, stressful. Individual stress tends to leak into our relationships, which circles back again to increased stress. It all becomes very circular, that is until we begin to break the cycle.
Good Stress (Eustress)
“Eustress,” a term first coined by endocrinologist Hans Seyle, refers to positive stress. While that sounds like a contradiction in terms, positive stress is experienced as neither overwhelming nor too easy. Eustress motivates us, even inspires us to accomplish tasks that fall within our “can-do” range of confidence. We feel excited or even inspired to tackle the issue, increasing performance as a result. Another characteristic of eustress is that it is time-limited, with a beginning and an end. For ongoing projects it helps to not let letting the big picture overwhelm us, instead break things down one step at a time and notice the progress toward the goal.
Examples of eustress include things like starting a new job, planning a vacation, beginning a family, moving to a desired area, or anything that we feel excited about and motivated to do with a sense of confidence and anticipation. We may need a bit of healthy stress or anxiety to motivate us to take the steps needed to make progress or accomplish those tasks.
Our perceptions color whether we experience the stress as positive or negative. Starting a new job could feel threatening with thoughts like, “Suppose my new boss doesn’t like me?” “What if I fail?” This is not eustress. On the other hand, eustress may include some uncomfortable feelings like “I’m not quite sure what to expect when I start this job,” but excitement and enthusiasm win the day. Is it distress or eustress? Are you motivated or immobilized by the stress? It boils down to self-growth rather than fear.
The first step in self-care starts by acknowledging the distress in your life. Congratulations on that awareness and interest in wanting to change things. The old proverb of a frog will jump out of a boiling pot but simmer to death in a slowly heating pot, applies here. It’s common for people to get used to distress. I noticed years ago as a psychotherapist that after some clients heard themselves telling their own story about the stresses in their life, there was a look of shock and a response of, “Wow, I have been through a lot, no wonder I feel so stressed!”
The second step is giving yourself permission to address your own needs and do some serious self-care. Self-reflection may help to sort out realistic from unrealistic expectations. Where might you need to set boundaries about what you can and cannot do? What are your personal triggers that predictably create stress? Awareness leads to developing strategies. I love the concept of sorting out optional stress in my life, the things I really don’t need to address right now. Staying out of crisis mode usually means spending most of our time planning and not reacting.
Finally, build into your life the things that lower your stress response. What works varies with individuals. Think about what you enjoy and/or are interested in trying. Activities like meditation, deep breathing (look up “box breathing”), yoga, exercise, walking, sports, any physical activity.
Cover the basics like developing consistent sleep patterns, eating well, and building into your day down time, unscheduled time. You may be thinking right now, “I don’t have time to do any of those kinds of things.” If that is the case, and I bet it is, then review step 1 and 2 until you start making changes, even if it’s little by little.
Julie and John Gottman developed a powerful communication tool for couples called the Stress-Reducing Conversation based on Neil Jacobson’s research that the best predictor for maintaining positive gains in couple therapy over a two-year period is the couple’s ability to manage external stress.
External stress is defined as anything stressful to partners from outside of the relationship. In other words, the topic isn’t a hot button between partners. Taking turns, the speaker’s job is to share stresses and concerns. The listener’s job is to avoid advice giving, instead, just listen, asking questions like, ”How is this stress affecting you?” or “What is your greatest concern?” The primary goal for the listener is to communicate, “You are not alone, I am here for you.”
I would encourage you and your partner to make it a ritual to frequently share the stresses and concerns each of you have. Set a timer, taking even 5-10 minutes each to share can make all the difference in reducing personal stress, and avoiding a build up of stress that eventually leaks into the relationship. Partners who do this feel connection, strength, and that they are there for each other.
Turning to the timeless wisdom of Mister Rogers, we are reminded of the value of listening and sharing: “In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”
Good luck, I hope this gives you some things to consider and evaluate for making some lifestyle changes.
More from Asking for a Friend here.