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Achievement: Are you stretched or stressed?

Written by Ezra Hewing, Head of Mental Health Education, Suffolk Mind

Are you feeling like you need more of a challenge in life? Do you have personal goals and aspirations which really get you motivated to do more? Is there a skill or a talent that you’ve always to nurture and develop? This is what your emotional need for achievement is all about. 

When we are learning and stretching ourselves to master skills we feel competent and able to handle life’s challenges. These skills could be professional competencies, skills related to parenting and raising a family, arts and crafts, sports and physical activity, or learning mental skills like learning a language. When we master skills we are gaining in self-mastery, and have the sense that we are alive and growing.

Stretch versus Stress
There is still a widely held belief that stress is a good thing, which motivates people by keeping them ‘on their toes’ – this is not helpful, as stress contributes to mental and physical ill health. A much more useful distinction to draw is between stress and stretch.

Stress is always overwhelming, uncomfortable and offers little of the pleasure which comes from learning. Stretch by comparison, arises when challenges, which may be initially frustrating, give us opportunities to improve on what we already know how to do. Importantly, stretching ourselves gives us the sense that life is meaningful and has a purpose to it.

Nature’s personal trainer
The rewards we get for stretching ourselves are part of nature’s motivational system. When we complete a task, improve on past accomplishments and meet personal goals, nature gives us reward in the form of endorphins, the brain’s buzzy pleasure chemicals. These encourage us to challenge ourselves to achieve even more. And when we aren’t stretching ourselves nature sends us withdrawal in the form of boredom to remind us that we need to be doing more.

But nature doesn’t want us to stand still either, so each time we complete an activity it turns down the amount of endorphin reward we receive, to push us to do more, switch things up and get even better.

The antidote to low self-esteem
Stretching ourselves is also the antidote to feelings of low self-esteem. Nothing gives us a lift quite like the feeling that we are mastering new skills. So set yourself small achievable goals, and keep growing for wellbeing!