Sublimate stress into growth

You do not need positive emotions to be healthy and happy. Stress can be your best friend. Sounds counterintuitive, yet provokes curiosity. I would not think of this subject without reading stuff here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Pleasant vs stimulating

Personally, I prefer a pleasant and calm environment. I love my routine and work. My wife ridicules this, saying that I am allergic to fun. In a way she is right. The ideal environment for some people might surprise you. I quote:

Some people prize high-arousal pleasant states, like excitement, while some prefer low-activation pleasant emotions like calmness. For them, it’s the difference between passion and contentment that determines happiness. Some people, though, value self-enhancing feelings such as power and achievement.

For each person, there is an optimal amount of stress often called eustress. Anything below eustress zone would be boring, and anything above would be nerve-wracking. Some people say that you can train yourself to change your eustress zone so that the stress will become a welcome addition to your life. Adrenaline junkies sure do things that most of us consider being crazy. When veterans go home from a war zone, most are happy to get out of hell, but some of them report missing the fun of action.

If something is stimulating to the point of stressful, might there be a way to make it exciting and empowering?

Build up some resilience

Probably the first step would be owning the stressful condition instead of feeling a victim of circumstances. The secret would be not just accepting the inevitable stressors, but actively choosing them over the alternative. For example, when I was a novice engineer I hated and dreaded meetings. I needed a long timeout before and after each meeting just to switch the context back to my code or my drawings. Then I chose to become a manager. I knew exactly what that would require from me, and I accepted it happily. Now I have many meetings each day, and I love it. In fact, if there is no meeting, no crisis to solve, I feel empty, like if some entertainment was stolen from me.

No being a victim includes many levels of psychological work. I used to complain a lot seeking the downsides and loopholes in “the system”, but now I cannot afford it. I literally need to stay positive all the time for the sake of others. There are some tricks that increase resilience, and I use them from time to time. I try to focus on the opportunities and be grateful as much as I can. My body language is much more open than it used to be. Any social support, feedback, and advice I can get are truly appreciated. This is not my default behavior, but my conscious choice. I worked a lot on my core values and my confidence, to the point where I became much less nervous, more open to changes and less introvert than ever before in my life.

Strong motivation

To choose stress and responsibility instead of pleasant curiosity we need a strong motivator. I had a long period when every time I applied for a job I was considered overqualified. So I could either lie or grow. Since honesty is one of my core values, I have chosen to grow.

Any serious stress at the beginning is unpleasant and tiresome. It takes some time to get used to the new arousal level, and yet more time to like it.

Some people are sufficiently competitive and ambitious to prefer enduring hardships over the risk of failure. Others need to commit to a person they truly respect. Maybe the way to ensure your core values lies through hardships. In any way, the drive to master the situation should be significantly stronger than the drive to run or hide.

Find the excitement

Consider a hypothetical situation. Two people with similar skills will do the same job. One would say that the job was hard, he is tired, and its a miracle he succeeded. The other would say that he experienced the “flow state”, the job was an exciting and worthy challenge, and he is tremendously happy he completed it. The first man would want to rest. The second would want to repeat the experience.

We can probably find excitement in almost any task. Sometimes it requires redefining the mission to ourselves. A job that requires stamina will probably we less exciting than a job that requires creativity. If we can consider ourselves empowered by our job we will get motivated by it. Training speedreading day after day could be hard and boring. So we spiced up the training with a few tricks. We consider all our students to be heroes because the change is hard and scary, and they embrace the change. The exercises we use are either creative and involve funny visualizations or gamified and involve a competitive score. Either way, we try to create an environment where everything our students do is exciting.

Growth opportunity

Any serious challenge is a growth opportunity. If the stress is slightly outside our comfort zone we may grow to like it. The trick here is taking steps slowly but surely. Something 10% above our current capacity may be a lovely challenge, while 20% above our current level could mean cutting corners and acquiring bad habits.

We can accept something a growth opportunity with our mind, but if the gap is too large we will be uncomfortably stressed. Unless we are perfectly happy with our current level of stress, we will not be able to take another step forward. It is OK even to regress a bit if we feel somewhat overstretched. Some people have enough self-awareness to progress constantly and slowly, while others oscillate between unreasonably high progress and regression to the comfort level. The oscillations are undesired, as they require energy which could be better used elsewhere, but overall they are nothing to be worried about.

Gratitude and forgiveness

Sometimes we need to work with toxic people or live with toxic people. We can choose a spouse and teach a child, but there is nothing we can do with the neighbor next door or a bad employee in some other department at work. Some people will hurt us, others will help us.

When I was younger I felt entitled because I work hard, followed the rules and had a great education. Not anymore. I think I do not take anything for granted, and I am grateful for everything I have because I could easily lose everything on several occasions. I think by now I also forgave everyone that ever hurt me. Some of them asked for my forgiveness, some others I forgave because I want to be forgiven for my own mistakes, and then I forgave others because I do not want to be bothered by negative thoughts.

In a stressless environment, we can easily afford negative thoughts. They are probably better than boredom. However, as the stress levels rise, we cannot afford to have dead weight in our emotional background. We are forced to deal with all issues and become better people, simply because we have no energy to spare on useless pursuits.

Boundaries

Another way to control stress is by controlling the boundaries. We can control our emotional involvement and stress levels simply by keeping a distance from the things that may stress us. When we feel the stress well below our comfort zone, we may experiment with removing the boundaries and exploring what happens.

People tend to be very emotional about their job, because they care and because they spend most of their life at work. However, by looking at things from a perspective and acting professionally, stress levels can be lowered. If we do not bother to be concerned about the things we cannot change, we will feel less stressed and more focused.

The more structured, well-planned and organized our work process is, the more it will move from exciting to boring. We can control the process either way to find just the right amount of excitement. Some people tend to care about their country, the world, and the future. You may choose to care more or less about these things, based on your stress levels. If you are seriously bored, you could probably try political activism. If you are already stressed, your political duty is probably limited to voting once in every several years.

Sublimation

Some people say you can transform stress directly into personal growth, use it as a driving force and a motivator. I do not think this is a good way for everybody. However, if the conditions are right and you can step out of your control zone in a controlled and gradual way, you may develop resilience and strength and enjoy watching yourself grow as a human being.

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