I recently gave a talk on stress at the BMT for Leaders Conference in Manchester, England and was asked, “Why do we choose to put ourselves into stressful situations?” This is a great question, given the many impacts that stress has on your physical, mental, and social well being (risk of stroke and heart attack, increased blood pressure, strained interactions, depression, and having a hard time remembering things just to name a few).
Behaviorally speaking, when we continually choose to put ourselves in stressful situations there is some source of reinforcement for our behavior.
In some situations, it’s a matter of lots of R-: we choose to do a behavior to avoid missing out on something, to avoid a bad consequence, etc. This can be as simple as wanting to avoid disappointing your boss, wanting to avoid letting your colleagues down, or even wanting to avoid people thinking that you’re lazy. Remember, the threat we’re avoiding can be real or imagined – as long as the person perceives it as a threat, it’s enough to cause a stress response, and possibly motivate us to put ourselves into that situation.
The other reason we may continually choose to put ourselves in a stressful situation is for R+. I can think of many things I love to do that always involve a bit of stress and R-, but ultimately a lot of R+. Take for example, speaking at conferences. I love it, I enjoy it, but there’s lots of stress and R- on the front end of preparing a talk, practicing it over and over, making sure I won’t make a fool of myself in front of everyone. I even have a stress response before walking on stage, every time. But the R+ of delivering a talk well, the nods of agreement while I’m talking, the applause at the end, getting feedback from my peers and the audience – that’s what motivates me to continually want to speak at conferences. The dose of R+ is big enough that it easily outweighs the stress and R- that happens beforehand.
I can also think of many people who look at “being stressed out” as a bit of a badge of honor – similar to the “too busy badge”. The sympathy, help, or conversations we have around being stressed out could be a kind of R+ for putting ourselves in stressful situations – we get attention that we like for doing it. There’s also the case that being stressed out helps us to avoid more responsibilities or tasks, which would be an example of R-.
It’s also important to remember that stress responses that are short and temporary aren’t bad for us – in fact they can be really helpful in improving our performance and motivation. It’s the long-term, chronic stress that we should be concerned about and trying to avoid.
So, do we LIKE being stressed? The answer is: it depends. There are a lot of reasons we may put ourselves in stressful situations, whether we like it or not.