Sunday, February 19, 2017

Stress as Illusion - Dealing with Stress Toms vs Stress Tigers

Stress - for me that’s the “i HAVE to get this DONE!!!” Everything else falls before the necessity of this sudden, total imperative. GRRR ARRRGH. You know?

On reflection, as i somehow pause in the midst of one of these exact “i have to” moments (that’s gone on for almost my entire weekend) -i begin to think, you know, a lot of my stress seems to be convenient. It reminds me of the four quadrants for assessing what’s important to do - and what is not that Steven Covey made popular.

Stress as Urgency Illusion

The four quads are important/not urgent; important/urgent; Not important/not urgent; not important/urgent

Very little, Covey says, is important and urgent: like our child is being rushed to the hospital and so we have to break an appointment.

Lots, says Covey, we let be urgent but it’s not important. Not really. Not such that it has to be attended to right now - which means other stuff - perhaps even important, but not urgent stuff - gets pushed to the side. Again. Sound familiar?

The Techno Trap - stress illusion example

Here’s an example for me: something started happening on a computer network that affects how i can access the content i use to keep parts of my life moving, and i feel i need to get it fixed right away.

Thing is, i have other stuff to do that is actually important, but feel like i can’t do those other things till i get this one sorted. My focus also becomes intense, like if i look up, it will all fall apart; the “don’t bug me” walls go way up. Someone’s nice to me: i want to growl at them. Somehow this task has become the mission critical one. Is it?

As i pause right now, to ask this question, to confront myself, i find myself having to ask: is the problem i’m dealing with really that life or death that it affects the quality of life i have with those around me? Um. ok it feels that way, but that’s not the truth.

Sometimes it’s just easier to be in this reactive place than to pull back, breath and think more about what’s actually important, needs doing, but doesn’t have the “crisis” excuse wrapped aroung it to get it done. And heh, the stupid thing that does feel like a crisis has another feature: as it becomes an absolute time sink, it can also run out the clock of the day too so that other important thing that’s less interesting on the stack but actually more necessary to do gets delayed - again.

Stress Tom vs Stress Tiger

So stress, it seems, can be a useful illusion. Useful if i am actually being fearful and want to procrastinate.

Let me step back: i’m not saying that stress isn’t real. The physiological response to something that sends up all those fight or flight responses - that makes me feel i have to respond to this “threat” right this minute - the very hormonal stress response is real. But i’m good, it seems, in allowing a wee stress trigger to dominate my action.

That is, the thing supposedly triggering the urgent “must do” stress response isn’t a tiger threatening to eat me.

It really isn’t that urgent such that if i don’t fix it, RIGHT NOW, drop everything else, i can’t get any of the important but not urgent stuff done.

Nope, i’m playing a role here in translating a kitty that’s spooked me - maybe even a nasty spraying tom kitty - into a tiger with big sharp teeth - and i’ll tell other people: there’s a tiger!! must get tiger!!  get out of my space - when really it’s the tom in the corner.

So how deal with the Stress Tom (not Stress Tiger)?

Part of the process for me - once i actually get to a pause - has been running the reality check of this supposed urgent thing to do against the Quadrants to find out if what the issue is, is truly urgent or just irritating?

To ask: what’s important today that this Stress Tom, is deflecting - and most important: has it interfered with me being loving with the folks i only get to go around life with once?

If it’s not really urgent and it’s screwing up my limited time with the folks i love or the things that are important (like a workout that can reduce all those hormal stress responses or doing some work that will add real value in an ongoing way to my life), then i need to find another solution.

For instnace, it may be to stop the stress tom activity and go make some tea for the family and re-engage there, try to talk about the rest of our day, or figure out where i can get some movement - and see if the solution to the Stress Tom doesn’t just manifest.

Three Steps to Disengage From the Stress Tom Illusion

In sum,
  1. STEP ONE: ID YOUR TOM TRIGGERS: practice recognising i’m having what for me is my stress response. For me that’s anything where i’m saying to myself or others “i have to do this." Usually, that's just not true. And even if it is, what did i do to get there?
  2. STEP TWO: STOP & REALITY CHECK - Once i hit an "i have to" - the challenge is to disengage from that " i have to"  and check it against the quads for true urgency value against true importance value.
  3. STEP THREE: RECONNECT - If i have a stress tom in front of me - when assessed against the quads, the best way to move it from Tiger to Tom is do something else asap that will re-engage with what’s important, like go be present to someone i love, or go do some push ups.
One of the biggest bits here is remembering i have to PRACTICE identifying that i'm in stress. If i try to do this when i'm in stress - without that practice - well, the likelihood of success goes down.

One way to get this practice is just to check in. If you'd like to try a practice session, for instance,  while you're reading this, you might ask first, what is my trigger to know i'm in stress? Next: Am i having one of these moments? When was the last time i had one of those moments? Checking against the quadrants was that a real Tiger  - something Urgent and Important - or was it just a stress Tom - Urgent-feeling, but not super important?

My experience, these kinds of reflections help build up the patterns our brains need to be able to (1) recognise these situations more quickly (2) fire up the options we want more quickly to deal with them - to put the cat out, as it were.

Does this process resonate?
Let me know how you identify and cope with your stress tom's
Good luck!


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