From the iCope book series by Anthony R. Ciminero, Ph.D.
Anyone who drives a car knows the importance of having basic information about how the engine is performing. For example, it is helpful to know that the engine temperature and oil pressure are normal. Most cars have one of two ways of letting you know how things are performing. One method uses a set of red lights that come on when the temperature is too hot or the oil pressure is dangerously low. The other method uses various gauges that give you fairly accurate feedback about what the engine temperature and oil pressure are at all times so that you know when things are running well or when a problem is developing. Do you see any advantages to either of these systems? To give you a hint (if you have not already heard the expression), the red lights are often referred to as “idiot lights.” When the light comes on, it is often too late to do anything about the actual problem. The engine may have needed antifreeze or oil due to a leak, but you find out about the problem too late, frequently when you are stranded out on the highway. Having gauges in your car is safer and more helpful. With gauges you can see when a problem is developing, and take some preventive action to correct whatever is going wrong.
Unfortunately, when it comes to stress, many people of all ages in our culture operate with idiot lights. This has nothing to do with intelligence. The stress has simply been tuned out and ignored until the stress levels reach the boiling point. When someone finally experiences so much stress that it cannot be ignored, the person is at a big disadvantage because of our basic fight-or-flight reactions. It is much more difficult to bring stress under control when the intensity is so high. Because stress is cumulative, it is easy for things to build to the point where small events are enough to cause an overreaction (idiot lights on).
There are many advantages for the person who maintains their own internal stress gauge system. Primarily, you would be able to learn where your effective stress zone lies. This zone is the level of stress at which you perform at your best. You would also know what levels of stress are too high or too low for you. When you recognize that your stress level is increasing to an uncomfortable level, you could then take some simple preventive steps to return to your optimal stress level. Similarly, if your stress were too low, you could take some corrective action to increase your arousal and motivation. Another major advantage to putting yourself on a gauge system is that you get feedback about how successful you are in managing your stress.
HOW TO GAUGE YOUR STRESS LEVEL
The first and most essential step in the iCope strategies is to be able to recognize changes in your general stress level. It will be important for you to be able to rate your stress reactions accurately so that you are aware of even minor changes (increases or decreases) in your stress level. As you become more sensitive and aware of your stress, you can use these awareness skills as soon as stress begins to build. You will also be able to recognize when you are successful since you would notice whether your stress level actually changed in the desired direction. In essence, this would be comparable to having your stress on a gauge system.
There are two steps that can help you become more aware of your stress and gauge it accurately. Remember, this is your individual gauge so do not try to compare yourself to others. First, imagine a stress scale that goes from 1 to 10 (there’s no zero because you always have some level of stress). On this scale a 1 is very relaxed and calm, probably what you would describe as “no stress.” For many people, a 1 is comparable to the relaxed state you feel just prior to falling asleep. A 10 is the maximum amount of stress you could experience. Although many situations might feel like an 11 or 15, this scale only goes to 10. Try to imagine the worst and most distressing event you have had to handle. Remember what it felt like? This is your 10. Look at the following rating system and try to get a visual or mental image of this scale. After you have thought about the stress scale and what the different levels mean to you, answer the following questions.
1. Right now, as you’re sitting there reading this, what is your current stress level? ____
2. What was your highest stress level earlier today? ____
3. What was your average stress level yesterday? (For averages, use two-point values such as 3-4, 5-6, etc.) ____
4. Try to think about what your stress level generally is when you are performing at your best. On average, what would you rate as your 2-point effective stress zone? ____
In order to become more accurate in your ratings, you will want to ask yourself, “What is my stress level?” several times a day. Whenever you notice some distress or tension during the day, stop and rate your stress level. Over a period of time you will find yourself fine tuning and adjusting your scale as you become more sensitive and aware of your stress level. This is a desirable improvement in your sensitivity. If you find yourself almost always having the same stress rating, then you probably are not discriminating the different levels as accurately as you could. You can’t always be a 5!
FINDING YOUR EFFECTIVE STRESS ZONE
Take a look at the Figure below, which is very similar to the prior figure. Use this scale to picture your effective stress zone. Your answer to question #5 above will provide some indication of what your zone might be. You want to know where you function at your best and have that zone as a goal when you are managing your stress. If you function extremely well in the 5-7 range, you will want to try to keep your level in that range in order to perform well. Everyone has his or her own zone. In fact, you may have different zones for different activities (e.g., at work or home, in athletic competition, in certain interpersonal situations, etc.). Most sport psychologists and many coaches teach competitive athletes to keep their arousal in the right zone as a basic skill in managing their stress in high-pressure situations. As pointed out by Po and Merryman (2013), the Italian national soccer team used these mental training skills in their 2006 World Cup victory. If this works for professional and elite athletes, it can work for you as well.
As was mentioned earlier, some people operate well at higher stress levels whereas others do better at lower levels. Try to be aware of your personal tendencies and use that knowledge in establishing reasonable stress management goals. Again, you are not trying to eliminate stress, but simply working to manage it so that it works for you and not against you.
At this point, it is very possible that you do not know where your effective stress zone is. That’s okay for now. If you do not know, hopefully you will in the near future. As you pay attention to your stress level over the next few weeks, try to note what your stress level is when you are performing very well. Try to observe the relationship between your peak performance and your stress level. The stress level at which you function the best is going to be your effective stress zone.
Try to picture your visual image of the scale and your personal effective stress zone in your mind. As you confront stressful events you will want to recall this image: 1) to help you rate your stress, and 2) to know what goal (zone) you are striving to achieve.
TUNING IN TO YOUR STRESS REACTION
In addition to building in your personal stress gauge, there is a second exercise that can help improve your self-awareness. As you recall from the basic description of stress, part of your reaction is a physiological response. Unless it is a very intense reaction we are likely to ignore it. Having a physiological reaction is very helpful because our body is signaling us that some action is needed to deal with the stressor at hand. Rather than ignoring these signals, we want to tune into them because they provide useful information that will help improve our stress management skills.
Although physiological reactions (signals) occur throughout the body, remember we often will notice a typical or “favored” way of responding to stressful situations such as gastrointestinal, cardiac, or muscular activation. If you are aware of your typical response, you can tune into stress and do something about it more quickly. This is like resetting your internal “radar” to detect the physiological component of stress as soon as possible. Over the next few weeks, pay attention to potential early warning signals such as:
a) tightness or tension in the neck, face, jaw, throat, shoulders, or back;
b) changes in breathing patterns;
c) increased heart rate;
d) queasy feeling in the stomach;
e) perspiration or sweaty palms; or
f) cold hands.
If you notice any of these reactions, they are likely to be your signal that some stressor is impacting on you and it is time to use your stress management skills. Pay attention to these signals rather than ignore them. They will enable you to react when stress is just beginning to build and is more manageable.
You now have the basic steps needed to increase your self-awareness of stress and keep yourself on a gauge system. With practice this step will take only seconds to complete. Although this first skill might seem too simplistic to be helpful, it will provide a fundamental tool to begin improving your self-awareness and a way to measure your success.
• Tune into your stress rather than ignore it.
• Rate your stress level 1-10 as often as is practical.
• Pay attention to what your body is telling you.
• Use the early warning signals to your advantage.
• Pay attention to what your body is telling you.