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How’s Your Stress Tolerance? It May Be Too High

There is a condition called congenital analgesia. It is an incredibly rare disease in which a person cannot feel physical pain. While you might like the idea of not getting sore after a workout or being able to push yourself to new physical limits, it’s actually a dangerous condition. People with congenital analgesia, sometimes referred to as congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP), end up with bruises, wounds, and even broken bones because they can’t feel when damage is being done to their body. It turns out pain is a good source of information for helping people navigate the world and avoid causing damage to our bodies.

Stress works in a similar way. It’s designed to make us pay attention to building pressure that may lead to pain or damage, emotional or physical. Stress can be motivating, helping to keep us focused and motivated. But it can also be overwhelming and reduce our productivity and effectiveness. In our fast-paced “win the day” culture, stress is often seen as a sign of weakness. Those who are pushing to get to the top and have it all seem to not experience stress the way the rest of us do. But is it possible to have too much stress tolerance? Can it actually be damaging to you and those around you to not feel stressed?

Having too high of a tolerance for stress is just as dangerous as someone who is blindly optimistic.

A person who is too optimistic or doesn’t feel enough stress can be like a person standing in a burning building with only a single bucket of water and feeling confident they can get out safely. Having a realistic picture of what is happening is just as important as feeling a sense of urgency to deal with a situation that could do real damage. While we think we want to never feel stress, or even better, to eliminate stressful circumstances, we actually need to get more comfortable with feeling stress in ways that help us.

Healthy stress tolerance and stress management means paying attention to the pressure that’s building and an acknowledgement of your limitations.

Without a healthy level of stress tolerance, you are MORE LIKELY to:

  • overestimate your abilities and capacity to get things done, meaning bottlenecks start to form around you and you become a single point of failure
  • create environments where pressure is always present and the expectation that living in a state of stress is normal
  • show a lack of empathy and understanding for people who are experiencing stress or expressing their feelings of stress
  • accept recurring problems and settle for a level of dysfunction that limits your effectiveness rather than solve the core issues and become more effective
  • rest and recover less often and operate below your potential with less impact and efficiency more often

Without a healthy level of stress tolerance, you are LESS LIKELY to:

  • ask for help from others, and as a result, be overly independent
  • solve small problems and address patterns of dysfunction
  • empathize with and understand when other people are stressed, overwhelmed, and need to take a break or offload some responsibilities
  • regularly reflect on the effectiveness of your strategy and tactics for accomplishing goals and striving for success
  • change your behavior when someone else is dissatisfied or frustrated with you
  • change your approach to solving a problem when you do decide to address something
  • identify the source of a problem or stress and instead just treat the symptoms

Feeling stress is actually a helpful way to gather information — it is a sign that you’re reaching your capacity. You may be maxing out your capacity to make decisions, to do physical work, to focus, to process emotional information, or to take in more information.

Stress doesn’t mean you have to shut down, it means you need to pay attention to building pressure and approaching limitations.

Three reasons people don’t feel (or admit to feeling) stress:

  • You are afraid of looking weak. Feeling guilty or ashamed for needing help, rest, or less to do only adds to the stress. Expectations, real or perceived, can ratchet up the stress to a point where it seems easier to just put on a good face and try harder. Whether they are expectations we put on ourselves or expectations we believe others have of us, it’s common to think we need to have it all and do it without working up a sweat. Some people simply shut down any awareness or acknowledgement of stress because they think they aren’t allowed to be stressed out. It’s a feeble attempt at being invulnerable.
  • You are hyper-focused. Tunnel vision. The motivation to achieve and succeed becomes a blinding force, where assessing whether you’ve hit your goal or not becomes the only information you pay attention to. This isn’t really having too much stress tolerance, but rather a lack of active concern about the impact your effort and decisions are having on your health, relationships, and environment. Burnout is the most common outcome, not satisfaction or lasting achievement.
  • You lack self-awareness. Some people simply haven’t learned or practiced introspection and reflection. I’ve worked with CEOs and executives who could not describe how they know when they are feeling stress out or overwhelmed. Given the pressure that comes with their position and responsibilities, I know they experience stress. But they weren’t able to describe what that looks like in terms of their thoughts, the body language, their communication, or other behavior. Sometimes this lack of self-awareness overlaps with a fear of admitting weakness or pain, but it can also simply be a skill and habit that hasn’t been developed.
Stress doesn’t mean you failed or you have to shut down.
It means you need to pay attention.

Sometimes acknowledging the stress we are feeling or experiencing simply means taking a break. Resting and giving your mind, body, and heart time to recover and be replenished.

Other times it means assessing how you’re carrying the load on your shoulders. Is there a shift you need to make in how you approach a situation, a relationship, or your work? “It’s not the weight, it’s how you carry it.” Instead of dealing with a symptom in your office for the tenth time, digging in to discover the core issue and resolving it would be one example of making a shift to how you are carrying the responsibility that’s on your shoulders.

And sometimes stress points to a true limitation. You are doing something you aren’t currently able to do without using a lot of energy — physical, mental, or emotional — or without risk of creating real damage. You may need to develop new skills and habits before you can take on the work or challenge that is causing the stress to build up. Taking a class in project management, practicing conflict resolution with a coach, or journaling about new habits you are trying to instill are examples of this. You might simply need to acknowledge your limitations and stop doing what you are trying to do. We know we can’t do it all, but we often convince ourselves that we can or that others expect us to.

The good news about acknowledging limitations is it frees you up to focus on the areas where you can thrive. These are areas were you don’t feel as much stress or spend a ton of unproductive energy. Instead of trying to do something you may not be ready for, or even something you weren’t meant to do, you can focus on your strengths and make a bigger, more efficient and effective impact. That doesn’t mean you won’t experience stress when you are doing things that are in your wheelhouse, but the stress you do experiences is health and manageable. Stress within our areas of strength and passion is more likely to be productive and helpful.

So how can you right-size your stress tolerance?

Not too much, not too little. Just right.

Here are a few tips to help you start assessing your level of self-awareness when it comes to stress, how you are currently managing stress in your life, and some practices to effectively manage stress in a healthy, sustainable, and right-sized way.

Self-Awareness

  • Ask yourself, “How do I know when I’m feeling stressed out or overwhelmed by what’s going on in my life?”
  • Ask others around you, “How do you know when I’m feeling stressed out or overwhelmed by what’s going on in my life?” (Ask your significant other, friends, co-workers, and even your boss. The differences you find can be really enlightening and valuable)
  • Compare the answers to the two questions. What behaviors or patterns emerged? Consider a few specific areas to reflect on as well: does your body language change? How does the internal dialogue in your head shift? How does stress impact your ability to make good decisions? Do you avoid connecting with other people when you are in stress?
  • Make some observations and take notes you can come back to as you start developing some new practices over the next few weeks.

How You Currently Manage Stress

  • Do you internalize or externalize stress and pressure? Maybe your mind spins searching for the silver bullet. Or maybe you wear stress like a badge of honor, telling everyone how bad you have it and how busy you are.
  • Do you avoid or attack stress and pressure? Maybe you put off dealing with problems to the last minute, hoping they will be resolved before you have to handle it. Or maybe you stay late or go to the office on the weekends to try and get ahead for once.
  • Do you have any specific habits, healthy or unhealthy, to manage stress? Food, alcohol, exercise, drugs, meditation, sleep, binge-watching TV, shopping, isolation, travel, and artistic endeavors are just a few possible examples.

Sustainable Ways to Manage Stress

  • Pay attention: eliminating feelings of stress is necessarily the goal. Stress is a helpful source of information about your experience in the world. Pay attention to what is causing stress, how you respond, and how long the stress is sticking around. Simply acknowledging stress can be an effective way of managing it, much more so than ignoring or denying there is stress in the first place.
  • Journaling: a safe place to process thoughts and emotions at the end of a day, as well as to take notes on when you notice stress building up and how you are working toward more self-awareness and healthier use of stress in your life
  • Daily meditation: meditation is beneficial for many reasons, including increased awareness of what is causing stress along with reducing feelings of anxiety and pressure. Not sure how to get started? Try an app like Headspace, a perfect app I recently started using and found to be perfect for beginner and experts alike.
  • Exercise: anything to get your heart pumping and your body moving
  • Coaching or counseling: allow a skilled, objective person help you work through challenges, obstacles, and uncertainty while picking up new skills and habits to increase your overall emotional intelligence
  • Boundaries: Decide what is most important each day (or week or month) and focus on those high-priority items. You can’t have it all, so decide what’s most meaningful and most important and put your energy there first. Don’t allow urgency to determine your schedule, but instead be relentlessly focused on doing the few things that are important and valuable right now.
  • Delegation: whether you are an executive or a stay-at-home parent, there are probably tasks and responsibilities you can off-load to someone else. Whether it’s hiring a virtual executive assistant, automating paying bills with online services, or asking your significant other and kids to take more responsibility around the house, get creative and delegate whenever and wherever you can.
  • Stay optimistic and flexible: The other end of the spectrum is letting stress driver your every moment, running rough-shod over your ability to navigate even little moments of uncertainty or inconvenience. Remain centered on making progress each day and adapt to the circumstances you face, not the one’s you were wishing for. Find people who can support you, encourage you, and share moments of celebrate for wins, big and small.

I am a leadership coach and organizational development consultant. I offer leadership coaching and emotional intelligence for individuals as well as assessments, team training, and more for organizations. Get more info at www.adambouse.co and let’s pick up a conversation about what problem you want to solve today.