Stretched vs. Stressed: What’s the Difference and why does it Matter for Leaders?
“How do you do it all?” I’m asked regularly by friends and colleagues. My answer: “I don’t.” I watch their eyes get round and their eyebrows shoot up. They know I’m the solo parent of two young children, a full-time employee, and hold numerous other roles. I explain that I used to try to do it all… yes, I tried to be a SuperMom. I even took multivitamins by that name! But the SuperMom Phenom was a dangerous trap for me. The pressure to maintain control over all the moving parts in my life– or the illusion of control – was utterly exhausting and stressful.
Leaders are prone to high levels of stress. The Bible refers to stress as anxiety, worry, and troubles (Matt. 6:25; Ps. 142:2-3). God wants us to come to Him in prayer with our troubles (2 Sam. 22:7). Prayer is the antidote to anxiety: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6-7). He wants us to learn to love and trust in Him fully to provide for us (Prov. 3:5-6). Furthermore, our general well-being is at stake. We serve no one well when we are highly stressed because we make poor decisions and/or withdraw from situations and people.
I was in a position of leadership at work and in a low place in my personal life when I realized I couldn’t function well anymore. I was no longer challenged in a positive way; I was just overwhelmed. My adrenaline was pumping almost constantly. After prayerful consideration, and to the shock of many, I requested a demotion at work. It was the hardest and best decision of my professional life.
How did I know I was stressed out and not just stretched? At first, I didn’t. Like most of us, I just tried to “power through” the daily grind of managing work, family, and Everything Else. I told myself it would get better after I adjusted. It didn’t. Looking back, I can see I exhibited some of the signs that are commonly associated with stress:
- Negative emotions being close to the surface, such as irritability and frustration
- Resentful attitude
- Feelings of being overwhelmed, especially at night and upon waking
- Sleep disturbances (too much or too little)
- Over-reliance on over-the-counter medications for headaches and other ailments
- Lack of self-care, such as exercise
- Increased escapism activities, such as television
But I’m an overachiever, classic Type A, so I had trouble discerning the difference between the challenges that stretch us – those that are positive, healthy, productive, and growth opportunities – and challenges that stress us, which are those that might debilitate us.
Here are some signs of being stretched:
- Feeling energized by the new role, task, event, life change, etc., even if scared about it
- Brain automatically begins visualizing possibilities
- Able to manage negative emotions reasonably
- Sense of accomplishment surrounding it
If you are exhibiting signs of stress, what can you do about it? I’d recommend the following:
A. Pray. Read Scripture, such as Psalm 118:5-9, John 14:27, and Matthew 6:25-34. Trust in the Lord to provide the necessities of life.
B. Identify the top 1-3 stressor(s) in your life (macro level) or regarding one particular aspect of life (micro level).
1. Decide if the stressor(s) can be fixed with a technical solution. For example, I don’t mind cleaning the house. But I do mind the time that it takes to vacuum snack crumbs out of the carpets, scrape silly putty off the fireplace hearth, and pick up two dozen toy trucks and half-finished art projects. My technical solution was to add a household budget line item for a housekeeper.
2. If a technical solution is not readily apparent, you might need to consider if you have a deeper, philosophical issue. Maybe it is fear of changing or delegating work to someone else, and thus, losing control.
C. Ask yourself what could or will happen if you do nothing? What are the short- and long-term consequences? What will you regret?
D. Consider what you could do for others to help ease their troubles and anxieties (Luke 11:46). Are you creating obstacles for your co-workers or family members? Could you help them overcome their obstacles? Could you serve them in a meaningful way, and thus, experience their tranquility and joy by proxy?
I’m proud to say I’ve shifted away from the SuperMom trappings. But since I’m Type A, I’ll rebrand myself as a TopMom.