People are not ropes and other thoughts on stress

Safe Working Load.  Breaking Strength.  Rope

The terms, or similar words, are used to describe ropes.  Ropes have clear limits: for safety, a rope’s capacity to do work and its maximum capacity where it is likely to break is something clearly stated by manufacturers.  Further, it is understood that a rope’s capacity is lessened over time, particularly when the rope has undergone stress.

We have a fixed mindset when it comes to ropes – they don’t get better, in fact, over time, they get worse.  Ropes have no capacity for improvement.  Oddly, the same thinking is often applied to a person’s ability to manage stress:  that people have a fixed capacity to deal with it which is eroded over time – “stress kills.”

Kelly McGonigal challenges such thinking.  In her article “How to Be Good at Stress,” and her TED Talk below, McGonigal notes that stress is only unhealthy in people who think it is unhealthy.  And for people with a growth mindset who view dealing with stress as a way to increase their capacity to handle it, stress increases their resilience and capacity to manage challenging situations.

So stress can be seen as an opportunity to become a more capable person.  But it is often hard to see the light in challenging situations.  In his book, A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle writes, “The ego loves to complain and feel resentful not only about other people but also about situations.  What you can do to a person you can do to a situation:  make it an enemy.  The implication Paul_Watson_Stressis always:  This should not be happening.”  He explains this line of reasoning allows us to feel superior to the situation and it can lead to feelings of resentment when problem solving.  But, as very nicely explained by Paul Watson, Executive Director of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in his blog post on stress, “life comes with obstacles, challenges and problems. Problems should not be unexpected. They are inevitable. All problems can be dealt with by dealing with them, delegating someone else to deal with them, or ignoring them.”  It is helpful to be aware that another challenge or problem will present itself soon after any problem is solved; if not before…

To come back to the rope analogy, I take two insights away from these readings:

1.  Unlike a rope, people can increase their capacity and ability to manage stress.

2.  The function of a rope is to manage loads, to be put under stress.  Similarly, people will encounter obstacles and problems that must be dealt with one way or the other.  The function of a leader is to help solve problems.

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