Productive stress

In a conversation today, I used the phrase "appropriate and productive stress." Stress is the bully of the moment; anything that puts weight around your middle at least gets serious consideration for that title. Three of four Americans are significantly stressed? That makes me a little sad. Mine is situational, and for good or bad, kind of under my own control. I feel fully capable of getting done what I need to get done. Time is my enemy of choice. And then there's the plain old personal stress (and not much of that to speak of at the moment). But we won't go there.

Stress is simply part of the human condition. Wee needed it to survive. There's that whole flight or flight thing. Gotta feel the stress for that business to work; either a larger animal trying to eat you or someone reaching for the last size small of that sweater you wanted. Or is that just me? Anyway, the human condition. Somewhere along the line, if I recall correctly it was the 80s because I was there and witnessed that "greed is good" shite first hand, there was stress around keeping up with your greedy bastard neighbors. And you started to hear about heart attacks. In my minds eye, I still see a sweaty, balding, bespectacled personification of this in my mind. Oh jeez. He smells like coffee and cigarettes too.

My point is that a certain amount of stress is good. It's uniquely western to be so binary in our thoughts, there is a place for stress in a balanced life. As I said earlier, "appropriate and productive stress." And don't I love it when I learn about proof of my own witty musings right after I have said them?

I really wish that we would make some peace with stress. Or rename it. Honestly, people that don't feel stress at all have something seriously wrong with them, ailments varying from being totally detached from reality to being downright simple. I don't want to hang out with those people.  How can something that makes you feel something that motivates you be totally wrong? I'm not minimizing the significant stress that many people are under right now (3 out of four! Oy!). Too much of it is a very bad thing.  But why do we have to turn something that is sometimes totally normal and productive into some kind of damning trait" (oh, leave daddy alone right now. He is under a lot of stress at work).

I am starting to understand the poor souls that totally lose it on the road. Yesterday, I changed lanes and the guy behind me not only honked but flashed his lights (so he had time to do both of these things, but not slow down). It's not that he was going fast. In fact, he was coming to a red light, already breaking and going pretty slow. But he wanted to have the option of speeding up, I guess. Cruising through the light and maybe taking out a few people. I think that when we decide that we are stressed (the bad kind), we find other things in life to make it so. We are addicted to the idea of stress and it becomes part of the story we tell to ourselves and the world about why we act that way. We take all these minor things, call them stressful and add them to the tally. And although I am no expert, I think we need to observe these stressors, identify them, act when we can and then let them go. What is this business with making things worse for ourselves?

Comments (7)

  1. Lauren Smith says:

    If you want to rename stress in a kinder and friendlier way, there is always the old standard word "pressure" which has all the meaning of "stress" without the obvious negative connotation.

  2. Derek Z says:

    Productive stress – you nailed it on the "term of the year". It’s that little extra push, incentive, or reminder that – gets stuff done.

    I often wish there was a portable stress meter that one could wear, possessing varied measuring levels and the ability to zap someone (me) into reality or at least back to "productive stress”. A  somethin-somethin for those times at home dept when you wish that there was a test people had to pass before they were allowed to use the flatcarts . A little reminder to scale back, get in check, and moderate would be perfect. The internal measuring is good, but an external moderator – now we are talking. Great post Heather.

  3. HeatherLeigh says:

    Lauren – now I am hearing the David Bowie song in my head!

    Derek – maybe a cattle prod for the masses. That would have been a great name for an REM song. Michael Stipe, it’s not too late.

  4. Neal says:

    hmm. To be honest – my opinion is that much of stress may relate more to us thinking about what is next as opposed to thinking about what we’re doing. I don’t have any yoda-like quotes to go around, but i heard someone talk about the concept of trying to do something that is ‘just outside of your skill range’. Meaning that its not so trivial as to be boring but not so impossible that you can’t reasonably expect to succeed. I suspect then that stress might be understood well by these two ends. On either end of the spectrum then – stress kicks in (i’m bored – when will there be excitement/I’m failing – when will i get a break).  So when either of those elements permeates into work-life – it’s very easy to start to see the world from those lenses.

    For me – I believe in the word challenge. If something isn’t a challenge – then I can be certain that it’ll bore me so i either figure out how not to do it or, when it just has to be done, how to do it as effectively/quickly as possible. Then onto the things which are challenges. Well there is no shortage here and these run the gamut across the board – but here’s my own trick: i ask myself if I have as good a chance to win as I do to fail and i envision someone in vegas putting odds on me. Since it’s me – I certainly have the inside scoop – but I think about it as if I were betting on it and whether I’d take the bet at the given odds. the most fun that I’ve had has been on the things for which I’ve given myself a smaller chance to succeed than to fail (less than 50% chance).  While i think this describes some scenarios – I don’t think it describes all. I recently had the challenge of running the house for a weekend ( 3 boys ages 6, 5 and 19mo.s). /fail. Total chaos. prayers to god promising that I’d listen more carefully to what my wife said should I survive. hehehe – so when the dude honks/flashes lights at me – I always think ‘he must be watching the kids this weekend w/out any help’. A little trivial, admitted, but fun.

  5. HeatherLeigh says:

    Neal – hmmm, I think we all have different things that stress us. For me it’s "How will I have enough time to get ALL of this done? Good visualization technique!

  6. Robert A. Roth says:


    For me, I believe in a healthy tension with those at work.  If you believe in diversity, there are always other opinions and competing demands. You should celebrate the alternatives.

    It is the inability to separate life and work that to some degree contributes to ‘stress’.  At the end of the day, no one gets hurt (except perhaps one’s feelings!).  The need to understand life’s priorities is a must.  

  7. Gina Walker says:

    The book "Don’t sweat the small stuff" came into mind when I read your article. You’re right – stress can be good and productive, when it motivates us to achieve great things. But when we start worrying about the nitty gritties, stress just becomes counter-productive.

Skip to main content