BL&T No. 015: Exploring the Origins of Stress

Borrowed, Learned, & Thought (or BL&T) is a weekly newsletter sent on Mondays. In every edition, I share a borrowed idea (quote, excerpt), a lesson learned from the previous week, and a thought starter heading into the new week. Learn more and subscribe here.

Borrowed

"A business is a collection of choices. Every day is a new chance to make a new choice, a different choice."

Excerpt from "It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work" by David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried

Learned

By definition, stress is “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” Given our current reality, it’s natural to feel stress today more than ever. In last week’s newsletter, I touched on the stress specifically encountered when acting on feedback without understanding.

This concept stuck with me heading into the new week. I became a close observer of stress and how it makes its way into a situation. After a few days, I noticed a trend.

More often than not, we tend to make situations stressful for ourselves and others. In other words, in the absence of "adverse circumstances," we create them. Sometimes it is a result of reactive behavior without understanding (as mentioned above). Other times, stress is brought on by trying to solve for hypotheticals based on past trauma. Let's explore this further.

We all carry baggage with us. Unfortunately, we're not always aware of the influence it has on our decisions. This baggage is what can turn a non-issue into one that keeps us up at night. We let past experiences that didn't end well drive our decision-making vs. looking at a situation objectively.

We often tell ourselves we are "planning" or measuring risk when in reality, we're focusing on everything that may go wrong and trying to solve for it. This approach takes our focus away from uncovering the path to a positive outcome. It can even lead to the very future we were looking to avoid.

In practice, this might look like working late to build a comprehensive plan to account for a client who may miss the next deadline. Maybe they have missed a few in the past, or we have seen how poorly a project can turn out when a client is consistently late. A less stressful and more effective approach? For one, we can see if they miss the deadline. Second, we can ask if the client needs more time than we accounted for and outline the impact it may have on our initial plan. We can then align on a better path forward.

The challenge here is that self-imposed stress that is driven by past trauma occurs in a positive feedback loop. The more we stress, the more we lose clarity, the more we make poor decisions. The outcomes of these poor decisions become new baggage that we carry into the next situation. The cycle continues.

Visualization to show the feedback loop of self-imposed stress driven by past trauma.

How do we break out? Well, of course, easier said than done. In writing this, I've found it's about three A's. First is awareness, particularly of the areas in our lives where we tend to create the most stress. The next is acknowledgment. Acknowledgment that yes, not everything has gone our way in the past. What did we learn? How can we use those lessons to carve a better path forward? Last is alignment, with ourselves and with others, on the risks we may encounter on the journey so we can take the first step toward eliminating them.

Lesson? The origins of stress are complex, varied, and personal. While we cannot control them all, we can control our relationship with them, especially when we are the source.

Thought Starter

If I assumed all stress was self-imposed, what would I do differently?