Stress: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Say ‘stress’. What comes up for you?

For most people ‘stress’, means: ‘I have too much to do’ or ‘I am so stressed I want to pull my hair out!’

I want to look at it a little differently. I want to look at stress as a demand you place on yourself, or is placed on you. That’s neutral. It depends on what exactly the stressor is, and how you react to it whether it’s a positive or negative.

To make it more specific: let’s say your stressor is a deadline. We all know how deadlines have a knack for kicking us into gear, for pushing us to achieve, and for actually making us finish projects. The fight-or-flight response quite literally gives us a jolt. That may actually be a good thing!

I was chatting to one of the HappyPhD course participants some time ago, and he mentioned he never understood the importance of stress when it comes to performance until he read a book I recommended: ‘The art of full engagement’ by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. They use a physiological approach to performance, one I also apply in the HappyPhD course, which focuses on managing your energy instead of managing your time. Utilising stress and stressors to improve your focus is an important part of that. The approach they – and I – recommend is to work in intervals, in sprints. Challenge yourself, stress and stretch yourself, then relax.

If you’ve ever worked in a highly competitive environment – and if you’re writing a PhD you probably have – you know what that feels like: the adrenalin pumping, the thrill of a challenge. For me personally the best (and worst) memories of stress were when I was studying at the LSE. The workload was gruelling, and the standards set high. I loved it. Well, and hated it in equal measure! But what it definitely did was make me achieve.

Building that type of experience – the thrill, the buzz of it – into your workday is a good idea, and it is so gratifying. Most importantly forget about high achieving for hours on end. It doesn’t work like that: work really intensely for half an hour, or an hour, an hour and a half at the most, at a time. That’s what works. Take longer than that and you lose momentum. It becomes a steady-state affair, a marathon even. Buzz lost.

If you use stress and stressors in this way, stress becomes a positive experience. It will help you get where you want to go. It will help you achieve what you want to achieve.

Stress turns bad when there is no off-switch. If we push ourselves relentlessly with no significant breaks we suffer, and our word count does too! The same physiological response to a challenge which is so beneficial in the short run has negative consequences in the long run: once stress hormones run rampant in our systems for long enough they tear us down. I’m not being metaphoric. There is ample evidence of the stress reaction over time having a negative impact on pretty much every bodily system, and that includes your brain. You’re asking why you’re underperforming when you’re feeling ‘stressed’? That’s why.

Now stress is never simply about work, it is about our lives outside work as well, and it is about how we handle all the stressors we encounter. Sometimes it feels like there IS no off-switch. And that is why it’s so important to cultivate the off-switch in ourselves. For me, yoga, meditation, taking time off, regular routines, do the trick. Where is your off-switch? How could you cultivate it? Take some time to ponder.

Stress can turn ugly when it gets us spinning our wheels to such a degree that we feel we need to push harder, and harder, yet we are no longer effective. We start to worry, overthink, we react emotionally in situations because we are strung out, life seems to be pitted against us. We lose touch with the saner parts of ourselves. We are in overdrive. It is the fight-or-flight response gone mad. If you are feeling like this: take a few steps back. Take a proper break, a few days at least, maybe longer depending on how you feel, until you regain your sense of perspective.

So many academics I know have had to take time off work at some point because work/life stress got the better of them. Nobody talks about this much, but it is very common. Self-care goes a long way in preventing more serious stress-related health problems. Be kind to yourself, and prevent burning out. Relax, take care, do what you need to do to get back in touch.

How are your stress-levels? Healthy exhilaration or are you chronically strung out? What are your favourite ways to relax and undo the fight-or-flight response? Let me know! If you’re interested in setting up some work and self-care routines for an exhilarated, definitely not-strung-out academic life take a look at the HappyPhD course. It will help. As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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