Photo credit: Robert

We are so concerned about too much stress and pressure that we are often at risk of losing sight of the fact that there needs to be sufficient tension and pressure within a human being (a system) in order to perform and be effective. Not necessarily to over-perform, but to be effective, whether on a daily basis at work or in the learning environment at any age. Whether preparing to write a test or exam or doing the preparatory work for a presentation, as common examples. Getting the balance between tension and pressure right means we want to be in a state of eustress (positive stress) not distress (negative stress) – this is constructive stress management. The bottom line is that we need to understand that stress is not only negative, it can have an upside too. We need enough tension and pressure to win at both life and work, but we need to be tuned in to its nuances.

When we stay in distress, bad stress, for too long it can lead to anxiety and eventually burnout. In fact, 60% of visits to doctors today are stress-related. The World Health Organisation has recently made Workplace Burnout an official diagnosis. Those who have experienced it know that it often takes at least six months to a year to come right again because of extreme mental and physical exhaustion. Today, it is often high achievers who are burning out. We are seeing this in high school, at universities and in the work place. They are stuck in the cycle of over-achieving.  We are also seeing it in families where there is conflict and extreme, constant stress. In my presentation for parents called Children Living in the Red Zone, I use the analogy of a pressure gauge. I talk about the fact that there is  rarely a child moving up the pressure gauge into the red zone whose parents aren’t also in the red zone too. We often tend to mirror each other’s stress, or should I say, distress.

Negative Stress Wears Us Down

I am noticing that more and more children are stuck in fight or flight at any age, not just adults. For everyone who is struggling, it feels a bit like being stuck in first gear when driving a manual car. It’s extremely uncomfortable. You can feel the strain on the vehicle and you can hear it too. This is as a result of constant stress triggers. However, as adults, we should have a little more life experience and awareness to make sense of it before it gets out of control. This is called stress management. Everyone’s stress threshold is slightly different and we need to bear this in mind. Some people can take more stress than others.

Too Little Stress Is Also Not Good For Us Either

A great example of how we need stress to perform is when I look at learners writing matric exams, especially those who have been high performers in physical activity such as sports. I think of those who have played sport and exercised hard at least 6 out of 7 days a week and then a month to six weeks before prelims, it all stops. Think of how these young people have been used to a certain degree of pressure in their system as well as structure. Let’s dissect this example:

  • Exercise routines often externally imposed
  • Regular aces or matches where performance is expected
  • Having to fit their studies into tight time allocations
  • Being hyper-focused when they do study or do homework because they won’t have another chance
  • Eating well to support the physical demands of their regime
  • Having a coach on hand all the time to ensure they are up to speed and to encourage them to stay the course
  • Being part of a team means they are supported and encouraged by each other and they perform for each other
  • A regular flood of endorphins, the happiness hormones that come with exercise and make one feel good, confident and focused
  • Being directed by their own personal goals for achievement
  • Being part of working towards a group goal
  • Being committed to their own success

This is a fair deal of pressure on a system, but these kids usually do quite well – until they stop exercising and have too much time on their hands! It is at this point they almost become like a balloon with a slow leak or an elastic band that has become too lose and stretchy with overuse or age, and has no tension in it, or an elastic band that has popped completely. The same can be said of adult extreme athletes – runners, swimmers, cyclists, ironmen and women etc. When they stop they can become directionless until they set a new goal and start on a training regime, creating pressure and tension in the system again for performance.

Lack Of Stress Is Like a Popped Elastic Band

I recently counselled a matriculant who fits the profile above and is battling to focus on studies for the matric exams. Now is not the ideal time to not be able to perform, as I am sure you will agree. I used the analogy of an elastic band to explain how there wasn’t enough tension in his system which was affecting his:

  • Attitude to succeed at passing matric
  • Work rate necessary to pass matric
  • Skills necessary to pass matric

Putting a loose elastic band around our thumb and forefingers, we pushed out against it and there wasn’t enough tension to keep us playing with the elastic band. Then we doubled the elastic band over making it a much tighter fit and now we had something to push against. We only  play with elastic bands if there is enough tension for us to get some feedback though our muscles and joints (for the technically-minded, this is called proprioception). We want to have some control over the elastic band – to make it do something, and we are far more inclined to put in more work if there is some tension in the system.

Without that tension or pressure in the system, these kids float around slightly apathetically and helplessly. In South African parlance, they become a little ‘pap’ or ‘useless’ because they have let go too much. While it’s importannt to have time for recovery from high performance, too much of nothing and no stress is not a good thing either.

Creating Enough Pressure Is Essential For Performance

These learners need to harness themselves in and create a bit of pressure for themselves in order to be able to perform again in the academic field that requires them to study for, and write exams, and pass them. This means learning how much healthy pressure they need and how to create it. Knowing how to do this is a good life skill to acquire, but it is often missed by anxious parents and teachers. This is a major trap that can trip them up at this time and we need to be more awake about this phenomenon when all the pressure and tension is let out of the sytem. Let’s call it Popped Elastic Band Syndrome. If it goes unchecked then the batteries of these kids run at an all time low. We wouldn’t let our cellphones run out of battery, so why are we not ensuring that we and our children are properly charged for the task at hand.

Stress management is an important part of self-care, but so is ensuring that we have enough eustress in our system in order to perform. Without enough stress,  tension and pressure, we become underwhelmed and can feel as pap and demotivated as someone who is in distress. It’s such a fine line, isn’t it? When there is no stress, time management goes out of the window, the ability to focus decreases, distraction increases, marks can drop at school as can productivity at work, and we become less directed and motivated to achieve our goals.

Getting The Elements Of Success In Alignment To Create Enough Pressure And Tension

A reminder that we need all three of these success elements in order to succeed:

  • Skills
  • Work rate
  • Attitude

I run workshops using the Success Cube™ concept that can help individuals (learners or adults) as well as teams to write their own recipes for success. Recipes that are unique to them and show them where they are now and where they are going to, in a visual, tangible, 3-dimensional form. If any of these three elements are not present or are way off base, our success will be influenced significantly. The interesting thing is that the Success Cube™ concept actually creates the internal pressure for the system to work optimally for us to choose our own attitudes, work rate and skills, because we want to, which is very different from them being imposed on us externally.

Take-aways For Winning At Home And Life

  • Everyone in the family will have different stress thresholds – one of my children was good with extramurals 3 days a week and the other needed to do extramurals at least 5 days a week to have sufficient dynamic tension in his system
  • Everyone needs a bit of tension and pressure to perform optimally
  • Teach your family members how to read their own stress response – how much is too much and how much is too little?
  • Teach them the difference between positive stress and negative stress
  • Teach them to value feedback because sometimes we can’t actually see the full impact of our stress
  • Do the Popped Elastic Band Syndrome exercise with them to illustrate the need for dynamic tension in the system
  • Help members of your family work out how much dynamic tension they actually need and if they do not have enough, how to create more so that they can perform optimally

Take-aways For Winning At Work

  • Acknowledge that everyone in your team has different stress thresholds
  • You need to be awake to both the stresses on team members both at work and at home, understanding that these can change from time to time
  • Understand that Workplace Burnout is now a real condition that is often accompanied by:
    • Emotional and physical exhaustion
    • Emotional detachment
    • Reduced personal accomplishment, among other symptoms
  • Help your team members to understand that no stress is as bad as too much stress
  • Having someone to hold each other to account can be extremely helpful as it provides a relationship – someone to talk to and who can provide feedback
  • Help co-workers seek their meaning and what nourishment they need to flourish
  • Allow for regular re-assessment of priorities

Aim For Dynamic Balance And Dynamic Tension

Understanding the difference between positive and negative stress and how each feels different on our systems is imperative for us to get the balance right. We should always be in a state of dynamic balance, there is no perfect balance. Stress, tension and pressure are a moving target because we are human beings with a head, a heart and an incredible body that releases chemicals and hormones in response to stress – both internal and external stress. We should be committed to our own self-care, it is not a luxury but a necessity or else we may get stuck in a cycle of either over-achieving which can lead to burnout because our battery is totally flat and we have no more resources to recharge it; or under-achieving because we are suffering from Popped Elastic Band Syndrome. We have let go too much.

Beware of Flat Battery Syndrome and Popped Elastic Band Syndrome. They both leave us with insufficient energy, little drive and a low work rate, all of which will affect our performance at work, home and school. Self-awareness, feedback and support from mentors is essential to finding our way to fine tuning our stress and our need for just enough pressure and tension for effective performance.

Human Potential and Parenting Expert, speaker and author:  Helping you win at work and life