Stress can literally kill you ... if it's not managed well. In this episode of Live Well and Flourish, Craig shares his insights on the three main causes of stress: uncertainty, isolation, and overload. He discusses how each of these factors can bring about stress and offers suggestions on how to prepare for better managing your stress through reflection and performing an uncertainty inventory.
Can a Hermit Flourish?
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Stress is inevitable. We all experience stress in various ways at various times. In this episode, I discuss the three dominant causes of stress. This is the first of a series of posts related to stress and coping.
Welcome to Live Well and Flourish, where I help you understand what it means to live a flourishing life. I'm your host, Craig Van Slyke. If you're ready to think beyond material and external success, if you're ready to take control of who you are and the kind of life you live, if you're ready to flourish, this is the podcast for you.
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like stress has been in overload mode lately. Maybe you feel the same way. We all feel stressed from time to time, and we all experience stress differently. Stress is just a part of life, there’s no escaping it. But stress can be managed. Over the next few episodes, I’ll try to help you understand what causes stress and how you can cope with it effectively. In this episode, I want to share what might be called the stressor trifecta, the three biggest causes of stress, uncertainty, overload, and isolation.
Why is understanding stress important? Well, stress can have some pretty severe negative consequences. Here’s a partial list:
- Mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and negative mood; exacerbating existing mental health issues
- Cardiovascular disease like hypertension, heart attack and stroke
- An impaired immune system
- Digestive problems
- Sleep issues
- Weight issues
- Cognitive problems like impaired concentration, memory, and learning
- And even reproductive issues
So, it’s worth trying to understand how to deal with stress. We’re going to start by looking at its causes. Knowing the causes can help find the cure. Before getting into the causes, I want to make an important distinction between transitory and persistent stress. As the labels imply, transitory stress is temporary and usually linked to specific events or situations. A small example is when I’m trying to work and Sasha, our calico kitty, starts rubbing my legs wanting me to either give her treats or let her outside. (Or maybe both!) This sort of stress comes up suddenly and resolves once the triggering event passes. I give Sasha some treats or let her out (or both) and the stress goes away.
Persistent stress, which is also called chronic stress, is longer lasting and continuous. Persistent stress is often linked to ongoing situations in your life. Back when I was a dean, my stress was so constant and persistent that I didn’t even realize I was stressed until I wasn’t. It really was remarkable. The day I stepped down, my stress abated like Moses parting the Red Sea. Persistent stress is particularly harmful and can lead to many of the negative consequences I mentioned earlier. Chronic stress can literally kill you … and I mean literally literally, not figuratively literally.
What we’ll cover today applies to both types of stress. That being said, transitory stress can often be dealt with quickly by simply taking a few breaths … or letting out a cat, or giving her treats, or both.
Lots of situations can bring about stress. At work, some common stressors include work overload, not having a clearly defined role and set of duties, emotional demands, time pressures, and perfectionism. In your personal life, stress can come from factors such as relationship issues, health problems, challenges with parenting or caregiving, financial problems, personal disappointments, and major life changes. Of course, the line between work and personal stressors is pretty blurred, just like the boundary between work and personal life. Stressors in one area can bleed over into the other area, so stress at work can lead to stress at home and vice versa. Yep, there are a ton of things that can cause stress, but I’m not telling you something you didn’t already know … and feel. So, what can we do to get a better handle on what causes stress? I have some ideas.
Understanding stress in the context of technology use is one of my research areas. After giving this a lot of thought and doing a ton of reading, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three main causes of stress: uncertainty, isolation, and overload.
First up in our stress trifecta is uncertainty. Uncertainty related stress used to occur when my pup Maggie and I went on our pre-dawn walks in Flagstaff. Flagstaff is REALLY dark. Of course I carried a flashlight, but only used it when necessary. The unknowns of what might be lurking in the dark always produced a little bit of stress, but the stress was especially bad during skunk season. When we got near some typical skunk hangouts, my stress went up and I’d click on my flashlight to check for the cute little stinkbags. If I didn’t see their beady eyes glowing back at me, the stress would go down. When I was uncertain, there were all sorts of possibilities that I needed to account for. Should I let Maggie wander in that direction or do I need to cross the street? What if there are skunks on the other side of the street? What about that brush over there? Are there skunks over there? There were lots of possibilities to account for, and without reducing the uncertainty, I could have increased the danger of a skunking. (In Flagstaff, a dog being sprayed by a skunk isn’t a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.)
Shining the flashlight removed the uncertainty and reduced the stress. Life sometimes puts you in similar situations, often with more important outcomes than a stinky pup. When you face uncertainty, your brain turns into kind of a novelist, filling your mind with plots, subplots, and surprising twists, none of which end well. The possibilities are literally endless. Trying to figure out what to do in each possible scenario is mentally exhausting and frankly impossible. This is even worse if you’re a planner like me. My wife, Tracy, and I often joke about my backup plans … I even have backup plans to the backup plans. You may not believe this, but at one point, I had three generators, a main generator, a backup generator, and a backup to the backup generator, all driven by the unknown of whether we would lose power for an extended period, and whether each successive generator would function properly. Thinking through all of the possibilities and contingencies was stressful … and expensive. The good news is that we’re down to two generators now. The bottom line here is that uncertainty brings stress, especially about important things.
Next up is isolation. Humans are social creatures. We’re wired to connect with others. Even the Stoics emphasize the importance of being part of a community. Almost every philosophy and religion stresses that we need to live with and among others. We’re kind of herd creatures, we need others to thrive. (By the way, Andrea my former co-host and I had a really interesting discussion about this, you might wanna check out the episode, Can a hermit flourish? I'll put a link in the show notes or you can go to livewellandflourish.com to check it out.) When you lack social connections, you’re deprived of the support networks you need for comfort, advice, and assistance when you're going through times of stress. Keep in mind that isolation can be emotional as well as physical. Sometimes you can be alone in a crowd. When you’re isolated, your demands seem greater and resources seem scarcer. When you lack social interaction and support, the experience of stress is amplified … you just feel alone in facing your battles. Maybe you can get through the tough times alone, but it’s a whole lot harder and more exhausting.
That brings us to overload. Overload is like trying to use a colander as an umbrella. You can work as hard as you want, but you’re still getting wet. Overload is really the core cause of stress. Your demands exceed your resources, whether those resources are time, mental or emotional capacity or physical energy. Many of us face never-ending to-do lists, and even longer, ever growing “want to do” lists. Unfortunately, the hyper-connected world in which we live makes all of this worse. Being constantly connected just piles on more and more work, more and more ideas to check out … more and more emails to answer; it’s just exhausting. So we often have to juggle multiple roles and responsibilities, sometimes without a break. It just never ends. Over time, these constant demands lead to persistent stress. Sadly, overload also leads to physical and mental fatigue, which makes it that much harder to cope with the stress.
The key to understanding these stressors is remembering that stress comes from demands exceeding resources. Uncertainty robs you of mental and emotional resources, and also adds demands from trying to figure out how to deal with the endless possibilities. Isolation robs you of potential resources. When you’re disconnected, you lack social support, advice, and assistance that can help you deal with demands. Overload is just that, you have more demands than you can handle.
These three stressors can interact and exacerbate each other. (I love that word, exacerbate, I don't know why, it's just fun.) Uncertainty can lead to mental overload as you try to plan for different scenarios; social isolation can magnify feelings of uncertainty and overload and increase mental and emotional fatigue. The three big stressors form kind of a tricky knot, with each strand and twist just making the knot that much worse.
So far, it might seem like I’m painting a pretty dark picture. As I went through the stressor trifecta, you might have pictured how these affect your own life. We all experience each of these stressors to various degrees. So that is a bit dark, but here’s the good news. Stress can be managed and understanding the causes of stress is half the battle. Once you recognize what’s driving your stress, you can start developing and deploying coping strategies that address the underlying causes. I’ll cover some of these coping strategies in the next few episodes, but here’s the bottom line. Once you identify the strands of uncertainty, isolation, and overload, you can start loosening the proverbial knot, one tug at a time.
Stress is a normal part of life, it can’t be avoided. But it CAN be managed. Now that you understand the core causes of stress, you can begin loosening the knot of stress, and that knot in your stomach. (I feel like I've taken the knot metaphor about as far as it can go.)
So, what can you do this week to identify the causes of stress in your life? Here are three ideas that might help.
My three suggestions lay the groundwork for coping with your stress. Remember though, like Rome, stress isn’t conquered in a day. It will take some work. The goal of these activities is to get a better handle on the causes of your stress.
The first thing to do is to try stress reflection. Take 15 minutes each day to reflect on what’s causing you stress. Catalog any thoughts or worries that come to mind. Then try to categorize each one as being related to uncertainty, isolation, or overload. I think it’s important to write these down. Writing them down will help you develop your plan of attack for managing stress.
Do something similar with isolation. Start by making a list of the people in your life. Just brainstorm your family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, anybody that you interact with regularly (or should interact with regularly). Online connections count as well. Next to each person, classify the depth of your connection. You can use a scale, you know, 1 to 5, or just a descriptor such as superficial, close, deep, etc. This list will give you a starting point for improving your social connections to reduce isolation.
Finally, perform an uncertainty audit. Write down the areas of your life where you’re the most uncertain. It might be your professional life, your personal life, your finances, relationships, health … The list will be different for everybody. You don’t need to resolve the uncertainties yet, just reflect on and catalog them.
Our closing quote comes from psychologist William James, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” As you go through the week, remember that you CAN choose to focus on positive, empowering thoughts rather than allowing negative, stress-inducing thoughts to dominate your mind. Remember, most things are beyond your control, but your thoughts ARE within your control. Reduce your stress by taking control of your thoughts. Don’t think “I can’t handle this” think “This is tough, but I’ve gotten through tough things before.”
Until next time, be well my friends.
I produce Live Well and Flourish because of my dedication to helping others live excellent lives. I don't accept sponsorships and I don't want your money. The only thing I want is to help you and others flourish. If you've received some value from this episode, please share it with someone that might also benefit from listening. The best way to do that is to direct them to livewellandflourish.com
Until next time.