Why do we get so paralyzed by stress?
Have you ever seen a squirrel try to impress its friends? Of course not. Animals live with a very clear and perfectly-programmed agenda in life. They are not trying to achieve social status, nor do they care what the other animals think of them – they just do what they do to survive the day.
In contrast, it is an inherently human trait to strive for self-improvement and social acceptance – a process that only comes through stress. Humans uniquely have the capacity to employ moral reasoning and weigh the sacrifices and tradeoffs in light of achieving our goals. Thus, when we reach our potential, we celebrate not only what we have accomplished, but all that we had to give up to get there.
Is the stress we confront along the way a source of painful frustration? Of course it is!
However, the right amount of stress and pain can also be a great motivator. The challenge is trying to find the balance where stress inspires us to be greater and strive for more – without breaking us.
In my book, The Kidney Donor’s Journey, I describe my inner struggle between wanting to save the life of a dying single mother who needed a kidney, in contrast to the pain and risk I would endure to save a life. The more I wrestled with this, the more I realized that if I found purpose and meaning in my own pain, stress, and fear, those feelings soon became positive forces, rather than debilitating ones.
In his seminal work, Man’s Search For Meaning, Dr. Victor Frankl, describes the horrors he endured during the Holocaust. Amazingly, his research emphasized that stress is only painful when it has no purpose or meaning. Consider, for instance, a mother in the throes of labor. While the pain is excruciating, she willingly puts herself through it, knowing that it will yield the most incredible blessing – a child. Although the pain is physically grueling, it is mentally and emotionally justified by what the end result will produce. This is an example of what the human spirit can accomplish when we take the time to think about ourselves, not simply as biological animals, but as growing and improving humans with a purpose. It is in this ability to process and interpret our stress that stands to give meaning to life’s challenges.
When a client comes to me for therapy to address feelings of stress and anxiety, I often encourage them to measure their levels of stress on a scale from 1-10. This gives us the ability to think qualitatively about just how bad the situation is. Interestingly, what a person thinks may have been a horrible day, may only be rated a 5 or 6 and not the 10 they initially thought.
Additionally, by taking the time to think about one’s levels of pain and frustration, it gives a baseline that can then be monitored. As the hours, days and weeks progress, I invite clients to revisit those numbers to see how they are improving over time, even only incrementally.
Too often, one cannot easily change a stressful life situation. However, with a focus on finding meaning and personal growth amid hardships, we can change the way in which we process and respond to stress, and over time lead to higher tolerance for stress.
When we operate with clear goals, and sense of meaning in our daily existence, then the frustrations that we meet along the way are simply the price we pay to achieve our dreams. It does not make the stress or anxiety go away. Yet, having a lens of purpose certainly makes life more manageable.
To contact Dr. Sytner, or setup a free appointment, visit his website: asytner.com/therapy