Positive Stress or Toxic Stress

There are only so many things that we can do each day. We have to make a decision about what we are going to do now, what we will put off until later, and what we need to remove from our to do list. To evaluate which is which, we have a number of measurement tools, like risk management, personal importance, time pressure, social pressure etc. Importantly, to do a task, we turn importance into stress, and then stress turns into action. The question we are looking at today is – are we using Positive Stress or Toxic Stress?

When we have lots of time and energy, it is fairly easy to select and do a task. If one task seems more consequential, urgent or otherwise important, we do that task first. We then go on to do the things that seem like fun, or seem to clump together, such as vacuuming before mopping the floor – two tasks clumped together optimises for less overall energy.

If a task doesn’t seem important, then we often don’t see any need to do it. A level of urgency stress needs to exist for us to do a thing.

More topics that might be of interest:

Why Stress? Stress makes the world go round.

It is important to recognise that we humans need a level of stress to take actions. When we don’t have any stress, we relax, recover and plan. When the level of need to do a task exceeds the cost of doing that task, we do the thing.

If we are tired, then we don’t have the energy even if we have the time, so we delay doing things until we get some energy back. The problem is when we don’t gert that energy back. This is common in some conditions, like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Depression and ADHD.

When the fatigue doesn’t go away, we need a way to make the task that we intellectually know needs to be done seem even more important, so that our system will allow us to use our pressure reserve energy on that task. This often turns in to Toxic Stress, where we use fear and anger to trigger our Adrenaline system so that we can do that thing.

Another method is to use Positive Stress. Positive Stress brings an element of fun, enjoy and choice to the task. Rather than summoning up more energy to do a thing, via fear or anger, we instead bring fund to make the cost of the task cheaper.

AI Generated image of a stressed person on the coach trying to work up the action to vaccuum. The AI Put the vaccuum cleaner on the coach.

Toxic Stress – Immediately gains, but ultimately bad

To compensate for not enough energy, we often use Toxic Stress to increase the perceived urgency of things that we know we have to do. It isn’t just that it is important to eat regularly, we’ll starve if we don’t eat right now. It isn’t just that the floor needs a vaccuum, it is that people will think we are terrible slobs or this messy floor will end in a mouse infestation. It isn’t just it would be nice to see that friend we haven’t seen in a while, it is that that friend will hate us if we don’t see them soon and do the friend duty.

When we use fear or anger as the extra motivator to do a task, we are slipping into a Toxic Stress mentality. It workse really well in the moment, but horribly in the long run.

Using Toxic Stress, we add a threat outcome to the task’s urgency. To combat that threat, our brain converts neurological Dopamine into Noradrenaline, and then Neurological Noradrenaline into Adrenaline to fuel the emergency Freeze, Fawn, Flight and Fight Centre. Our body is triggered to produce body Adrenaline in our two Adrenal glands near our Kidneys, and this is pumped into our blood supply, accelerating our heart and breath. Our body releases stored sugars into our blood supply to feed the Flight and Fight that are likely required by this emergency. This enables our brain to activate the task and our body to fulfill it.

So far, this doesn’t look too bad. We know we need to do a thing, and now we are doing it. The immediate result seems good.

Our brain, due to the emergency threat nature of the task (as we have distorted it to be) redirects the brain Endorphins away from feeling happy and content to managing predicted pain. This changes our perception of the task we are doing, from potentially fun to being awful. As the Adrenaline starts to run low, due to maintaining the threat nature via fear or anger, we haven’t perceived any rewarding part of the task which would promp our brain to make additional Dopamine (the task reward neurotransmitter) to feed the cycle (allows the creation of Noradrenaline and then Adrenaline), nor do we have any Endorphins to see the silver lining and fun part as they were redirected to manage damage from the threat. Fun Endorphins make producing Dopamine easier, while Pain Management Endorphins don’t. Dopamine Brain (Dopamine fueled thinking) helps us understand the problem better, and solve things more intelligently. Adrenaline Brain cares only about survival, not efficient, good or subtle. As a result, we often need to spend extra time afterwards fixing the thing that Adrenaline Brain did poorly. From our Adrenaline Brain’s perspective, we survived, so it did its job.

We come from a long lineage of survivors. Each one of your ancestors survived long enough to have children. After a situation that requires Freeze, Fawn, Flight and Fight, it is wise to stop for a while. In this down time we heal, recouperate, reassess and then start up again. Consider that continuing to do things when you are injurred is not a good survival trait. This is one of the reasons why Survival Mode doesn’t generate extra Dopamine and Noradrenaline – so that you’ll stop doing things and recouperate.

With that task being done via Toxic Stress as a duty , generally poorly, where you’ll likely have to do extra tasks to fix the probems later when we have time and energy (do we ever have that?), and worst of all, running out of thinking and action neurotransmitters faster because we ended up in Survival Mode instead of a self-feeding Creative Mode, we just end up more exhausted and wanting to avoid ever having to do that task again.

Hopefully now the Toxic Stress model’s “horribly later” flaws are revealed. While we get the thing done, because we triggered Survival Mode via Toxic Stress, it was not a good experience and we end up more exhausted at the end of it.

Task Avoidance – Understanding why we don’t want to

I get it. Catastrophising, is easy. It is so simple to make the consequences of not doing something far worse to add enough urgency to the task that we make it happen.

It is more effort to reframe the task into a positive and fun experience. Especially when we don’t want to do it.

But why don’t we want to do it?

Over Optimisation Freeze

If the problem is with choosing a task to do first, then we may have hit the over optimisation freeze. As Voltaire puts it, “Don’t let Perfect become the Enemy of Good”. If you had a good optimisation that you can do right now, you wouldn’t have this problem, so recognise that the process is going to be sub-optimal. We are now looking for good enough, which is much easier.

While it is nice to clump vaccuuming and mopping together, that is only nice if you can do both. Better to vaccuum than do neither.

In a more complex way, we can freeze up on starting any task because we feel that not doing the other things is terribly bad, straying into Toxic Stress territory.

Pick one. If you can’t, write a list of the tasks you think you should do. Either do them from the top, or write a number next to each one in order and web search a random number between 1 and however many you have. Pro tip, stop at 5 tasks in the list, you are likely to have listed the most important things first.

Solutions Incompleteness Theorem

Sometimes we have a task that we know needs to be done, but we don’t have a good enough picture of how to do it, so we avoid getting started. This could be because:

  • We don’t know what the recipient is looking for – ask them.
    • Pro tip: when dealing with someone who won’t define their expectations, offer up a thing you are sure is wrong so that they are required to correct you. If they don’t correct you with useful information, maliciously comply with their bad information. They’ll learn.
  • A step doesn’t seem to make sense at the moment – do the task until you get to that and re-check it, it’ll likely make sense now.
    • Pro Tip: Redoing some eariler steps because you now understand this step after you did those bits is fine, you can refine that process and you learned things. It may seem like a waste of resources, but it was cheaper than not doing any of it at all.
  • Data is missing to make a good task process – an okay task process is generally better than a late more optimal / accurate task process. Prepare as much as you can around the missing data, then go chase that down.
    • Pro tip: If this is for someone else and they continually don’t give you the measurements, quantity or other information you need to meet there requirements, then either this task isn’t actually that important to them so de-prioritise it, or the measurements are that important so make a good enough guess and push the responsibility back to them for not giving you the right ones. Asking them 3 times with some reasonable spacing is fair to shrug off the responsibility for their failure.

Four oh Four – Resources Not Found

The two major variants of this are not the external resources to do the thing, such as money, time, help or parts; and internal such as energy, knowledge, skills and so forth.

Either way, if you don’t have the resource, then you can’t do the task. What you can do, though, is do something to get those resources – so morph the task.

We will cover “energy” under Positive Stress.

Positive Stress – Bringing self sustaining fun to the party

There are a number of ways to make tasks more fun and therefore easier. When we have fun, it is much easier to make enough Dopamine so that we can also make Noradrenaline and Adrenaline while still having Dopamine. This allows us to be more mindful and creative when we are solving and doing tasks, which helps us complete them better, faster and more efficiently. We feel good when this happens, which helps us to make more Dopamine…

The two feel good neurotransmitters are Endorphins and Oxytocin. Endorphins can be triggered by music and joyful movement, thinking interesting thoughts, success, and thinking well of ourselves. Oxytocin can be triggered by being near people and animal companions that we like and trust. Oxytocin, once released, helps us release Endorphins and Dopamine.

Hopefully you can see how using Positive Stress creates a self feeding cycle of neurotansmitters that help us do tasks compared to Toxic Stress which pushes us to do one thing then stop.

It is important to recognise that we only have so many calouries to feed the action tasks, and only so many base resources to make neurotransmitters. When these run out, we have to stop. What that means is, at some point, it doesn’t matter how good the music is, or how much we enjoy the company of someone, when we have run out of system resources, we must rest, eat and recouperate.

Stopping before we run out is good for us. It makes it easier to eat quality food vs junk food; positive rest vs exhaustion; and be able to review what we have achieved and feel good about it rather than exhaustion triggering Adrenaline Brain which will use negative self talk, only looking at what we haven’t achieved yet.

Each of these examples highlight the ideas behind how.

Music is Groovey

When we listen to music we enjoy, whether it is blasting the stereo at full volume (well, 3/4 so as not to damage the speakers), or headphones, we can lift our mood. If you sing and dance, even better. With lifted mood, the access to the neurotransmitters that you need to do the task is far easier to generate and you’ll find the task easier.

Some music is better for some tasks and worse for others. For example, I find that listening to a new music album while trying to be intelectually creative to be distracting rather than helping, while putting on a rock album of Awesome ’80s classics lets me ignore the music enough to create the thing. Oppositely, I quite enjoy listening to a podcast of thought provoking ideas while tinkering in the workshop.

Play around and figure out what works for you.

Body Doubling

Body Doubling is where a person you can trust is present while you do things. They might be working on their own task, or just sitting in a chair watching you with encouragements, or doing the thing with you as well – their mere precense makes it easier to do the task.

Sometimes we can use that second brain to compensate for some of the things we listed above that can get in our way of doing a task. Ask them what you think the missing data might be, or the over and under boundaries of that missing data; ask them if they know how to do that missing step; or work out with them a better way of doing a repeitive task. They might know the answer and help directly, or in trying to explain the problem to them, you might hear enough of a solution from your own mouth that you can use that. Sometimes they can reality check you and agree that the person who should be informing you of the parameters, but isn’t, indicates that this isn’t that important to them.

Gamification and Divide & Conquer

I hated cleaning my room when I was young. I’m still not that much of a fan of it. I find it easier to Gamify the task, or Divide & Conquer it.

For example, I might use Divide & Concquer by putting things away that have locations to put away. Or I will decide, that table needs to be the first thinig I’m cleaning.

To Gamify the task, I might count up how many of these little dubilackies I have, or work on cleaning things based on the colour of the rainbow, or after 20 items have been put away, I can watch an episode of TV. When I was improving my fitness, I watched an action series and every fight scene I had to do 10 push ups, or 10 sit ups. After a few days of this, it was 10 push ups and 10 sit ups.

Reframing, Using Positive Self Talk

We often use negative self talk to bully ourselves into a thinking badly about ourselves or catastrophise the outcome.

What if we used the opposite approach? What if we used positive self talk to nurture ourselves into thinking well about ourselves and enjoying the task?

When we feel like we are required to do a thing, it is easy to trigger a PDA like response (pathalogical demand avoidance, where we refuse to do something that is demanded of us). Instead of focus on why we have to, focus instead on why we want to. I want to find my tools, I want to use that table. I want to have space for this project. I am more efficient and have more fun when I have the space to spread out the project. I make fewer errors when I can see all of the parts, and I love being able to make categorised sections of the parts, which makes it easier to find them when I need them.

As we succeed in doing a thing, recognise that it is working.

When we struggle to do a thing, or make a mistake, look at what you’ve learned about what got in the way, or what went wrong and be happy about the growth that gives you. Wonder if you can use that mistake in this project or perhaps in another project. We can turn bugs into features.

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