If you aspire to feel in control of your life and reasonably stress-free most of the time, then you need some means of keeping track of how you are doing. I’ve already suggested that it is common for people suffering from stress to be seemingly blind to it, although it may be obvious to others. The more we kid ourselves we are OK, the less likely we are to address it and the worse it is likely to become. If we are experiencing some of the symptoms already listed with regular or increasing frequency, it is clear something is wrong. The physical signs are difficult to miss or ignore but the mental and behavioural signs are more illusive.
A shamelessly contrived but useful way to decide ‘where you are at’ is to imagine you are in a building with four rooms, each with different ceiling heights.
The ‘dandy’ room. The ceiling here is low enough for you simply to raise your arm to touch it with the flat of your hand. You feel you are in control of your life, on top of any challenges, and by and large everything is fine and dandy.
The ‘dodgy’ room. This ceiling is rather higher but you can just touch it with your fingertips when you are right up on your toes. You are not coping too well with the pressures in your life and are feeling the strain, at least most days.
The ‘dire’ room. To touch this ceiling you need to jump with all the energy you can muster. Sometimes you just scrape it, but increasingly you miss. You are not in control of your life and every day seems more difficult than the last.
The ‘disaster’ room. The ceiling here is so high you can’t bring yourself to even look at it and you sink to the floor with burnout.
I make no apology to any reader who may view this as too simplistic or too gimmicky an approach to self-assessment. Ask anyone who has experienced the ‘dire’ or ‘disaster’ areas and they will have no argument with the words used. Many of us have a natural reluctance to self-analyze particularly, if it involves complexity. This broad-brush method is a palatable way of stopping to think in general terms about how we are coping and, as we shall see in part 3, it is a useful guide for assessing members of your team and highlighting those who may be in need of your support.
In deciding which room you inhabit it is unhelpful to think short term. If most of the time you are fine but you have the occasional bad week or two don’t demote yourself to ‘dodgy’. Part of keeping stress in perspective and staying in control is to accept that inevitably there will be setbacks along the way and relatively short periods may be difficult and testing. It is the steady regressive trend, perhaps accumulating over several months, which should sound alarm bells.
I was impressed by the philosophy of a workshop delegate who likened her alarm system to her almost full bath. Both taps are left fully on but fortunately the plug is out, keeping the inflow and outflow in balance. She thrived on living her life close to the edge but knew that a significant increase in pressure would leave her flooded. She told us that at those times when everything was getting on top of her she would ‘look for ways in her life to turn the taps down a bit’. At different times she had stood down from the PTA committee, delegated parts of a big project, negotiated a new set of deadlines with her boss, taken a long weekend break to give her some thinking time. She knew herself well, was honest with herself and valued the feeling of control in her life.
Two related observations to note here are (1) that dodgy is the most difficult state to self-assess and is habitually ignored and (2) that even low levels of stress, if unremitting, have a cumulative corrosive affect due to cortisol levels being permanently higher than they should be. Conversely, although a short burst of very high-level stress might really shake up our physiology for a while, we usually recover more quickly from that than we do from the more insidious continuity of ongoing lower-level stressful feelings day after day.
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