What is stress? We talk about it all the time. We talk about ways to treat stress. We devise methods for avoiding stress. We plan possibilities for contending with stress. We seek a myriad of ways to relieve stress. There are very detailed medical, physical and psychological definitions of the concept. I do not intend to go into that level of discussion. I am more interested—and capable—of writing about stress in the broad strokes. I contend that stress can include a hegemony of concepts: anxiety, antagonism, exhaustion, frustration, despair, overwork, over-focusing, confusion, mourning, fear.
But when I look carefully at this collection of experiences, I have come to realize that what I commonly call stress actually has two main components. There exist stressful events, situations and relationships that urge me forward, cause me to thrive or give me a real sense of fulfillment. Good stress. Eustress. This is contrasted with the litany of stressors we commonly talk about in our life—those that have a negative impact. Bad stress. Distress.
I believe the stressors vary from individual to individual as to their categorization. I believe the same exact stressor can be considered both eustress and distress depending on the victim. Examine this example: a constantly ringing telephone. For a salesman busy at work on the Glengarry leads this stressor fosters happiness—likely exhaustion, too, but the good kind of exhaustion. Our hypothetical Ricky Roma feels he has accomplished something. And he probably has. He has probably closed the big deal, or better yet, a series of big deals. And even if he did not, the fact that the phone continues to ring brings the promise that the big “always be closing” moment is imminent. Contrast this with the quiet architect who views the constantly ringing phone as an unmanageable series of interruptions. It disturbs his concentration; it retards his ability to focus—it confuses him.
What stressors do you consider eustress? What stressors do you consider distress? – My brain injury prompts me to evaluate these questions. It is quite likely that my self-evaluation contains no small measure of hyper-criticism. Please bear that in mind. Stated in the simplest terms I am determined to minimize distress and undertake stressful ventures that balance in favor of eustress. Risk and conflict are fundamental elements of life—they always have been, and they have value. I do not argue for the elimination of these elements.
Yet here I believe that my abilities to contend with and relieve distress have been significantly compromised. Moreover, I believe stressors I would have categorized as eustress in my pre-morbid state I now must categorize distress. Kind-hearted souls have remarked that this change may also be the effects of age—and not directly related to brain trauma. There may be truth there. Whirl regularly reminds me of my reactions to distress and helps me to contend with it. She has also noted that the injury has had a significant effect.
I am often reminded of moments of problem solving where I become stuck, repeating the same actions and honestly expecting different results. Pain, fear, frustration, anxiety. Distress.
I honestly love the idea of solving problems. I thrill at the sense of accomplishment when I do so. I win. – And yet in the shadowy background of my mind lurks this amorphous monster. He is capable of paralyzing me not with trauma but with fear of failure. I understand the trauma; the trauma is over. It will not recur. The effects of the trauma linger. And with time, and lack of confidence, the effects grow in strength.
Whirl and I leave for Greece tomorrow– the first real vacation since the injury. I have placed a number of expectations upon the trip. First, I must relax. Second, I want to find a path to enjoy the adventures of life—to flourish in the risks and rewards life offers. Third, I hope those combined experience give me insight into the dialectic of stress.
I hope. I fear. I trust. I fail. I thrive. I risk. I endure.