And while stress can be bad for us, certain kinds can actually promote positive change. Depending on the type of stress we encounter, we either stay complacent or become motivated.
Let's say that you want to discuss a pay raise with your boss. As you prepare yourself for the meeting, you can feel the familiar symptoms of a stressful event. Your breath becomes shorter, your heart beats a little quicker, and you mentally brace yourself for possible conflicts that may arise.
The thought of talking to your boss is nerve-racking, but at the same time you feel relief in knowing that once done, the ordeal will be over. This is an example of acute stress. It's sharp, intense, and also short-term.
We run into acute stress often in our lives, from an upcoming deadline to that feeling just before boarding a long plane flight. Small doses give us feelings of excitement, while too much can lead to exhaustion and fatigue.
The other type of stress is chronic. Unlike acute stress, chronic stress isn't exhilarating. It can be found in people who are worn out by an unfulfilling career, stuck in a toxic environment, or those who can't see the light at the end of the tunnel.
This type of stress is mild, but long-term. In these situations, people become worn out and accustomed to their situations. There's likely little to no incentive to change, since someone experiencing chronic stress doesn't know or has forgotten other possibilities. Someone might not realize it until it's too late, leading to a breakdown.
So, while acute stress gives us an alarming sense of emergency, chronic stress can leave us in anguish.
Stress is either something we run away from or stick by
We normally think of stress as someone dealing with a crisis and trying frantically to deal with it. But it can be much more subtle than that.
The dangerous part of staying a dead-end routine is that a daily pattern of mild stress is more damaging than periodic moments of high stress. Those high stress moments create an incentive to change, while regular, mild stress slowly chips away at us. We're aware of acute stress because it's sudden and new, but we might not notice chronic stress because it's familiar.
In a way, we deal with both similarly by steering away from change. For acute stress, we try to get rid of the source of stress that has disrupted our lives. For chronic stress, we don't remove the source of stress because it's a part of life.
Set your norm
The first step in improving a situation is acknowledging it. Whether from denial, familiarity, or fear, it's easier to stay stuck in one place than to go somewhere else. Often, recognizing an undesirable state means being exposed to something new.
Sometimes, it takes seeing something beautiful, awe-inspiring, or even worrisome. Being exposed to something different is the first point of changing your norm. It can be a person, a place, or an event.
One way my norm changed was when I went to Japan. There, I noticed that saying "thank you" was very common, from simply visiting a store to paying for public transit. Now I find myself saying "thank you" more while practicing gratitude more often in my life.
Other times, those moments are only one part of inciting change. For instance, talking to a successful business owner may lead to feelings of inspiration, but that alone isn't enough. In order to change those thoughts into something tangible, you need a sense of urgency.
How to create urgency for change
Deadlines create urgency. They turn the feelings of chronic stress into acute stress, which can be useful in small amounts for accomplishing tasks. It's equally as important, though, to pick the right goals for your deadlines. Saying "I want to double revenues by the end of the year" sounds nice, but it isn't a goal that's within your control.
Using a more action-based goal, such as "I am going to email three people today to meet with them" makes more sense because this goal is within your control.
Once you start performing new tasks over and over, they become a habit, which is the second part of setting your norm. It's about reaching the outcome you want by channeling stress into actionable tasks.