Several years ago, after a challenging and stressful period, I decided to take a course
on stress management.
My goal was to learn tools and techniques to better manage stress for myself and
maybe come back and share what I learned with others.
Part of my thinking was that if I learn to manage what is in front of me, I can take
on more work without going over the edge.
To my surprise, this course gave me none of what I was expecting yet gave me
something much more valuable.
The most valuable thing I learned was that a part of stress was my own inner voice
or also called self-talk.
Understanding this has been fundamental in my leadership journey yet this is not what this
passage is about.
In the session, the lecturer asked people what they thought about stress and numerous
people, including the lecturer talked about stress being normal.
Comment after comment portrayed a certain amount of stress as normal or even a good
“Stress is not a big deal for me, it is normal.”
“Stress motivates me to work harder and get things done.”
“I don’t mind stress; I see it as a challenge.”
The lecturer agreed with all these assertions and even provided support for this by
talking about animals in nature and the fight-or-flight response.
In fact, I have come across this fight-or-flight response explanation in every training
on stress management I have taken.
Fight-or-flight is a physiological reaction to a perceived threat to survival which triggers an
acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or flee.
In other words, this helps us stay alive if and when we need.
After the lecturer relayed this explanation, one member of the class said something
along these lines, “it’s just stress, people should get over it.”
Others added, “stress is normal,” “we all have to deal with stress.”
To me, it all made sense at the time, and I could not deny the fight-or-flight
response that I had witnessed in nature and in life myself.
At the end of the session, I did not have the tools and techniques I was looking
for, I had something more useful.
Not only did I come to learn that a large part of my stress was my inner voice, I
learned that the idea should not be centered around using tools to take on
more, it should be to take on less.
Ever since that course, I have endeavored to do less yet do it well, yet I realize
that is not always possible.
If I had learned tools and techniques to take on more work so that I could push my
limits further and further, at some point, I still likely would have gone over
At that point, the fall would likely have been steeper and the recovery longer.
This is precisely what I came to observe happening around me with person after
person who went on stress leave. They took-on more and more and fell further
and their return took longer and was harder.
It took me several years to recognize that this level of stress did not align with
what I saw and heard in that stress management class.
There was nothing “normal” about this.
What was also troubling is that there was still a stigma attached to stress and
someone going on stress leave.
If it was “normal” should there be this stigma?
Some even suggested it was a form of weakness if someone could not handle work stress
and went on leave.
I have had people tell me that they needed to work through their stress in order
to feel capable and strong, otherwise they feared being seen as weak.
I have even had people directly tell me not to go on stress leave myself, otherwise
people would think I could not handle the job and pressure and it would diminish
One person at a senior level told me that if I went on stress leave, I would likely
never get a promotion.
Once again, it was suggested that stress is normal and always present, the
fight-or-flight response was referenced, and we should all agree to this, until
it finally hit me.
While the fight-or-flight response is normal, in animals and humans, it is not a
In nature, it only happens on occasion.
With humans, being physically attacked likely is not something that happens every
minute of every day, or at least I hope not.
Yet, if someone is at a constant mental state whereby, they are in fight-or-flight
response mode, this cannot be called “normal” stress.
There can be nothing normal about being at or near the edge persistently or constantly.
Calling this stress might be an injustice to the person in this state. It does not appropriately
recognize the challenges they are facing and what they are going through.
Saying they can’t handle stress diminishes their struggle.
In consideration of this, I have come to think that we should not call this stress
as if it were something normal.
Could you imagine the impact it would take on your body and mind if you were in a
constant state of fight-or-flight. Would not this level of intensity cause bodily
Other than calling it acute stress, which would likely be the clinical term, I am
wondering if we don’t need a new word in our daily lexicon to describe this state, yet without stigma.
I am not sure that that word should be? I also know that it likely won’t stop
these instances from happening. Yet, maybe if we recognized it early as
something other than normal stress, we would intervene earlier and help get the
person the assistance they need.
Perhaps we can use this new word to get people to recognize that they are not in a
state of normal stress if we could call it something different?
Call it “badlands,” call it “dinolation,” whatever.
This way, they recognize it as something different, might start to take a step back,
take on less, ask for help and work away from the constant fight-or-flight
I recognize we do have other words and diagnosis such as anxiety and trauma, yet based
on what I have seen and experienced, we might need a step between that diagnosis
and our discuss on normal stress.
A word that can be used in our daily lexicon that has no stigma and is step away
from a mental health diagnosis from a professional.
I don’t profess to have the answers, I am just wondering if we can do more and
not equate a normal state of stress as being the same as acute stress.
It is not ok and not healthy to be at a constant state of fight-or-flight.
As always, food for thought.