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Category: The Nature of Stress

The Stress Grind Spectrum

The Stress Grind Spectrum

Stress is here. Sometimes it is so thick we can’t see anything else. Other times, a faint, invisible film hangs over our lives, brains, and bodies.

We can think of stress along a spectrum of experience that ranges from the chronic to the acute. Within that range are general sub-states that vary based on whether we are aware that we are in a stress condition and what we are trying to do about the situation.

Across the entire spectrum, stress is grinding away, affecting our body and our mind. The eventual general impact of stress has already been outlined by stress researchers from the 1950s or so. The “grind” can come from too much stress hormones being released for too long. Or it can be a negative attitude spawned by stress that blinds us to our options, pushes away from stress-lowering social activity, and keeps us glued to the couch instead of exercising.

Stress grinds. Immunity is decreased, major organs get hit, our brain changes. Bad news.

The 4 major stops on the grind spectrum:

Chronic, unconscious stress – also known as “stealth stress” – This is the tricky one. We might feel pretty good or even great but below the surface our bodies are a bit more agitated than they have to be. The agitation can be measured through the presence of stress hormones, changes in the variability of the time between each of our heartbeats, changes in our skin that reflect changes in skin resistance to electrical charges, and in a degree of heightened continuous muscle tension. All of these changes can be measured using technology but can’t be picked up with our own body sense. In the coming years, other ways of detecting stealth stress will be uncovered and we will be able to turn to this new technology to wake up to what is going on in our own bodies.

Stealth stress creeps in a couple of ways: environmental conditions like loud sounds or strong lighting impinges upon our body; little changes in the social pecking order in our lives; a tad bit more uncertainty about what’s coming next; and other tiny, drip, drip, drip, ways.

Chronic, conscious stress, without a solution/managing focus – Ah, this one we know. Burnout is a great example of this position on The Stress Grind Spectrum. Here we are in a situation that we know is driving us to be out of whack but we keep in the situation. We have developed ways to “put up with” or blunt the sharp edges (i.e. with more food, more drink, more television, more Internet). Especially notable in chronic, conscious stress, whether it is burnout or some other situation,  we are not putting much energy towards thinking of solutions to the issue or even thinking much in the way of investigation of alternatives, observing to learn more, etc. We are like flies in a spider’s web, we know it and just assume the spider (stress making us sick or driving us nuts) will come someday to devour us. Trapped. Not good. Oh well.

Acute, conscious stress with a solution/managing focus – Here we are in the fire of stress and we actively looking and acting for ways to do something about it. Solutions can vary from helping others who are stressing us; finding answers and fixing a problem; removing a stressor; tapping new resources to control the stressor, etc. The emphasis here is action. Action to tackle stress.  We can be hit with things we don’t want to deal with the moment but we are actively addressing the challenge. Or, we actually may be seeking acute, conscious stress such as when we take on new challenges like: running a half marathon; taking a public speaking engagement; getting up and performing; going on a blind date. Stress is there and we can feel it but we know that it will not last forever and we are trying our best to deal with it.

Acute, conscious stress without a solution/managing focus – Here we are in the thick of a stressful situation and we aren’t doing anything about it. Why? Most likely we lack the capability to be solution focus because anxiety or even panic has kidnapped our brains and shut down our executive functions. Executive functions include: analysis, planning, working memory and more. All of that is gone because we have been taken over by pure body reaction. Our bodies have methods to shut down everything we normally feel and think so that it can put all energy towards saving our bacon—getting us to take flight, to fight, or to freeze. In anxiety and panic, we are under the influence of very old, primitive, and darn serious brain/body mechanisms that aren’t interested in idle chatter, hanging out, taking it easy, or speculation.

Bottom-line: We need to be aware of this demading spectrum of grind (and pain) and, of course, do something about it. More about that later.

What Goes Wrong at Work – The SCARF Model

What Goes Wrong at Work – The SCARF Model

No, you are not going crazy. No, you are not being overly sensitive. No, you are not exaggerating. The SCARF Model proves it.

Hats off to David Rock for his fantastic work on capturing the core stressors at work. Not only does have it down to a short list but he back’s it up with neuroscience. The hope is, that with training, managers will see for themselves the real downward effects of putting stressor after stressor on us, their workforce. If they continue to put the stress on employees they just will not get what they are seeking— greater creativity, productivity, cohesiveness, and more.

David Rock pulls together studies that basically show the importance of the work place as a social system and that our brains are wired to take social systems as darn important. In fact, brain scans show that the place where we register social “hurt” such as social slights, status downgrading, and rejection of our contributions in the same place in the brain as physical pain. “…for example, when they are reprimanded, given an assignment that seems unworthy, or told to take a pay cut—experience it as a neural impulse, as powerful and painful as a blow to the head,” writes Rock.

Why? Because many negative work situations are registered as threats.  “The threat response,” states Rock, “is both mentally taxing and deadly to the productivity of a person…This impairs analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem solving; in other words, just when people most need their sophisticated mental capabilities, the brain’s internal resources are taken away from them.”

Not only are the resources unavailable to the employer at that time, but all the resources we need to: see what the heck is going on; to monitor our stress; to figure out how to manage this feeling of threat; how to find a possible solution; and how to put boundaries on this stress and not let it carry on too long—all that is gone. We are left with our executive functions offline and our threat centers blaring an alarm. No wonder it is so hard to keep our cool or to keep things in perspective.

The SCARF Model puts these threats/thwarts into a simple and direct list:

S = Status
C= Certainty
A= Autonomy
R= Relatedness

Question: Which one of these is out of whack in your life?

To read excellent David Rock articles on the SCARF model, see:


The Big 4 Stress Types

The Big 4 Stress Types

There are a few other sources of stress but here are the biggies:

Threat – “Am I going to lose my job.” “God, I think he wants a divorce.” “What am I going to do?”

Anything that pokes at something near and dear to us (consciously or unconsciously) and shows the possibility of losing that precious thing, is a threat. Threat is not just a gun in the ribs, it can be the loss of anything we value.

Thwart – “Get moving!” “I hate post office lines; look at that dope slowing everything down.”  “I told you a hundred times, do it this way!” “They will never listen to me so I’m just going to keep my mouth shut.”

We know what needs to be done and damn it! the world is not playing along. What idiots. I demand that things be done my way. What? You don’t always get your own way (in traffic, in lines, at work, in life)? Hello, stress.

Inner Conflict – “I know I need to get started on that project but…” “This just isn’t right but I have no choice but to do it anyway.” “Which way do I go, this way or that? They both feel the right way.”

Here we are split between two compelling options (or more). Both have their possibilities but we just can’t get off the dime and therefore we live with the stress of being inactive/divided.

Change – “I just: moved, lost my job, retired, won the lottery, got sick, ran off with a starlet, bought a house, had a baby, got a promotion.”

Shocking but true, good events and bad events stress us by causing our mind, body, and soul to swing into action to figure out what all this new stuff is and how to live with it. Win the lottery? Then you are stressed.  Break your leg and your nose? Then you are stressed. Can’t win when things change.

Homework: See if your top three stressors fit into these categories. Note: Some stressors are so good at stressing, you can have two, three, or four of the major types of stresses cooking away in your life at one time because of one problem. You get a promotion (change), you want the money that comes with the promotion but not the work (inner conflict), you are afraid that some of your co-workers will turn their competitive attention upon you (threat), and you feel that you can’t really make the changes you want and therefore will feel like a puppet (thwart).  Ouch!