As a spokesperson for The American Institute of Stress I’m often asked to describe the burden of stress on the health, happiness and productivity of individuals and organizations. Over the past few years this question has ironically lead me to feel more and more stressed.
There are two directions I could go with my response. The first is the easy route. Quote the scary statistics that suggest stress is a silent killer…
- destroying our health (75–90% of medical visits are stress related)
- placing a burden on our economy ($300 — $600 billion is wasted by US businesses each year as a result of stress)
- and most likely leading to the rapid decline of our collective mental health (1 in 4 adults suffer from a mental health issue with anxiety being the leading cause )
But even these dramatic statements fail to tell the whole story. What about our growing tech-addiction, lack-of-sleep epidemic, disengagement at work and home, or dependence on stimulants to keep our energy charged to survive another day.
Yes, stress is a mess. But if we unpack the stress story a bit more we also see that a life without stress is a life without growth. Thanks to wildly popular books and TEDx talks, there are more people discussing the upside of stress and recognizing the potential for post-traumatic-growth than ever before. Speaking engagements and corporate consulting that focuses on the power of resilience is all the rage. But unfortunately, despite success stories of radical resilience individuals still struggle to figure out how to make stress their friend instead of their frenemy.
The second path to discussing the burden of stress is more difficult, but one I find myself longing to take when I’m allowed more than a sound bite. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Although the sympathetic nervous system response to threat might be fairly common, the way we experience stress in our lives is much more unique.
In each moment the brain perceives both stress triggers and potential tamers, and the stress load only becomes harmful when demand exceeds capacity. A small trigger may unleash paralyzing fear when someone feels overwhelmed by their circumstances while a major crisis can be disruptive short-term and ultimately lead to significant growth and even increases in meaning and purpose when they have the capacity and support required to cope and adapt effectively.
Which is where assessments come in. Although we constantly talk about how stressed we are, most people struggle to define what stress actually is. And without a clear definition and simple tools to measure what’s really happening, talking about the fact that stress is killing us is just making us more stressed as a result.
Fortunately, advances in technology are providing us with greater insights along with the ability to collect large amounts of data to integrate research findings and provide more personalized approaches to training and intervention. We still have a ways to go before individuals will have access to the type of real time information that will help them fully assess, train and monitor their unique stress strategies, but it’s exciting to explore what lies ahead.