Using stress as a motivator…

I was taking The Living to 100 Healthspan Calculator the other day and a question on stress had me take a moment and reflect. The question was, "How do you usually cope with your stress?" The selections proceeded, but the answer that had me transfixed was "Very well! It helps me to get motivated."

I had to think "Who are these people who say 'Life's the pits! Let's put on a tango and get dancing!'" And then I had to take a moment and do an honest self-examination on how I handle stress — both minor and major stress — and where I could be improving. Not a very comfortable moment! Who wants to turn the fluorescent lights on and take a glaring look in the magnifying mirror of self-reflection!?! Not me. But sometimes you're stuck saying, "Oh…I hadn't thought about that."

We all know people who can't seem to handle the least little annoyance. The people in the grocery store on the verge of going postal because they have somehow managed to choose the trainee checkout line instead of the express lane. They're screaming obscenities at all the other drivers and you are more exhausted riding in the passenger seat than had you simply walked the five miles you car pooled. These are not the people I am speaking about. However, they are a wonderful learning resource for the rest of us.

But it's when life is feeling "overwhelming" that I find myself most susceptible to stress. Perhaps you do too.

And its when things get overwhelming that I always hear the some admonishment — "I just need to develop a plan and then stick to it." Then the next statement tends to be, "I just need to discipline myself."

I call this "The Clubbing of the Harp Seal." Because the tendency is that by clubbing our environment and ourselves into submission, we will with brute force "make" ourselves do better and succeed. "No pain, no gain; no guts, no glory; no excuses, no rationalizations, none of this wimpy self-reflection stuff!" seems to be the view. Perhaps we've been fed on too many action hero films…

And almost always, the person saying they need a plan has tried a hundred plans, a hundred diets, a hundred ways to stop smoking, a hundred organization methods, etc. My question is why try yet another "plan."

Instead perhaps we should begin examining why we are feeling overwhelmed, because then we can begin to change the one thing we have the most control over — ourselves and our reactions and attitudes, as well as our own inner self-confidence. Now when I speak of why we feel overwhelmed, I am not speaking about the reasons why a situation is overwhelming us. These reasons will almost always lie outside of ourselves and be circumstances in the environment, which we may have no control over. Instead, I am speaking about the reasons we are responding to a situation with a sense of feeling overwhelmed. Do you see the subtle difference?

If I can realize that I am overwhelmed, not because I have an abusive boss, but because I find it difficult to assert myself in the face of an abusive boss… Well then, it's not that I need to become more organized and stay later at work or not waste time on breaks, it's that I need to work on my level of assertiveness and self-esteem. I don't need to go out and buy another daytimer…I need to learn to say "No."

Of course, if I do say "No." to the abusive boss, then what will happen? This is why people go out and buy another organizing system, or "create another plan" because it's easier to go out and club the Harp seals than it is to walk out into the cold tundra and find out what's beyond the horizon that we can't see. If I say "no." to the abusive boss, I am in uncharted territory. If I create another "plan" I am anchored in familiar waters.

So I think it's not that the people motivated by stress are smiling away and simply dancing faster. I think it's that they are more willing to be pushed out of their comfort zone and change themselves than perhaps some of the rest of us. Just a thought…