You’ve spoken before about the different forms of stress and the role each one plays in our lives. Can you elaborate further?
Stress has two forms – eustress and distress. Eustress tends to be wellness-promoting and occurs when you’re doing something that you love – something that is inspiring yet challenging, and something that supports your values. Eustress essentially means “true stress” and is often a confirmation that you’re on track with what is most deeply meaningful and inspiring to you.
Distress, on the other hand, can be illness-promoting and often occurs when you are living a one-sided life. Distress essentially means “divided stress” in that you might be looking for a positive without a negative, pleasure without pain or ease without difficulty. You might also be injecting other people’s values into your life and doing what you feel you “should” do instead of what is deeply meaningful to you. In that way, distress can actually assist you in your journey of being accountable and authentic, and help you get back on track to what’s true for you.
So, stress can be seen as a feedback mechanism and not something negative that should be avoided at all costs?
Yes, stress can be wellness-promoting in the sense that it provides feedback on the direction in which you are headed in case you need to readjust. In that way, it can be perceived as being “on the way” and not “in the way.”
Stress is simply the inability to adapt to a changing environment. People who are able to adapt and who have resilience don’t perceive the distress that most people do. In fact, the majority of distress comes from either fearing the loss of something you seek or fearing the gain of something you are trying to avoid.
Let’s look at business, as an example. Anytime you perceive the loss of what you want – clients, income, business, etc – it is going to be distressful. Anytime you fear the gain of what you don’t want – such as unexpected bills – it’s also going to be distressful. It is the same in relationships – the fear of losing a loved one or the fear of someone you don’t like joining your social network. Let’s look at your health – the fear of losing your strength or fitness or the fear of gaining symptoms that you don’t want. So, in any area of life, the perception of loss of what you seek and the perception of gain of what you don’t want, is distressful.
Does eustress occur when we set goals aligned with our highest values and distress when we don’t?
Let me first explain more about values for those that have not yet completed the free Value Determination Process on my website.
Every human being on the planet, regardless of age, gender or culture, has a set of priorities or values. These priorities can evolve and change as you grow, but at any moment in your life, you have values that are most important to you which dictate your perceptions, decisions and actions.
Anytime you set goals and intentions that are aligned to what you value most, you have the highest probability of achieving them, seeing the possibilities, making decisions quickly and taking actions that you will actually see through to completion. When you do things that are high on your list of values, you will tend to grow in self-worth, be spontaneously inspired, have more fuel and energy, automatically expand your time and space horizons, and give yourself permission to do something more extraordinary.
On the flip side, anytime you are doing lower priority actions, you devalue yourself. You’re automatically engaging the lower more primitive part of the brain where you want immediate gratification rather than recognizing your long-term vision. This tends to shroud and cloud the clarity of your more inspiring mission. It also hinders the power that you have to make a difference in the world.
Knowing your highest values enables you to align your life’s actions with the actions and objectives that mean the most to you. Not being aware of those highest values makes it exponentially more difficult to create a meaningful life and achieve self-mastery.
Think of a young boy playing a video game – no one has to motivate him to play the game or conquer each level. He feels inspired to keep overcoming each challenge until he masters the game. So, it’s eustress. But if you ask that same boy to do homework or clean his room, you may have a different outcome if it’s not high on his list of values or priorities. For example, he may need extrinsic motivation in the form of a promise of reward or the fear of punishment to complete the task. And when he does do it, he might hesitate or procrastinate or feel uncertain because he is pursuing something low on his list of values. These tasks also tend to take longer and can result in physical symptoms such as raised blood pressure, digestive disturbances and immune deficiencies – in other words, feeling of distress. And again, distress is not a bad thing, it’s simply feedback.
So, to answer your question, I’ve seen many people, self-depreciate, and beat themselves up because they compare themselves to other people, try to live by other people’s values, and try to be somebody they’re not. In doing so, they are building a fantasy of who they think they should be instead of honoring who they are. The magnificence of who you are is far greater than all the fantasies you impose on yourself. And the most magnificent you is the authentic you, which is based on your true, highest values.
Many people experience feelings of stress during the current pandemic because this is not what they had expected or planned for 2020. What would you say to those people?
Let’s say that you have been positively diagnosed with COVID-19 and that it’s stopping you from doing the things that you want to do. You’re comparing your present with a fantasy of what you wanted this year to look like. Anytime you compare your current reality to fantasy, you’re likely to feel depressed, distressed and maybe even angry because you have an unrealistic expectation on yourself or the world around you. But again, the distress you feel is feedback to let you know that what you’re perceiving and expecting is delusional.
You would be wise to stop and look at what is real. Ask yourself the following questions:
In other words, if you ask how the current situation is helping you in each of the seven areas of life and helping you fulfil what you value most, I am certain that what you’re perceiving as distressful will dissolve, and your mind will come up with creative answers and solutions. In that way, what you perceive to be distress will become eustress.
What role do our perceptions play in terms of our stress levels?
Whatever is going on around you has everything to do with how you perceive it. It’s not what happens to you on the outside, it’s how you perceive it on the inside. You have control of your perceptions, decisions, and actions. And so, it’s not an external thing.
Once you take whatever has happened and see it as “on the way” instead of “in the way”, then the world is in your command.
Author: Dr John Demartini is a world-renowned specialist on human behavior, a researcher, author and global educator.