Understanding Stress, Positive and Negative

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 that task.

    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.

    Biology, Needing to stress is often a biological problem

    Biological problems need biological solutions.

    What we have described above is sometimes only caused by temporary life circumstances. If that is the case, this should be relatively recent phenomenon, generally less than 6 months and no more than 2 years in most cases. This requires you to look at your life circumstances and make some hard choices. They are hard choices, because if they were easy choices, you’d have done them by now. Clearly this isn’t clearing itself up, so you need make some time limits for change, and some If Then Meanwhile statements;

    • If my job doesn’t get better in the next 4 weeks;
    • Then I will need to resign and find a new job;
    • Meanwhile I will look for new job opportunities and increase my outside of work self care.

    Generally, for the people who come and see me for things that are not recent and driven by outside circumstances, we are looking at a two factor problem. The first is a strong Biological Component that is intereferring with good brain function. The second is poor Cognitive Tools, ususally poor frameworks and maladaptive behaviours.

    The Biological Component will almost always need medication, and frequently a dietary change, physical exercise change and considered lifestyle changes. Sometimes the person doesn’t need ongoing medication. Biological problems need biological solutions.

    The Cognitive Tools aspect, the frameworks and behaviours, will need some talking therapy. This should identify what frameworks you currently use to make decisions, and what behaviours this manifests as. We cover this is far more detail in Mental Health Therapies[LINK].

    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.

    “Don’t let Perfect become the Enemy of Good.” – Voltaire

    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. In the fear of failing the other things, we don’t do the thing that we can.

    So Pick one.

    If you can’t:

    • Write a list of the tasks you think you should do. Stop at 10 tasks.
      • Pro tip: the top 5 tasks are generally the ones that you think are actually the most important, but they may not be feasible.
    • Cross out those that you don’t have the resources to do.
      • Pro Top: Write down why.
      • We cover how to tackle that below in the next few sections.
    • Number the remaining tasks in order. Use a random generator, like a web search for “Random number between 1 and #” where # is the biggest number you got to in your 10 list.
      • Do that task.
      • Pro Tip: If you can’t do that task, write down why and find another random number to start.
      • Pro Tip: Often the first task you wrote down that you can do is the one that is best to do, or failing best, good enough.

    If there is not a stand out reason why one of the tasks on your list should be done first, then it doesn’t matter which of the tasks you do 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.

    ADHD Learning Optimisation [LINK] also contains some excellent methods for learning things that can be co-opted for getting things done.

    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.

    Another good way to gamify is to use a white board, write down your list of tasks and put a line in them when you complete it. You can also add a personal reward for completing each task and earn that. There are many ways to use personal rewards.

    Some people are not compatible with personal rewards. That is, they decide what they want for completing that task, then just go and get that. If this is you, and you now owe a task and can work that way, then that is fine, just don’t beat yourself up for that, you likely needed the neurotransmitter or blood sugar to do the thing. However, if this is you, and now that you have the reward you don’t do the task, then this isn’t the solution for you.

    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.

    Anxiety, the problem with too little anxiety

    Anxiety has been well covered in other articles [LINK]. In brief, we are supposed to feel anxious when we are preparing for something that contains a reasonable element of risk or uncertainty. This heightened state allows us to have more focus, concentration and speeds our response to problems. We are not supposed to feel anxious all of the time – doing so will cause many health and life issues. That is when we should seek help, generally both medication and therapy.

    Many people have the goal to not feel any anxiety at all, ever, and this is a defective goal. Anxiety and stress are closely related and it is easy to mistake reasonable anxiety and reasonable stres. If you were to achieve this goal, you will cease to have any stress about anything, and so your brain will stop allocating reasonable resources to tasks.

    The flip side is that with high anxiety, people who otherwise struggle to have internal resources to do tasks will now likely do too many, wearing themselves out until they reach burnout, or worse Neurodivergent Burnout. Regular burnout can take days to weeks to recover. Neurodivergent Burnout can take months to years to recover, and if not manage properly, may lead to conditions such as chronic fatigue, chronic pain and firbomyalgia.

    When my clients have good medication and good strategies for managing anxiety and stress, they can initially feel that they are too unproductive as their tasks levels decrease from superhuman to healthy. A hard part of adjusting to being healthy is adjusting our expectations of what is a healthy amount of tasks to do and what is healthy peaks and troughs for you.

    If clients take this too far, they can relax too much and find that they just stop doing much of anything. Sometimes this is an important step in finding a healthy balance, but it can also go too far where people just stop enjoying or participating in life altogether. We are here to live, not exist.

    Some philosophies, such as The Power of Now and some forms of Bhudism, push all stresses away and leave a person without any drive to do tasks that maintain a healthy life balance. We need to consider what is coming in the future to better optimise how much our present tasks can affect that future, we need to consider the past and learn from that, and we need to value the people and the things we have in our life in a healthy way so that we live in this world, not just exist in it.

    Developing a healthy Positive Stress model for initiating and completing tasks is an integral part to developing a healthy mindframe. Balancing biology, task frameworks, and life philosophy is vital to creating a healthy stress/anxiety balance.

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