Stress Versus Distress
In my seminars, I often get asked whether stress is always a bad thing and I always answer, “no.” The key to dealing with stress effectively is to know exactly what stress is, and, then, know the difference between stress and distress so that we can respond to each in the most purposeful manner.
You see, stress is actually a chemical change in our brain and body, and these chemicals, for the most part, are adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. They play several roles in our lives…many of which are essential.
For example, they actually wake us up in the morning, and move us into a more productive state of being. They can help us increase our focus when there is something we want to accomplish, and, of course, they also move us into fight-or-flight when we are in a dangerous situation where we need to react without thinking in order to be safe. In these ways, stress is not only valuable…it is essential.
The problem that many people experience, however, is when the stress becomes distress, especially in a situation that doesn’t call for a fight-or-flight reaction. When we get mad at some driver on the freeway, or some clerk doesn’t give us the service that we feel we deserve, or simply any situation that is perceived as “stressful,” the chemicals of stress kick into overdrive, and we become distressed, and we tend to react with anger, resentment, frustration, or annoyance (the “fight” reactions), or withdrawal, submission, or depression (the “flight” reactions).
For those of you who follow my Life from the Top of the Mind philosophy, you know that this is because we are thrown into the lower, reactive brain that is really only effective in a dangerous situation where we need to react without thinking. When we are “distressed” due to the fact that our middle brain (the limbic system) is interpreting some situation as dangerous, we need to be able to determine whether to trust this interpretation, and to do that, we need to be able to access the upper 80% of the brain (the neocortex, what I call the Top of the Mind), so that we can make an informed decision about what to do.
In some ways, this isn’t as complicated as it sounds. The truth is, when the levels of stress are appropriate and working as they should, we won’t even notice it. What most of us do notice, however, is how we feel when we are angry, frustrated, anxious, or depressed, and these can be valuable signals.
In other words, if we are willing to apply a “Top of the Mind” awareness to how we are feeling, this can give us good information with respect to how to respond. If we are indeed in a dangerous situation that requires a fight-or-flight response to remain safe, then we can simply allow our natural tendencies to take over. However, if we determine that we are not truly in danger (which will be at least 90% of the situations we encounter), we can shift to the Top of the Mind and have much more influence with respect to how we respond (versus react), which will allow us to have more influence in our lives and the lives of others.
This is what I do. I go around the world teaching individuals and organizations how to shift to the clear, confident, creative brain when stressed so that it doesn’t turn into distress. Further, I show them how to then stay or live in this upper 80% of the brain so that they don’t find themselves feeling as much distress in the first place, and how to engage others so that the conversation is more solution-focused versus distressful!
If this is something that you would like me to do for your organization, I suggest that you contact me (DrBill@BillCrawfordPhD.com). Until we know what stress is and how it effects what part of the brain we are in, as well as, the difference between stress and distress, we won’t know what, when, or how to change.
~ All the best, Dr. Bill