It is common to hear, or to say: “I am stressed.” This statement is inaccurate. We use it due to our tendency to associate how we feel with who we are. It also shows a lack of understanding about the difference between stress and stressor. It is better to say: “I am being stressed.” That subtle change in how you describe your experience of stress makes it much easier to focus on ways to address the stressor.
Stress - “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.”
Stressor - “a stimulus that causes stress.”
The words comes from the Latin, stringere, meaning to “draw tight”.
A bow cannot shoot an arrow very far with a limp bow string. Similarly, if you are not under tension, you cannot be at your best. Performance dips, and problems occur, however, when you do not have the opportunity to relax from the stressor.
Imagine you are Robin Hood.
You notch an arrow, sight your target, and pull back on the bowstring. Potential energy is about to be turned into kinetic energy, but instead of letting the arrow fly, you find yourself stuck with the arrow pulled back. After a few seconds, your fingers tighten under the strain, your arm begins to shake. That shaking causes your aim to be off, and eventually, when you can hold on no longer, you release your grip and the arrow shoots away.
Nowhere close to where you wanted it to go.
Too little stress and the arrow goes nowhere. Too much stress and the arrow goes anywhere. Similar to the bowstring and the arrow, to function at our best, we must be under the right amount of stress for the right amount of time.
You may be familiar with the quote on the left. I first heard a version of it in yoga class, and it stuck with me. I thought it was a profound statement about staying strong even during tough times, but the more I study the mental and physical effects of chronic stress, the more I judge this quote to be incomplete.
It does not mention that being dragged perpetually can prevent a person from achieving their goals. Pull the bowstring too far back, and it might snap. Keep the bowstring pulled closed to its breaking point, and your body might snap.
Life will drag you backward, forward, and sideways but you always have the option of lessening the tension on yourself. Sometimes, it may be worth it in the long-run to put the bow down entirely. Then pick it back up when you are recovered, and aim anew.
Stressors can be unlimited, stress is entirely up to us. To further cement this idea, I made my own arrow meme.