Harnessing/shaping/using stress to your advantage
May 22, 2010 9:04 PM   Subscribe

Stress. How do you balance/manage/harness it for your benefit?

Would love some additional perspective on the subject of stress.

Early in my career, I associated stress with "the cost you pay in order to get ahead in your profession." By investing many hours of hard work, late nights, challenging situations... you learn more, gain respect, and are offered opportunities you probably wouldn't get otherwise. Then, in my late 20's I became overwhelmed with the stresses of running a company, keeping my young marriage together (which ultimately failed), and I got burned out. After taking a year-long sabbatical to decompress and "find myself", I emerged with a much more healthy approach to life and work. I was better able to create boundaries and to sense internally when the stress of work projects encroached too much on my happiness, health, and personal relationships. OK, so that's all fine and dandy, but now I'm wondering if my pendulum has swung too far the other direction. Am I so afraid of over-committing, or going too deep on a work project and violating those "boundaries" that I'm actually missing out on the excitement/learning/outcomes of going deep on something? Rather than being co-dependent on work, am I now co-dependent on everything else and not allowing work and intellectual pursuits to reclaim their place in my mindspace that they would normally be? I'm a pretty geeky person and I've generally liked pursuing things deeply. Perhaps I'm not allowing myself to do that as much now, for fear of how consuming it may be? Or fear of failure?

Recently I've been reading "The Brain That Changes Itself" and it's amazing as it talks about how plastic our brains are, and that intense experiences can re-map/re-wire our brains even as we get older; our brains aren't formed at a young age and then remain static thereafter. The book uses examples of intense drills to rehabilitate stroke patients, but also discusses "acquired tastes" that form as we get older based on our experiences. I can see how major personal experiences can also have this re-wiring effect.

So, what I'm really looking for is a book/articles/advice on the subject of managing stress in a way that is a positive thing. How can you harness it and use it? Any hard problem is going to bring with it a certain amount of stress ("I can't figure this out! Arrrghh!!") But then it also has the amazing benefit of feeling the sense of accomplishment when a hard task is done, or a complex solution found. These moments of elation can release chemicals in our brain that actually cement a positive/fun experience with something challenging and hard. As an example, I recall times in college solving a complex math or computer problem and being super stoked and proclaiming my triumph over a particular problem/solution with audible jeers like "Take that you *#!&@ calculus problem! You are no match for me!!" Yes, very dorky I admit.

The other thing that may be going on here is that I could be associating "hard work and stressful times" with the failure of my marriage and the onset of several years of being lost/confused/scared. So, I could potentially use some coaching or reference materials in the general subject area of how to not be jaded or scared after a big failure. How to jump back in and keep pushing. Whatever anyone thinks might be helpful...would love to hear it.

I want to keep pushing the envelope, have an impact on the world and a full/dynamic/exciting life. Figuring out this fundamental/foundational layer of stress management, boundary setting, goal setting, etc would be great to figure out now so that it doesn't hamper or curtail my effectiveness/peace/life_happiness.

Thanks as always!
posted by sharingideas to Work & Money (5 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
If you can tip anxiety towards fear or anger, you can activate the fight part of your "fight or flight" instincts, and get a surge of energy.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:18 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I use stress to guide how much exercise I should be getting. The more stressed out I feel, the more urgent I consider it that I work in swimming or yoga or pushups into my day. And then when I discover I'm actually so stressed that exercise doesn't help, I know to try more drastic approaches such as massage, time off, deep stretching, etc.

It seems to help a lot.
posted by hermitosis at 10:57 PM on May 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

I find just organizing what I need/want to do, helps a lot. It clears out your brain and that helps me from having anxiety attacks.

As much as I think this guy is a total tool, his book has helped me a lot. Like most ideas, cherry pick the parts you like, after giving the entire system a good tryout.


I use this product as well:


but you can use the system without any sort of nerd computer thing.

I do a ton of bizarre, unrelated things. It's fodder for getting stressed out, except I give my head a break by putting everything done in Omni Focus and just dealing with the next thing that I want to do.

Also, simplify your life. My room is entirely unfurnished, since I don't use it very much. Ditch anything unneeded, figure out what's truly important in your life (usually, it's other people)

Do what you love to do, nothing else.
posted by alex_skazat at 11:50 PM on May 22, 2010

I structure my life around the principle that everything has a cost, including working. True, the more I work the more things I can buy, but they ultimately will cost me much more than money, because they will cost me more in terms of my health, due to having to work that much more to buy them.

That said, the way I manage stress is to accept everything, especially things that make me angry and lead to stress. Rather than get angry at other shitty drivers, I accept that their behavior will be ridiculous and try to control my own reaction after they do something stupid. We always have a choice about how to act.
posted by fluxion at 12:26 AM on May 23, 2010

Stress is about the only thing that really motivates me... Generally, I procrastinate until it's too late to freak out and panic, and so I have to use my stress levels constructively. I've been able to put off illness simply be stressing so much that my body doesn't have time to get sick.

I don't know if any of that made any sense, or was at all helpful, but here's hoping.
posted by MaiaMadness at 6:33 AM on May 23, 2010

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