The Goldilocks of stress
We talk a lot about stress these days... how to recognise stress in ourselves... how to manage stress... how to prevent stress building up. And this is good as stress can play a large role in many health conditions, both mental and physical. However, it's also important to acknowledge that there are helpful stressors in our lives too. If we never experienced any stress, we wouldn't develop physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually. If we are in our comfort zone all the time we will stagnate.
Here's a simple (and embarrassing) example. I got (as requested) a chin up bar for Christmas - one of the simple ones you put over the door frame. Why oh why I hear you ask? I want to build up my upper body strength to help me in aerial class (that's another story). Now I did a lot of gymnastics as a kid and had a jungle gym at home and could crack out chin ups fairly easily. I don't know what I was expecting I could do with the chin up bar, but was very underwhelmed when on my first attempt I could just eek out one!
Because I hadn't stressed my muscles in that way for a long time, they had lost that particular type of strength. When we put our muscles through a healthy level of stress it causes tiny little micro-tears in the muscle. This stimulates the muscle to rebuild even stronger so that it can cope better with the stress next time. If we put ourselves into a situation that is too stressful such as trying to lift too heavy a weight in our first gym session we may injure a muscle or joint and have to stop exercising while it recovers.
It's similar with mental strength. When we start learning a musical instrument, we (hopefully) start with the basics of how to hold the instrument, playing a few easy notes or chords, maybe learning how to read simple music. It's challenging but doable. Over time we learn more and more difficult notes, techniques and pieces of music and our hands/fingers/breathing become stronger until we can play confidently in a band or sit a music exam. If we started off in a band straight away and tried playing for a whole hour non-stop before we had mastered the essentials, we would likely freak out mentally and physically, think music was "not our thing" and never go there again.
Stress is neither good nor bad, it is about working out what is the right level of stress for us in a particular situation. We want an amount that is challenging enough to help us grow but not so much that feels overwhelming. The Goldilocks of stress. This is different for all of us and will be different depending on the task - some of us will feel confident with physical exercise and can progress quickly but feel hopeless with how to organise meals for the week for the whole family. Some of us will find 30mins of meditation great and some need to start with 3mins.
It's about acknowledging where we are at rather than where we would like to be, starting there and gradually building on it.
So if your body, mind, emotions or spirit are feeling overwhelmed by something, ask yourself:
What am I feeling overwhelmed about? (deal with one thing at a time!)
What is it about xxx that makes me feel overwhelmed? (I don't know is not an answer)
What could I do differently to make xxx feel challenging but doable? (The Goldilocks level)
With the chin ups, when I started I could only do one but I would like to be able to do 10 in a row. I knew that doing 10 to start with, even with rests inbetween would be too much so I would do one, have a rest and do another and then stop. When I could do 2 in a row, I would do 2, have a rest, do a third and stop. And so on...I'm currently up to 4 - it's slow progress but it's progress in the right direction!
It's tempting when we feel overwhelmed to shut down, give up, retreat or withdraw. That's ok momentarily. If we can then have the awareness to say to ourselves "ooh there's the overwhelm again" and ask the above questions we may be able to discover a way to work with it and let it teach us something.
It's important that we encourage ourselves and our loved ones of all ages to step out of our comfort zones, build on our skills and abilities gradually, and be persistent. This way we will keep growing and evolving for our whole lives.
At times "where we are at" may change due to illness, injury or life circumstances so we need to adapt our expectations. At times we may need help such as a sports coach, healthcare practitioner, therapist, a friend or even our beloved pet. At times we may need to rest. But we are always being called to grow and evolve in some way. Find it, tap into it and thrive in your own unique way.
Happy finding your Goldilocks level of stress!