I usually wait until I’ve finished a book to blog about it but this couldn’t wait. I’m reading Kelly McGonigal’s The Upside of Stress and it has shaken my very foundation. I’ve spent a few years telling people about the dangers of stress and warning them that they could get as sick as I did. And I’ve realized that it was the wrong thing to do.
McGonigal’s book explains research from many studies that show how believing stress is harmful is what’s really bad for your health. She shows that the combination of high stress and believing it will make you sick actually does. It has disturbed me a lot in terms of my quest over the past few years to help others avoid getting as sick as I did.
She writes about the many types of stress response we experience and the benefits of these. She talks about the tend-and-befriend response where we release the love hormone, oxytocin in order to build social connection when we need support. She also talks about the challenge response which drives us to perform when we have goals or deadlines. Telling yourself you are excited rather than anxious before public speaking actually improves your performance.
How do I reconcile this new knowledge with what happened to me? I burnt out from severe work stress primarily. I developed a lifelong illness and as much as I acknowledge the gifts that burnout offered, I’m still a little confused. When completing online surveys, I rated my stress as moderate before I got sick. Of course, that was not an accurate assessment. I experienced very high levels of stress but I didn’t realize it was affecting my health.
It took me a long time to place the label of burnout onto what happened. I struggled for years with chronic fatigue and to get my health back on track. I didn’t see that stress was the trigger for a long time. How do we know when we are stressed? I can say that I’m much more in tune with my stressometer now than I was before I got sick. I know that I start feeling overwhelmed and that I’m not coping.
I think it’s very important for us to identify what kind of stress we are experiencing. There’s the stress that comes with preparing for a speech. That’s the stress that shows me I care about doing a good job and I want to be able to remember everything and to make a difference to the people I’m addressing.
There’s also the too-much-to-do stress which I’m feeling at the moment. My youngest is turning seven on Sunday and we are having a huge party this weekend. My car stopped working, the oven broke and I’m running around ordering ice cream cakes and buying prizes for party games. This stress can be managed by writing lists, putting reminders in my calendar and outsourcing where I can.
Last year I experienced the stress of my child being in distress. I didn’t manage the stress well and it affected my health negatively. I know the stress came from wanting to help my child and wanting to take away her suffering. I need to find a way to offer my children support and guidance, without letting it affect my health.
There is also the stress of a trauma. I wrote about this in my book, Avoiding Burnout, where I experienced a stressful event that ultimately triggered my autoimmune disease. Amy Myers writes in her book, The Autoimmune Solution, that on average it takes about five years for an autoimmune disease to surface after a stressful event. This could be the death of a loved one, being a victim of a violent crime or a divorce.
My health deteriorated for years after this event and finally led to a lifelong illness. It wasn’t the only factor of course. The work I was doing was the opposite of my strengths, I wasn’t getting enough sleep and I was pushing myself physically and mentally beyond breaking point. I have been reading a lot about burnout lately and I know that the standard warning signs were there: an increasing cynicism and a sense of hopelessness. My thoughts were spiraling negatively and I couldn’t see a way out of the misery.
It’s hard for me to see how I could have prevented getting sick and if I could have been educated to see stress in a different way. If that’s not possible, then I have no quest. If I’m not able to steer people away from the type of illness and suffering I endured in my three years of recovery, then I’m doing the wrong thing.
How we think about stress matters. Believing it is harmful and is to be avoided does not serve us. I accept the notion that there are positive responses that help us to live in modern times where stress is unavoidable. But we do still want to avoid burnout. I’m wondering how viable it is for me to influence people to change their lives in order to avoid burnout. Would you listen? I know I would not have.Follow me: