WHEN IS STRESS TOO MUCH? EUSTRESS VS. DISTRESS

stress man

In 2018, more than 55 percent of Americans recalled feeling stress for much of the day. On the whole, we’ve been feeling more stressed than ever before, but not all stress is bad.

On a very basic level, the stress response alerting us to danger that we must avoid has saved the human race. It has helped us to fight and to flee in order to preserve ourselves, generation after generation. 

Beyond that, stress offers us the opportunity for growth. Chinese lettering actually combines the characters for danger and opportunity to form the word stress. It is truly a paradoxical state, in which there is opportunity for growth that we should pursue, as well as a risk of danger that we must avoid.

So how do we recognize when our stress passes from opportunity to danger? It comes down to the difference between eustress and distress. Let’s take a look at these two different kinds of stress and how to identify which you are experiencing. 

Eustress: Manageable and Constructive

Eustress, coined by Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye in 1974, literally means “good stress,” with eu being the Greek prefix for “good.” 

According to Selye, eustress is short-term and serves to energize and motivate us. The key defining trait of eustress is that it is perceived as within our ability to cope. 

When we talk about stress, it is often from the viewpoint of eliminating it, but eustress can actually be very beneficial, as it increases focus and performance. 

Eustress changes us on a biological level, signaling an increase in hormones that bring up heart rate and blood pressure, plunging the brain into a state of hyper-awareness encased with emotional calm and physical relaxation. This hyper-awareness helps us to face and overcome challenges, leading us to grow and become more confident in our abilities.

Eustress might be experienced when starting a new romantic relationship, getting married, starting a new job, buying a home, traveling, going on holiday, having a child, or exercising. 

Any of those environments could also be distressing, based on personality and circumstance, because any degree of meaningful change brings with it an element of stress. Something that is eustress for one person could very well be distress for another. It’s all about your personal perception of how well you can cope in that particular situation. 

Distress: Overwhelming and Dangerous

The negative kind of stress is distress, defined in a 2003 study by LeFevre, Matheny, and Kolt as “a state of ill-being in which happiness and comfort have been surrendered.”  

As Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye explains it, distress is differentiated from eustress in that it is perceived as surpassing our ability to cope. Instead of energizing and motivating us, distress can trigger anxiety, concern, and unpleasant feelings, decreasing focus and performance. Distress is often due to long-term stressors we cannot control, but it can also be short-term.

Distress is what happens when stress passes from opportunity to danger. Distress poses a health risk—a physical knock to the body that comes as a consequence of prolonged anxieties. Distress can cause insomnia, heart disease, high blood pressure, mental disorders, and more. 

I witnessed the negative health effects of distress with my father when, the night before a big court case in which he was on trial, he experienced a significant heart attack. The distress of what was coming triggered a physical response that nearly killed him.

Any number of situations can lead to distress—chronic medical conditions, high-pressure work environments, physical or emotional trauma, and so on. Anytime you feel overwhelmed by your stress, unable to see a path forward to a brighter future, you are likely suffering from distress. 

Managing Your Stress

Stress is simply the byproduct of trying to control something that we, in fact, have no control over. With this in mind, the goal isn’t to eliminate stress, but to manage it. Just by trying to eliminate it, we’re attempting to control what we cannot, thereby creating more stress. It’s an avoidance of reality that seems to plague our culture.

Eustress tends to be easy to manage. Because we feel capable of coping with it, we can create plans of action to carry us through and beyond the stress. It’s important to manage eustress and not try to eliminate it, or it could very well transform into distress.

When faced with overwhelming distress, all we can do is take one moment at a time and control those things we can. If we try to project ourselves out into a future where all we can see is pain, it becomes too much to bear. But by managing what we can in each moment—and nothing more than that—we can keep moving forward, however slowly.

Surrender to that which you cannot control, manage what you can, and trust in your own strength.

For more advice on managing stress, you can find The Empowerment Paradox on Amazon.


Ben Woodward’s repeated personal experience with family trauma, chronic illness, and corporate crisis have taught and tutored him with intimate insight. The gained wisdom from such lessons have seen him thrive as a senior executive in multibillion-dollar companies, becoming the global president of a multinational corporation. He has served on the board of directors for trade associations, traveled to thirty countries as a keynote speaker, business leader, and entrepreneur, and most importantly, enjoys a wonderful home life with his wife Kim and seven beautiful children. 

 

WHICH WAY TO HAPPINESS?

sign in the city

When teaching a group of teenagers a few months back I asked them what they wanted to ‘be’ when they grew up. Many of them misunderstood the question and responded by telling me what they wanted to ‘do’ for a living. We had a great discussion, but the intent behind the question was to get to a critical principle that needed to be taught. Who we are and what we become in our heart is more important to our happiness than external influences such as employment or material possessions. Whilst we may seek material comfort to be happy, evidence now abounds that tells us that beyond a certain base income, money does not affect our happiness all that much. Research also confirms that neither youth, beauty, intelligence or education impact our happiness for the long term either! I don’t know about you – but I am glad to hear that!  Now I’m in my 40’s, youth is not on my side. My wife would tell you neither is my intelligence! Beauty is in the eye of the beholder which puts that one out there for heated debate and as the sole provider for a family of nine – you have to earn a lot just to be poor! If I relied on social standards versus truth –  I would have little hope of lasting happiness 🙂

So what does create enduring happiness? Self esteem, social skills, free time, volunteering and humour are proven to be key indicators. As you look into your own life – how are you doing in each of these areas? How do you spend your spare time? Science suggests that the biggest predictor of happiness is the extent of our social relationships. Dr Gilbert, in his discussion on The Emotional Life shared three findings on the science of happiness:

  1. We can’t be happy alone
  2. We can’t be happy all the time
  3. We can be happier than we are now

My question today is: Are you seeking to enrich relationships, devote time to others, improve your sense of self and enjoy a balance between hard work and free time? If so – you will find that happiness will ensue. I think that if we pursue happiness, it can evade us. Pursue goodness, selflessness, integrity and service to others and good things will always follow.

IS KINDNESS MORE IMPORTANT THAN WISDOM?

two kids sharing, kindness

My five year old little boy Toby has been graced with a wonderfully kind and caring disposition. On one occasion, reminiscent of the many others, he saw an opportunity to be kind. The recipient in this situation was his Mum. Constant tooth pain, pregnancy sickness, six children and a husband who traveled a lot with work had, on this day, gotten the best of her. However, much of her anguish melted away when she walked into our bedroom to find Toby had picked a flower from the garden and placed it on her pillow. He loved her, saw her struggling and did what he could to help her feel better. This was followed with a generous supply of hugs and kisses too. We don’t need age, experience, education, or resources to be kind and make a difference. We simply need love and thoughtfulness.

Theodore Isaac Rubin said that, “Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom.” Spending just a little time on this subject can reveal quickly the reasons why.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, has studied happiness for more than 20 years. She conducted a study where students were assigned to do five random acts of kindness per week for a period of six weeks. At the end of the study, the students’ levels of happiness had increased by 41.66 percent. Being kind had a profoundly positive effect on happiness.

Not only does it have a big impact on our happiness, but, in the expression of a virtuous circle, it is also the offspring of self esteem (which further fuels our happiness). Nathaniel Branden explained, “There is overwhelming evidence that the higher the level of self-esteem, the more likely one will be to treat others with respect, kindness, and generosity.”  I believe that when we are at peace with ourselves it is easier to be at peace with others.

It seems also that we can accomplish more through kindness that we can through force (leadership versus management).  Whilst Rubin said that kindness is more important than wisdom, perhaps we could get a little closer to the mark by saying that kindness is the expression of wisdom. It fosters friendships, heals hearts, opens doors and casts its fruitful seeds farther than we often could expect. Let’s all strive a little harder to be a little kinder. After all, it is a language that “the deaf can hear and the blind can see” (Mark Twain) and in my opinion, every human heart can feel.

ASKING FOR FORGIVENESS

THE PHYSIOLOGY OF CONTAGIOUS ATTITUDES

emotional intelligence

A few years back I was dealing with some difficult times at work which found me coming home at night very stressed. My home; that supposed refuge from the storm, was always busy, with lots of noisy children gleefully bouncing off the walls. I found after a while, that speaking the right words to my kids when I was stressed was not creating the right response. In fact, it was creating the opposite effect. How come? Interestingly, the answer is found in science.

Physiologically, our bodies are comprised of many different systems: circulatory systems, lymphatic systems, nervous systems, respiratory systems and so on. Most of these are closed loop systems, meaning they are self regulating. Being in the presence of another persons circulatory system does not influence your own. However, the limbic system in the brain, where our emotional centre resides, is in fact an open loop system. Of necessity it demands connectivity from other people in order to establish its own stability. This open loop ensures the safety and future of the human race. Because of this open loop, my crying baby makes my wife and I jump up to see if he is okay. If it were not for this feature in our brain, we wouldn’t bother.

Interestingly, research in intensive care units has shown that the comforting presence of another person not only lowers the patient’s blood pressure but also slows the secretion of fatty acids that block arteries. Additionally, positive relationships can see one person transmits signals that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular functions, sleep rhythms, even immune functions, inside the body of another. In all aspects of our social life, our physiologies intermingle.

So, what is my point? Edwin Markham said “There is a destiny which makes us brothers; none goes his way alone. All that we send into the lives of others comes back into our own.” Turns out, that little line of poetry, is in fact a scientific truth!

The virtues we manifest – enthusiasm, conviction, love, serenity, courage and so on, literally influence the physiology of those around us. This reinforces the truth that you can’t fake sincerity. When our body language conflicts with our words, people will always believe our body language because emotion is contagious and we can feel it even on a subconscious level.

Do you want to make a difference? The first step is to be the difference. It is not about what we say, but about who we are that will create the change we wish to see in our world.

NEUROPLASTICITY AND OUR POWER TO CHANGE

human eye change

A young bride was eagerly preparing on the morning of her wedding. She turned to her mother and said, “Oh mother, I am at the end of all my troubles.” Her wise and experienced Mum smiled and replied, “Yes my dear, but which end?”

As we look at our lives, many of us predict our future based upon our past. We believe one end determines another. Is this true? Let me share two thoughts on this.

Neurologically speaking, it is true that the first three years particularly, have a great impact on our future development. Our brains develop more during this time than any other stage of life. Research tells us that a positive emotional bond with at least one caregiver paves the way for how we feel about ourselves, how we get along with others, how we communicate and even how we learn.  (Jack P. Shonkoff, 2013) Yes, our start in life plays a critical role in our development.

But what if you feel let down by genetics or shortchanged by your early environment? Does this leave you as an ‘achievement outcast’? Are you destined to remain the runt of the social litter because you were emotionally malnourished as a child? Not at all! The great news is, regardless of what is hardwired into your brain – you can do some rewiring.

Our brain continually adapts and develops new cells and new pathways based upon what we do, learn and think. It is called neuroplasticity. Evidence abounds in stroke patients whose brains reallocate certain cognitive functions to non-damaged areas in rehabilitation. London black cab drivers have a measurably larger hippocampus (the part of the brain dedicated to spatial awareness) compared to bus drivers. This is because the continually rely on it for navigating new routes every day versus the bus driver who takes the same route day in, day out. Dr Dennis Charney from Mt Sinai School of Medicine confirmed that prisoners of war placed in solitary confinement developed unusual cognitive ability because the only activity available to them was to think.

Why is this relevant to us? I have seen many people feel hard done by because of their start in life, by their upbringing or even because of their own poor choices. Consequently, their future gets shackled by the past and they live in a state of dissatisfied mediocrity.

During the 1940s and 1950s, an American prison warden, Clinton Duffy, was well known for his efforts to rehabilitate the men in his prison. Said one critic, “You should know that leopards don’t change their spots!”

Replied Warden Duffy, “You should know I don’t work with leopards. I work with men, and men change every day.”

We all have the power to change and to become. The question we all should be asking is not “can I change?” but “when will I start?”

WHY I’LL SPEND TWO WHOLE YEARS REPEATING MYSELF

messy table

Sitting round the dinner table with my pregnant wife and our six blonde haired, blue eyed children can sound wonderfully idyllic. Being regaled with stories from school and enjoying precious teaching moments over a healthy meal is, well, picture perfect. I’m sure I had this image in my head when my wife and I decided that one more child would be a great idea.

Truth is – it’s carnage!  In fact, it can sometimes feel like Lord of the Flies! Everything we have ever taught our children about dinner etiquette can vanish like a vapour into an abyss of animal instinct. When they sit down and devour their meal, it’s like their last chance for normal food before cannibalism sets in. My oldest inhales his dinner. He doesn’t eat it – it’s gone before you can say “pass the salt!” Food ends up all over the table, on the floor and remarkably even in another room of the house – don’t ask me how that happens!

Then begins the ritual of cleaning up and preparing for bedtimes. It begins with a pretence of calm as we delegate assignments, offer clarification on standards and then we are off. Off to crazy town. “I asked you to scrape and rinse the dishes.” “I said brush your teeth.” “Why haven’t you finished your homework.” “I told you to do this 30 minutes ago!” I will say this 20 times a night with growing frustration while my children continue to be blissfully and innocently preoccupied with more important things – like killing each other, using my bed like a trampoline or chasing each other naked from room to room (my two year old is the instigator there!). We can see tantrums, crying, and flopping like a dead fish on the stairs. That would be me by the way – breaking, as the kids wear me down.

My wife and I will spend at least two hours each day simply saying the same stuff over and over. In fact, I calculated it. Multiplying this time by the number of years that I will spend with my children in this age bracket worked out to be almost 24 months – two whole years – exclusively, uninterruptedly spent in repeating simple instructions.

Is this repetition a good thing or am I just a sucker for punishment? Actually, I consider it time very well spent – even if it feels like madness in the moment.

The fact of the matter is – there is a difference between expectations and anticipation. I should expect my children to do as they are told; to be polite and obedient, but I should not anticipate such behaviour all the time. That’s unrealistic. When I understand the difference, it can radically change my approach to these moments. I don’t need to lose my mind after all.

I have learned that some things take time to measure. High standards and tolerance can and should co-exist. They are not competitive, but are paradoxically complimentary. When I am tolerant, patient and encouraging I have a greater chance of achieving a change in behaviour and reaching the high standards we set for our family. Likewise in business (which is my workspace), the same holds true. If I don’t anticipate a gap between my expectations and the present reality I can get discouraged very quickly and lose confidence in the future. Let’s be patient with others and understand that we all need time to improve. After all, repetition is the mother of all learning.

WHAT IS THE PRINCIPAL THING IN LIFE?

pile of clothes

For a long time, my wife had a habit that frustrated me! She would always leave a pile of clothes at the bottom of the stairs. I would frequently trip over it as I tried to get past. “Why on earth would she do that? Why can’t she just bring them upstairs?” I thought. Little did I realise that I had a habit that was irritating my wife. Throughout the day, she would gather the clothes dropped or shedded by the kids and leave them near the stairs to take up with her next time she needed to go upstairs. It prevented her from going up and down all the time. “Why on earth won’t Ben pick that pile up and bring it with him when he comes upstairs?” she thought! Good point. Well, it’s easy. I’m stupid! I don’t know why I didn’t think about it. I just got frustrated. Fortunately, we discussed it and I learned a quick and simple lesson. Now, I carry the clothes up the stairs when I see the pile.

There is an old proverb which says: “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all they getting get understanding.”

Candidly, I confess that the getting of knowledge and wisdom is often achieved (at least for me) through trial and error. It took me a while to learn why the clothes were at the bottom of the stairs but it became wisdom for me when I picked them up and took them with me!

My wife has often said that “Wisdom is knowledge correctly applied.” This suggests that to get wisdom, we need to act, not simply read about it. We must do in order to become.

The acquisition of wisdom is perhaps one of the most central ingredients of happiness. Whilst they may say that “ignorance is bliss,” I actually find it to be most frustrating – and if you asked my wife, she would agree with you!

I have also found that true wisdom is not rooted in academia or specialist knowledge, but in moral virtues such as patience, kindness, compassion, selflessness, tolerance, courage, chastity and humility – to name a few. The great thing is, life gives us opportunities every day to practice with these qualities and to become better.

If you want a happy life, I would simply say “with all thy getting, get understanding,” because wisdom is the principal thing.

WHAT MY PREGNANT WIFE TAUGHT ME ABOUT HAPPINESS

ben woodward and family

As my wife Kim nears the end of her pregnancy on our seventh child, I took a moment to look back on all the different times she has made my heart melt, swell and nearly burst when she has been bearing our children. In doing so, I was reminded of a surprising and important truth.

First, in an expression of gratitude, here are some reasons I simply adore my wife in pregnancy. My heart melts when I see her:

  1. Getting out of breath just standing up.
  2. Developing the duck waddle.
  3. When she discovers her skirt is inside out at the checkout in Target.
  4. When she works a 17 point turn just to roll over in bed at night.
  5. When she gets full on half a biscuit because her stomach is being shoved into her lungs.
  6. When she pees at least ten times a night because the baby is sleeping on her bladder.
  7. When I see her ankles swell up just for sitting in the car for 30 minutes.
  8. When indiscernible scents in our kitchen or across the street in someone else’s kitchen turn her stomach due to her ridiculously heightened sense of smell.
  9. When I find her hair everywhere in the house because she’s shedding it – which I never thought people did.
  10. When she pulls her pregnancy pants up over her stomach and it looks like she’s hiding a basketball.
  11. When I see her desperate to take a nap during the day because she didn’t sleep all night. But she doesn’t because the other children need her.
  12. When I see her cry over a scene in a film that is as moving as a Wednesday afternoon. Any Wednesday. Just pick one.
  13. When she steps on the weighing scales and sighs.
  14. When she sits down and her tee shirt rolls up.
  15. When I ask her for a hug and she looks at me like she wants to punch me in the face (okay. My heart doesn’t melt in that moment!).
  16. When she tries to sit like a lady but can’t get her knees to meet.
  17. I love when after the baby is born and someone else’s baby cries – her milk let’s down.

This may all sound a little like a moment of sentimentality, but there is also a great lesson in this thought. My friend once said, “you have to want the consequences of what you want.” It seems to me that in the wanting, we sacrifice and in the sacrificing we become. And in the becoming, we get. Happiness therefore, seems to be something that we don’t pursue – it ensues. Victor Frankl said, in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’:

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

As Kim and I, as parents, have surrendered ourselves and personal agendas to the cause of our children; as we have said goodbye to dreamy, sleep filled nights and a tidy, quiet home,  we have said hello instead to a happiness far greater in proportion than we could ever have imagined.

The lesson from my moment of sentimentality? Don’t chase happiness or the symbols of it. Chase with vigor what is right. Strive to be what is good. Devote your life to something big. In time, happiness will always follow.

3 WAYS TO AVOID REGRETS

man jumping no regrets

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’” (Maude Muller)

No one wishes to look back on their lives and see a history potted with regrets and lost opportunities. Unfortunately, there are too many people that leave this world being only mildly acquainted with their best selves, having stopping truly living long before they died.

Before you get discouraged at the thought of your already missed opportunities or recent regrets, remember: one of the great joys in life is the joy of trying again! No failure ever need be final. What we have the power to become is far more important that what we once were. We still have time ahead of us and this is the time we wish to capitalise on. So, here are three ways to avoid regrets and become better.

Create your vision

In order to become something – we have to see it with our minds eye first. Picture it. Be specific. Engage your senses with it. It has been said that the doorways of history turn on small hinges, and so do people’s lives! The collective outcome of our small decisions make up our life. Look ahead, set a course and be ready when the opportunities present themselves to make the right decisions.

Put the effort in!

Work without vision is drudgery, vision without work is dreaming, but work coupled with vision is destiny!
I like this poem, whose author is unknown:
“Stick to your task ’til it sticks to you;
Beginners are many, but enders are few.
Honour, power, place and praise,
Will always come to the one who stays.

Stick to your task ’til it sticks to you;
Bend at it, sweat at it, smile at it too;
For out of the bend and the sweat and the smile, 
Will come life’s victories after a while.”

Be courageous

It has been said that courage is not the absence of fear but the mastery of it. It has also been stated that courage becomes a living and attractive virtue when we realise that it is not about being willing to die manfully, but about having the determination to live decently.

Let’s look to the future with an eye of faith. Work, sweat and smile at all life throws at us. Let’s be courageous in our commitment to live decently. As we make the decisions in advance as to how we will live, we prepare ourselves to respond well to opportunity as it races past us. For often, it doesn’t knock and wait. It gallops by and we need to be ready to jump on it quickly.

IS IT OKAY IF WE LIE TO OURSELVES?

a man lie

According to a study conducted by the University of Massachusetts in 2002, 60% of adults can’t have a ten minute conversation without lying at least once! Frighteningly, it gets worse – those that did lie in the study (the majority) did it at least three times! Unfortunately, it may appear that we lie to ourselves much more often. Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said that “Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.”

There are a number of reasons why we lie to ourselves:

  1. The truth is painful or unpleasant. A half truth or subtle lie can remove the bitter taste of truth and make life more palatable.
  2. Who we feel we are may not reflect what social expectations may demand. So we will pretend in order to show alignment.
  3. We may lie to reflect aspirational goals, “I am not going to eat desert tonight to watch my weight,” (but all of my friends are eating it now so I will start again tomorrow…but I am serious about this!).

Self deception suggests that since we are both the giver and receiver of the lie – it can create a situation where the deceit can be both simultaneously believed and disbelieved. That is not an easy truth to explain but it exists non the less. What it means though, is that  for the lie to be believed, we must convince ourselves that it is true in order to manage the internal discord it creates. Again, we do that because, in many instances, the lie is more acceptable and convenient. But what is the cost?

Many of us rationalise that such behaviours are no big deal. “So, I tell myself I’ll start tomorrow, or I pretend to be happier than I am. So what if I make life a little more pleasant by believing the perception versus the reality. Hey, I’m an optimist!” That makes sense right? Actually, wrong!

I believe that self deception leads to ruin. Think of the emotional cost to keep up the lies and pretence! Here are some personal costs that I see:

  1. If we ignore reality, we can’t change it. We can only accept the facade.
  2. If we can’t change it – we subtly start to feel powerless.
  3. When we feel powerless, we lose our sense of personal worth.
  4. When we lose our sense of worth and thus our true identity, we become lost and miserable.

This may at first glance seem grandiose in taking something so small and common place and then taking us to a destination of despair and misery. But is it a small thing to lie to ourselves everyday? Also, can we truly measure the consequence of this habit over time when it is multiplied many times a day over many weeks, months and then years in our subconscious?

The quality of our lives is proportionate to the quality of our emotions. Creating pretence in the present forfeits future felicity. When subconsciously, we become aware of this, we start to lose hope in our future, if we refuse to change the habit. Why? Because hope is a virtue that is centred in the future (it is all about anticipation). Do you want to have more hope in your future? Paradoxically, you may need to start by accepting the uncomfortable truths of your present!

I promise you that learning to be honest with ourselves, whilst scary and uncomfortable at first – is liberating. It lifts a burden you don’t even realise you’re carrying. It fills you with hope that things can be different because now you have taken the first step to positive change – admitting that something has to!