February 10th, 2020

Rethinking Stress - Jon Harman

Previously, I have written about the inherent stress of the assignee experience. I became interested in the subject when I was preparing to make a presentation to a group of Embassy personnel in Washington, D.C. Among my slides was one which referenced the commonly used industry adage about moving being “one of life’s most stressful events”. I felt uncomfortable making such a bold statement without knowing at least a bit of the underlying science.  Where did our claim about moving and stress originate? No one would argue that moving is stressful, but who decides how to rank stressful events?

It turns out that researchers have compiled a catalog of significant life events listed in order of their stressfulness, which his measured in terms of the likelihood of the individual developing an illness. The Holmes-Rahe stress inventory has been in use for decades, and while moving does not appear on the list as a stand-alone event, a number of relocation related experiences such as changes at work, change of schools, and changes in social activities, do. The cumulative score of these move-related changes does add up to make moving very stressful.

More recently, preparation for a new presentation prompted me to ask an even more basic question: What is stress? We all talk about stress. We know what it feels like, but how does one define the experience of “stress” and how does one go about measuring its existence and impact. If I intended to speak about relocation-related stress, I ought to know more about stress in general first.

Stress, it turns out, is a rather modern conception.  What we call stress was not investigated or even defined until the mid-1930s when a Hungarian-Canadian researcher named Hans Selye coined the term to describe the general mechanism that the body uses to respond to what he called external agents. Dr. Selye later coined the term General Adaptation

Syndrome to describe the physical changes that take place in the human body as it responds to outside agents, or “stress.” Selye went on to write dozens of books and hundreds of articles. He continued lecturing well into the 1970s in an effort to help people understand how stress impacts them and what they can do about it.

While Selye did highlight the negative impacts of excessive stress, he also held a broader view of the experience of stress, pointing out, for example, that, “Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.”  Despite Dr. Selye’s broad interpretation of the impact of stress, few would argue the point that, as used in the modern lexicon, stress has predominantly negative connotations. If you walk up to a stranger on the street and ask them, “Is stress a good thing or a bad thing?” the response you are likely to hear most often, by far, would be “bad.” But take a closer look.

It is true that the human body’s response to outside stressors tends to follow typical patterns. However it is also evident that an individual’s experience of stress is unique and personal. While we look to science to provide us with clear cut definitions, the reality is that the experience of stress can’t be pinned down so readily. There is no study of human stress that is able to create the same response for every single subject. What passes for “statistical significance” in the world of psychological experiments leaves a large opening for outliers and results that do not match the norm.

Think of the dieting section of a large bookstore.  There may be over 100 titles, each proposing a certain approach to eating. Every one of the diets must have worked for someone, otherwise there would be no book to describe it; and yet none of the diets work for everyone, otherwise there would not be hundreds of diet books.

In the same way, no singular definition of stress nor one absolute method of coping with stress can possibly apply to the incredibly diverse human population. We are all bundles of flesh carrying around our own completely unique blend of genetic material and life experience. As a result, none of us will encounter the challenges of life in the exact same way. In the face a particular adversity, some crumble. Others rise.

It would seem then, that stress is not about what happens to us. What matters most is what we think about what happens to us. Here is where our unique life experience comes into play. What is our mindset in the face of a challenge? What stories do we tell ourselves and others about the difficulties we are up against? What past experience of rising to the occasion might indicate to us that we are up to this new hardship?

The story we tell ourselves about an experience of stress has the power to define the experience for us; and our outlook has implications, not only for how we handle the challenge in the moment, but also for our health and happiness in the long term. In her recent book, The Upside of Stress, Stanford Psychologist Kelly McGonigal highlights the fact that the “stress is bad” outlook paints an incomplete picture of the human experience of stress.

McGonigal points to the importance of the stress response as a source of energy and attention to get us through a difficult time. She reminds us that we all get a boost in confidence when we come out the other side of a stressful period in our lives. Most importantly, the author highlights a number of studies which show that a simple mindset intervention at the start of the experience can have powerful and positive effects on an individual’s response, not only to the current stressor, but to future experiences as well.  

Which brings us back to the assignee experience.  If no two people encounter a stressful event the same way, what can we tell our assignee about the potential stress of relocation as she prepares to embark on her international adventure?

I would argue that we can safely say that the move will present challenges. We can say that there may be moments when those challenges appear overwhelming?

As relocation professionals, we can act as a resource, but our ability to help remains limited. I have been developing a list of suggestions, or gentle nudges, that a relocation counselor might provide to help a stressed assignee get back on a track where he feels more empowered.

Perhaps it is material for another article.

For now, in the most general terms, assignees, like all of us finding our way through these modern times, will have to lean on personal judgement as to how to cope. There is no singular magic pill to take, no perfect words to say, that will transform our experience of stress. What does help will likely seem obvious to most.

In times of hardship, we need more of what makes our lives meaningful and enjoyable in the first place. We need plenty of rest, good company, a nice walk, a hot bath, a good laugh, a long run, or a nap. We need to take care of ourselves, always, and we need to spend a bit more time doing so when we are experiencing that phenomenon that we have come to call, “stress.”

When asked about the sources their personal stress, people most often point to the shared domains of work, marriage, parenting, finances and family relationships. I find the notion that our most common shared experiences are also the primary sources of stress to be liberating. First of all it shows that we really are all in this together. We are fighting similar battles and no one is immune. Second, the fact that unavoidable everyday events are the primary source of stress tells me that fighting against or trying to avoid stress is unrealistic. Even futile.

Stress is part of the experience of being human. Stress is the source of all our growth and learning. The way to strengthen a muscle is to stress it. The way to strengthen the immune system is through exposure to outside agents. We develop skills through effortful, often frustrating, practice. When we study a new subject, we learn new facts through effortful recall. As individuals, as a culture, as a human population, we are who we are as a result of the stressful challenges that we have overcome. Fighting against stress is like battling with the condition of being human. Wishing we had no stress in our lives is  wishing to die.

So perhaps it is time to dump the over simplistic “stress is bad” outlook and rethink our relationship to stress. Whether we are dealing with the change of a relocation or just everyday living, rather than seeing stress as a force to be avoided or a burden to be borne, we would do better by ourselves if we would simply accept the fact that stress is part of life. The less we push against it, the easier our relationship with stress will be. And on those really difficult days, it always helps to call a friend, or take a walk, or have a nap. Naps are good.



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