When this column started several months ago, I introduced my Five R’s of Coping Model, a multi-level defense system against stress. The Five R’s; Relax, Release, Rethink, Reduce, and Reorganize provide five different levels of defense against stress. So far, we’ve worked our way through Relax, Release, and Rethink. In this column I’ll introduce the 4th level of defense, Reduce, as a level of defense against stress is based on helping you find your optimal level of stimulating activities and demands. Stimulating activities are things that you enjoy and consider fun, such as going to the movies or playing golf. Demands are things you must do, such as clean the house, get your oil changed, etc. Neither stimulating activities nor demands are inherently stressful, they just require time and energy.
Years ago, Hans Selye, the father of modern stress research, defined stress as the non-specific response of the body to any demand. He came up with this theory by exposing his laboratory animals to environmental demands and then measuring their effects of various body parts (adrenal glands, thymus etc.) and systems (endocrine, cardiovascular etc.). He manipulated conditions such as food deprivation, extremes in climate and lighting, and other stimuli, things that he could control in a laboratory setting. These environmental stimuli were considered demands because they forced (or demanded) his laboratory animals to adapt. In other words, these stimuli demanded adaptation in order to maintain balance (homeostasis). In a similar fashion, when you have too many demands (self-imposed, or by others), you are thrown out of balance and must adapt by mobilizing energy through the stress response.
Both positive and negative demands require energy, forcing your body to adapt. This is why even fun activities can become stressors if they require too much of your time and energy or if you engage in them without cutting back on other things. The pressure of trying to juggle too many demands can lead to too much stimulation, causing feelings of being unable to cope, and therefore becoming stressed. Later studies with humans confirmed his findings and also found that too few demands worked the same way. This is illustrated in Figure 1, The Stress Curve.
The two axes measure your level of performance (vertical axis) and level of demand or stimulation (horizontal axis). As you can see in the curve, when you have low levels of stimulation and demand (you are not involved in many things or have much responsibility) you are bored, unmotivated, and do not perform at a high level. At this level of functioning, you are not asking much of your body and mind and therefore are not getting much in return. As you begin to challenge yourself and take on more demands and a greater amount of stimulation you perform at a higher level. Quite simply, you get more out of yourself and your life when you push yourself a little. Eventually you reach your “optimal” level of demand or stimulation, that point where you are doing just enough and at just the right level of intensity to function at an optimal (peak performance) level. At this point you are busy and working hard but the activities you are engaged in are challenges, not stressors because you enjoy them and feel you can cope with them.
If however, you continue to add more demands and stimulation, your performance begins to drop and the same activities that were fun now become stressors. You become overloaded, and you reach a point where you simply can’t keep up with all of the things you are involved in. When this happens, you begin to feel threatened by the same activities that you previously viewed as fun or challenges. Once you feel threatened and unable to cope with them your mind triggers a stress response.
Unfortunately, there is no chart to turn to where you can look up your optimal level of stimulation. The only way to find your optimal level of stimulation is through experience. You must actually go beyond your optimal level of demand to know that you have reached it. When you reach peak performance and then decline, you’ve just passed your optimal level of stimulation. When this happens, you’ve pushed beyond your optimal level of stimulation and need to start Reducing the demands on your time.
Exercise # 1: My Personal Stress Curve
Purpose: The following exercise entitled My Personal Stress Curve, is designed to help you figure out your current levels of demand and stimulation. Plotting your own levels of demand and stimulation will make it easier to see why you are feeling stressed or challenged by your current lifestyle. It can provide the motivation to start cutting back on demands that you can control.
- Draw a copy of the inverted U-shaped stress curve in Figure 1.
- Indicate where you are on the curve today. Describe your performance.
- If you have too many demands (are over stimulated) describe which ones are most related to you feeling overwhelmed.
- If you have too few demands (are under stimulated) describe some kinds of things you’d like to get involved in to increase your level of stimulation.
- Describe what you think is holding you back from cutting back or adding on demands.
- If you are at optimal stimulation, describe what you can do to stay there.
I suggest you do this exercise every six months just to be more mindful of your level of stimulation and how it relates to your stress. This will help you plan for cutting back or adding more stimulation as needed. Reducing your stress begins with looking at your values-based goals and examining the choices you make regarding how you spend the 24 hours you have each day. The goal of Reduce is to find your optimal level of stimulation, that point where you get the most out of what you choose to do without becoming overloaded, and therefore, stressed. This is the point where you are operating at peak efficiency. Operating at peak efficiency means that you are getting the most out of your potential. One of the keys to understanding Reduce is understanding that we all vary in terms of how much and what kinds of stimulation we require to operate at peak efficiency. Things that I find stimulating and essential to my happiness might bore you to tears. The amount of stimulation you need to be happy and operate at peak efficiency might feel overwhelming to me. This is why it is so important to keep track of your level of stimulation and demand and how it relates to your stress response. This will give you information you need to decide where and when to make changes to your level of demand and stimulation.
In my next column I’ll continue to show you different ways to Reduce your stress by helping you find your optimal level of demand and stimulation.
Until then remember to stress less and live more.