Stressed for Success?

My very astute sister once pointed out to me that all stress is not created equal.  There’s daily stress, the normal result of a body functioning without rest for 16 hours or so, which is alleviated after 8 hours of sleep.  There’s distress, which gives us the feeling of being overwhelmed or upset by the amount of stress we experience, and then there’s eustress, which according to Wikipedia is “a term coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye which is defined…as stress that is healthy, or gives one a feeling of fulfillment or other positive feeling. Eustress is a process of exploring potential gains.”  Examples of eustress could include climbing a mountain, running a marathon or sky-diving.  Or surviving a nautical disaster.

I was intrigued by a comment I read from one of the survivors of the cruise ship, Costa Concordia, that sank in the Mediterranean this past week.   ABC News reported:

‘Australian miner Rob Elcombe and his wife, Tracey Gunn, told Melbourne’s Herald Sun Newspaper they booked a spot on the Concordia as a last ditch effort to save their marriage.  Instead, the couple found themselves trying to save their lives when they boarded the very last lifeboat to leave the ship with survivors. “This has made our bond much, much stronger,” Elcombe told the paper. “Who needs couples counseling, when you survive a Titanic experience?” ‘

An adventure.   Stress worked into a feeling of gain.  Is it possible to turn your distress into eustress?

Peace like a river

Another news story I ran across came under this headline: Wife Slips Into Madness As Husband Dies of Brain Tumor. (ABC News)  Catherine Graves wrote a book called Checking Out: An In Depth Look At Losing Your Mind describing the distress of caring for her husband.  The headline rather sensationalizes an experience of overwhelming stress that is shared by a lot of people who find themselves in the role of caregiver.  I can relate.  I went through depression and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome during my husband’s illness and after his death.  Like Mrs. Graves, I was widowed at 45.  But did I lose my mind?  Not irretrievably, I don’t think.  Maybe what I’m doing now, being unemployed, slowing down, is my way of turning that distress into eustress.

There’s an old hymn that I’ve affectionately heard referred to as “The Playtex Hymn” (after the girdle).  The first line is “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent Word”.   It was written by John Keith in 1787.  My favorite verse goes like this:

“When through the deep waters I cause thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee thy trouble to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”

For some reason, singing that verse always causes me to choke up with emotion.  I know how it is to feel like I’m drowning.  I have a gasp reflex that reminds me of this almost daily.  It shows up lightning fast in moments when my reptilian brain senses danger.  It first became noticeable when I was trying to teach my kids to drive.  I would gasp and grab the handle above the passenger side door at the slightest correction of the steering wheel or touch of the brake.  It happened to me again just this morning.  I was stacking packages on the table and the tower toppled over.  I gasped.  “I must be drowning!” I laughed.  It’s probably a rather annoying habit for those who live with me.   I appreciate their patience.

There’s another hymn that follows this theme.  “It Is Well With My Soul” was written by Horatio Spafford in 1873.  The story behind it is quite amazing.  In brief, according to Wikipedia:

“This hymn was written after several traumatic events in Spafford’s life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of four, shortly followed by the Great Chicago Fire which ruined him financially (he had been a successful lawyer). Then in 1873, he had planned to travel to Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre, but sent the family ahead while he was delayed on business concerning zoning problems following the Great Chicago Fire. While crossing the Atlantic, the ship sank rapidly after a collision with a sailing ship, and all four of Spafford’s daughters died. His wife Anna survived and sent him the now famous telegram, “Saved alone . . .”. Shortly afterwards, as Spafford traveled to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write these words as his ship passed near where his daughters had died.”

And here’s the lyric:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

I am trying to re-train my brain to believe that my deepest distress can be sanctified.  I don’t think this is an exclusively Christian perspective at all.  The Noble Truths of Buddhism are all about addressing the suffering (distress) of this world and how we think about it.   I hope that as I “explore potential gains”, my drowning will become floating, and all will be well with my soul.

10 thoughts on “Stressed for Success?

  1. Oh that picture is just exquisite Scilla…. pale blue with pale creamy brown is my favourite combination at the moment… I think you should have made it larger so everyone can get an immedaite better look…can you change it?
    Wonderful writing as ever..

  2. there is a famous scene in Ingmar Bergman’s classic film Persona where two women’s faces become superimposed upon each other. I was reminded of that as I read today’s piece. Your openness draws me into you, you inspire me to do things I never used to (like listening to opera while I cook), and in the process I also see more of myself in you. What I am saying really isn’t about distress or eustress so much as slowing down not to lose our minds.

    Your gasp goes right to my heart and makes me want to wrap my arms around you.

  3. Stress – it’s everywhere – it can push us to do better, but can definitely tip us over the deep end! i am sorry to hear that you were widowed at such a young age. I hope the PTSS has dissipated and life is improving! Looking at your photo – I see something peaceful and serene. It is a lovely shot! All the best.

  4. I’ve been off of classes for a month, and I recently took a week off work as well– my idea was that I would travel, but that turned out not to be possible. Presented with an unprecedented amount of free time, then, I’ve discovered that unless I’m functioning at about 80% of my personal stress capacity I just don’t know what to do with myself. I wander around fuzzy-headed and aimless. I get sick. I get paranoid. Only one more week until class starts back up :D.

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