Last minute deadlines.
Big events to plan.
Buying a new car.
Conflict with co-workers.
Are you feeling a bit stressed reading through this list? Yeah, me too!
Stop for a moment and consider the nature of stress. When you think about stress, what are your thoughts? Is stress something that is always bad? Something to be avoided? Or can there be benefits or opportunities for growth?
Stress comes with a host of negative consequences, no doubt about it: headache, heart disease, reduced immune system, digestive problems, anxiety, depression, relationship strain, and the list goes on. But have there also been times in which our stress response can lead us to perform better, to overcome challenges, to connect with other people, and to grow.
In research, we distinguish three related concepts: stressor, stress, and strain. Stressors are demands from the environment (i.e. the list above), stress is our momentary response to those demands when we think they tax us or exceed our abilities, and strain is the effect it takes on us over time. Stressors generally lead to stress which generally leads to strain. BUT it’s not inevitable. And that’s the key here.
Stress researchers have recently discovered that how we think about the nature of stress affects how we respond to it and the long-term effect it has on us (strain). We can think about stress as something always bad that leads to bad outcomes (stress-is-debilitating mindset) or it can bring about positives as well (stress-is-enhancing mindset). Research shows that more positive views of stress (stress-is-enhancing mindset) relate to more positive physiological and behavioral outcomes such as openness to feedback, cognitive flexibility, and life satisfaction (Crum et al., 2013; Crum, et al., 2017). Stress mindset has significant effects on both physiological outcomes such as cortisol reactivity and behavioral outcomes such as the desire for feedback under stress (Crum, Salovey, & Achor. 2011; Crum et al. 2013). People holding a stress-is-enhancing mindset experienced greater increases in levels of anabolic hormones, which are associated with growth, and experience increases in positive affect and greater cognitive flexibility compared to those with a stress-is-debilitating mindset (Crum, et al., 2017).
Here are two excellent videos by the leading health psychologists and researchers summarizing this research:
In my own research, we found that holding a stress-is-enhancing mindset was beneficial for job satisfaction and turnover intentions. Specifically, the negative relationship between work-family conflict and job satisfaction was significantly less pronounced for people who believed stress could have benefits. And they were also better able to see the benefits of participation in both roles, work-family enrichment. So it helped reduce the negative effects of the bad things and augmented the good! Win-win!
The good news is that this isn’t something that you’re born with. You can change your mindset towards stress.
This past year has objectively been a stressful one for me: I started a new job, managed the logistics of an international move, managed my three kids’ emotional needs through the transition, and supported my husband in his job search. And let’s not forget the smaller ways too – weaning my kid of a pacifier, trying to make new friends in a new city, and deal with the daily hassles of life. I admit there have been so many moments where I made stress my enemy and let it all get the better of me. These have been dark and ugly moments. But I’m trying to “get better at stress” by putting this research into practice. My health, my family, my students, and my colleagues, and my friends all depend on it. These are my top 3 take-away points from this research:
1. Realizing that some stress is inevitable, so not to be so shocked by it. I’m still working to reduce it in as much as possible (especially chronic stress and shadow work). When I’m feeling stressed in the moment, I try to acknowledge it to myself. I’m really feeling stressed about something right now and that shows that I care about it. It’s important to me. And that's a good thing!
2. Reframing the physiological sensations of stress as ways my body is preparing to work through what it’s facing. For me, it’s in the heart, stomach, and head. When my heart beats fast and I feel that weird feeling pit in my stomach, I try to remember my body needs energy and it’s giving it to me. A regular commitment to exercise and giving birth three times has also helped this. I’m less afraid of a little physical discomfort and I realize it will dissipate. I trust my body a bit more.
3. Trying to “tend and befriend.” When I’m feeling stressed, I try to think of how I can connect with other people. An easy go-to here is to try to physically connect with my husband or kids. A back rub or snuggle takes the focus of me and my “hot mess.” And as Kelly McGonigal states “your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.”
I find this research really empowering. I’ll never win the stress game through elimination. I will work to reduce unnecessary stress and pay attention to when changes are needed. But there will always be stressors I have to face. I can't eliminate stress, but I can “get better at stress.” Stress doesn’t have to mean heart disease and reduced relationship quality.
Interested in learning more? Check out the Stanford Mind and Body Lab for the research evidence, media attention and to sign up for a course on Rethinking Stress.
For many industries, this is the busiest time of year. Workers in retail, ecommerce, warehousing and distribution, and customer service are at the frontline of the busy season. The hospitality sector prepares for holiday parties and travel. Health care workers see more patients than ever as those who have met their deductible clamber for appointments. Those in education face massive piles of papers and exams to grade. And many businesses scramble to meet fiscal year end goals.
On top of our busy jobs, another type of unseen and unpaid work also reaches its peak about this time of year: Shadow work. Craig Lambert writes, “Shadow work includes all the unpaid tasks we do on behalf of businesses and organizations. It has slipped into our routines stealthily; most of us do not realize how much of it we are already doing, even as we pump our own gas, scan and bag our own groceries, execute our own stock trades, and build our own unassembled furniture. But its presence is unmistakable, and its effects far-reaching.”
Shadow work seems to be a permanent feature of contemporary life. We have more choice than ever. In so many ways, this is fantastic. Choice is empowering, but it is also exhausting. Take travel for example. We need to book a flight and a hotel to visit with family over the holiday season. We don’t have to worry about a travel agent messing up our booking or in-flight meal preferences. But how much time and energy have we spent checking prices, weighing up options to find the ideal flight that both minimizes travel time and layovers while maximizing airline miles and credit card rewards.
So how do we navigate shadow work? I most certainly don’t have all the answers and would love to hear some ideas you have. Some things to consider:
1. Awareness is always a good first start. What things are you doing that are not necessary or even beneficial? What types of activities exhaust you the most? And even deeper than that, what is your view about being busy. Is it a point of pride? When you complain to others about how stretched you are, is it really a humble-brag? It’s so easy to get caught up in this.
2. Considering what you identified above, can you rid yourself of any activities that aren’t necessary or beneficial? Can you outsource any especially-depleting tasks? Even if you can’t afford to hire someone to do tasks for you, can you ask someone who enjoys it more? Swap some tasks with family or friends? I’ll bake your cookies if you wrap my gifts.
3. Sometimes you need to satisfice, rather than maximize. Sometimes good enough is simply that - good enough. You might never find that “perfect gift” for your child’s teacher. And honestly, who doesn’t appreciate a gift card?
4. After you’ve made a choice, don’t waste time, attention, and energy reconsidering or justifying those choices. The time spent checking the flight prices after you’ve made your booking simply can’t be earned back. The feelings of pride in saving money from booking early doesn’t make up for the lost time doing other more productive or relaxing things. Realize it’s normal to feel a bit of post-decision dissonance, and let it go.
5. Create some boundaries and stick to them. Develop times to clock out from our devices. Put a limit to time searching for gifts. Carve out some quality time in the midst of it all. And for those of you who know me personally, please hold me accountable to this! Working on increasing my screen-free time will be a new year’s resolution for me I should start practicing now.
In many ways, it’s so unfortunate that this is such a busy time. For many of us, this season is about something so much deeper – about hope, faith, family, and light. Let us not forget!
What are your thoughts and ideas about how to navigate shadow work, especially this time of year?