We women have become so tolerant of the increasing thresholds of stress that we think it’s normal to operate under intense stress loads.
We’ve been imprinted to believe that being able to handle extreme levels of stress for prolonged periods of time is a sign of our strength versus a warning sign that something is out of alignment.
We have a distorted understanding of what is healthy and stretches us in a supportive way and what is toxic, unsustainable, and frankly unacceptable.
Did you get trained on how to discern the difference between stress that hurts you and stretch that holds you as you expand into your growth edge?
I must have missed that class while getting my MBA. And honestly, even if we had been trained to know to tell when we are under unsustainable levels of stress, most of the time we don’t feel free to do things differently, get more support, take something off our plate, or slow down the pace.
Too much stress for too long is not natural or sustainable, even for strong women.
The pressure you feel as you stretch yourself should feel like a good stretch, or a challenging exercise that lasts for a short burst of time. This is how the natural world works.
If you’ve ever born a baby or midwifed anything into the world — a project, a mission, a piece of work, a company — or had to stretch to meet a goal, desire, or achievement, you know stress is part of the process.
This kind of stress is healthy stress — it’s called eustress, a term coined in the 1900s, when a Hungarian-born endocrinologist, Dr. Hans Selye. Eustress creates positive pressure and supports you to move into action; birth new ideas, projects, and possibilities; and get what matters done.
It’s the buildup of stress that creates overwhelm and, with time and repetition, leads to burnout and disease. It’s the acceptance of the level of stress we deal with daily and carry within us that is not natural but in fact toxic.
As I see it, you and I can either keep accepting the unrealistic, unsustainable expectations, ways of working and pace set by others, the systems, and even ourselves.
We can keep seeing our capacity to handle unhealthy levels of stress as a moniker of our strength. Or we can embrace we are human beings not machines, mortal women not super heroines, and do this instead:
Wise women acknowledge when we are in distress.
Distress is the kind of stress that does, and will, make you sick — not just physically, but also emotionally, and mentally. While we all will have times in our lives when real distress hits — a death or illness of a loved one, unexpected disasters, or changes out of our control — distress should not be and cannot be how we live our everyday lives.
I love being a strong woman. What I don’t love is what strong has come to mean in a culture built for distorted levels of productivity and profitability, not for wellness.
Over the past decade, I’ve rewired myself – and the many women I work with – from the inside out to claim a different view of what strong looks like. Consider these for yourself:
- It does not make you strong and smart to push yourself so hard or equate your inner strength with how much burden and responsibility you can carry. It makes you sick.
- It doesn’t make you strong to think you should be able to handle it all on your own. That makes you an isolated she-woman who chooses to self-sacrifice versus a wise woman who asks for support when she’s stretched too far.
- Admitting you are in distress before you snap and get sick is wise.
I imagine there are parts of your life that may be causing you distress.
While many different kinds of stressors can lead to toxic distress, here are six common to women that I’ve found through my research and personal and professional experience, in burnout prevention, women’s leadership, and sustainable work and success practices.
Read each below and then pause to reflect on which maybe adding to your overwhelm.
6 Distress Creators: Which Are Overwhelming You?
(excerpted from pages 110-112 in Overwhelmed and Over It book)
1. Continuous stress — you have been operating at a high level of intensity or output or have been experiencing a highly stressful or toxic situation, for a prolonged period of time (anything more than a few weeks). There is a constant source of stress in your life that never seems to shift so there is no rest from the stress.
2. Repeated hits — you keep getting hit with a stressor, without time to recover. Your life feels like the tackle blocks football players run into and hit hard during practice. Just as you feel like things are stabilizing — boom — another hit.
3. Personal misalignment — your work, relationships, or life design is out of harmony with your heart and soul. You know you are not living in alignment with who you are and what you desire.
4. Survival stress — You don’t have the resources financially or materially to take care of your basic needs. You are just barely scraping by. You keep trying to climb out of the hole but can’t, which is exhausting and disheartening.
5. Superwoman stress — you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, and it is. You are carrying a burden at work or in your relationships that is too much and you are suffocating or about to buckle at the knees.
6. Holding/lack of release — you experience a stressor, but instead of releasing it when the event is over, your mind and body hold tight and stay stuck in the distress. Something happens that makes you feel unsafe, or stressed but instead of releasing it when the threat goes away, your mind and body continue to perceive the danger/stressor, even though the threat has passed.
Awareness is the first step in making a shift. You can’t change what you cannot see. Once you can see it, you can start to make small but significant changes.
First we have to stop pretending we can handle these levels of stress, or nothing will change. More will just keep getting added on. Until we snap. We’ve all snapped, but instead of taking a stand, we snap back.
When you can’t see another way, of course you feel like you have no choice but to pick yourself up and do the same again.
Here’s four self-awareness inquiries to take start making practical shifts into your life situation now. I can’t promise you all the stress will vanish and go away.
I can share that if you start by getting real with yourself and then embrace you power to make small but significant shifts to get support, release unrealistic expectations of yourself and redesign your view on what strong women do things will change.
Start by running through the self-awareness inquiries below from Overwhelmed and Over It.
Then I’ve included two resources to go deeper.