When we were children in school, we were taught addition, multiplication, subtraction and division. Later on, geometry and algebra came in, as did trig, and they were more complex, yes, but really just more complicated methods of adding, taking away, timesing and dividing.
Those of us who didn’t stumble through mathematics at all may have gone on willingly to calculus and physics – again, just more complex versions of what we learned in elementary school.
Then, we grew up and math, for most of us, became just something of a necessary evil – at work, planning budgets; at home, paying bills; out for dinner, calculating tips. We don’t necessarily see how equations surround us all of the time.
What we did learn, the older we got, was the definition of stress. Or we think we did. We’re wrong.
When I polled friends and colleagues on Twitter and Facebook, I asked, “What is your definition of stress?” And I got similar, however varied answers. Most responded with a physical symptom of feeling stressed – an eczema outbreak, loss of appetite or headaches and lost sleep – and more responses poured in about the general feeling of being stressed – of feeling overwhelmed, worried, anxious, helpless. Some mentioned being driven to tears by it, and still more said that it was something they’ve learned to step away from, lest become paralysed by it.
No one mentioned anything positive, and the overwhelming answer was stress is bad
Stress is not bad, actually. Stress isn’t even a singular thing
What is stress?
The word stress is is actually two components – one part distress, and the other something called eustress, or positive stress. Distress’ meaning is obvious to most: something that negatively affects a reaction in your life, body and mind, however, positive stress also evokes a change, however temporary or not, holistically. Let’s look at what those two terms mean, and how they co-exist, shall we?
Positive stress occurs when we challenge ourselves in a way that brings about elated or rewarding feelings. Examples of this can be pushing through a side-stitch while running, a great roll in the hay, childbirth and participating in something important to us that still makes us nervous. Positive stress is quite simply stress that makes us feel good, in the end. This kind of stress is what can make life, and our accomplishments, worth it.
We feel distress when we are pushed past our normal limits. This is what people usually associate with the term stress, as in, ‘I am under so much stress at work’. This is the negative side of life, when we feel both mentally and physically incapable on some level, when we may experience anger, depression, anxiety and physical symptoms that don’t go away until our source of stress does. We can, like my friends said, feel helpless, overwhelmed and racked with and inability to move forward. This kind of stress, when persistent, can can irreparable harm to our relationships, health and careers.
How can we eliminate stress?
Besides ridding ourselves of obvious sources of negative stress – a venomous relationship, poor financial management, a job that isn’t fulfilling or comes with management that isn’t ideal – we can’t. Stress is part of the natural balance of life, and truly, it’s what helps us grow, become stronger individuals, and gain positive self-regard. Stress, and how we handle it, makes us feel good about ourselves, our roles and our life paths.
Stress isn’t a totally bad thing.
What is bad is when the two types of stress are off balance – when there’s more negative than positive, consistently – and when we seek only to eliminate negatives, instead of balancing the equation.
It’s really rudimentary math
Not to be facetious, but we learn in the first grade that 2 + 2 = 4, but we don’t apply that in most areas of life, outside of money management. We can also know from that first equation that 4 – 2 = 2, and by eight grade, we’ve learned how to balance equations, so that not only does 3 + 1 = 4, but 4x = 2x, when x equals 4 and y equals 2. I haven’t lost you, have I? It will get clearer in one second.
In the case of stress, you have to balance the equation, in order to not live in a negatively stressed, unhealthy state. You have to add more to one side of the equation after you’ve taken away all you can from the other, until you make each side equal the other. Having an equal amount of eustress in your life can actually help you deal with distress, minimize its effects and even in some cases, help you to solve some of the negatives that are causing it.
Math in action
Judy is a mompreneur, working full-time from her home office to get her business in the black. Her two children attend school during the day, and her husband has a moderately successful position in which he works longer hours, but brings home a great wage and benefits that their family completely relies upon to pay the bills while Judy’s business is getting started. Because of Judy’s busy work schedule and her role as primary caregiver to their two children, she often finds her days filled with to-do lists that don’t get checked off, running from a meeting to school pick-up, volleyball practice and home just in time to make dinner, clean up and collapse into a Grey’s Anatomy-filled coma at the end of each Thursday.
An hour later, her husband arrives home, and unintentionally, they get into a squabble because they’re both tired from their days, haven’t had the opportunity to really decompress, and lack support while they work their butts off – they’re too busy for coffee dates with friends, or a loving chat on the phone. Judy’s exhausted and so is her husband, and all they really want is to rest because they’re getting little respite from the negative stresses they feel all day. They go to bed, and tomorrow, they wake up to do it all over again.
Work load + financial concerns + childcare + household maintenance = Future business success + happy children, or 4 = 2. That isn’t right, is it?
You can see that Judy’s got some majorly heavy distress that isn’t balanced by positive stress. She’s lacking something to absorb the day-long negative stress she feels, and even the positives might not feel very present or reliable at times.
What if Judy added in a long-winded, laugh-filled phone call to her best friend after dinner, which might might make her feel guilty for because she would normally be washing dishes but ultimately leaves her satisfied? Suddenly, Judy’s equation becomes 4 = 3. Add in a 20 minute yoga session in the morning while her husband makes sure the kids get breakfast, and Judy’s equation becomes 4 = 4. Judy’s life is more equally-balanced.
There’s other ways that Judy can try to manage her stress levels, such as minimizing some of her household responsibilities by giving her children chores and asking her husband to pitch in more, taking on freelance work outside of her business and arranging for carpooling to her children’s after-school activities. And truly, Judy should attempt to minimize her distress as much as possible so that it doesn’t have long-term consequences in her life. However, increasing her eustress – such as by practising yoga – can increase her fortitude to negative stress and finding a way to let out some of the distress that she feels, even by engaging in a positively stressful activity can have a dissipating effect as well.
Find the sources of distress in your life, and brainstorm if there are feasible methods to decrease their number and force. Then, apply math to the situation by integrating positive stresses, to counteract the negative.
I use yoga, impromptu dance parties with my daughter, frivolous reading while work awaits, running, Starbucks’ white chocolate mochas and writing to fight the negative, overwhelming effects of negative stress. If you were to balance your equation, what kinds of eustress would you?