How Much Stress is Too Much?

Mark ReaganStress Management10 Comments

how much stress is too much

I’m on a late flight back from California. A man in his early 30s with jet black hair sits next to me. Let’s call him Steve. The bags under Steve’s eyes are thick. He hasn’t slept much the last few days, he’s recovering from a cold, and he’s a little loopy.

Instead of resting, he tells me he can never sleep on planes and starts talking to me. And I ask him questions. Lots of questions (I’m a coach, after all!).

Steve is stressed out. He flew home for a day to see his family and was immediately flying back out to Boston for another round of meetings.  

“Do you have any kids?” he asks me.

I shake my head, and he pulls out his phone.

“She’s a year old.” He shows me a picture of his baby girl with the same jet black hair. His smile beams at the photo. He shows me another, this time of his son who’s only two months old.

Steve barely sees his family. He loves them… a lot. It shows so clearly on his face.

But Steve loves his work, too. It’s exciting. He loves negotiating with his team, he loves making deals, he loves the accomplishment.

He’s addicted to the stress that comes from his work.

Stress can make us pumped

Stress can be exciting. Like I write about in the free course I offer in the sidebar, it can help our performance.

Steve barely sees his wife and kids. He loves them, loves spending time with them, but can’t bring himself to work a little less and spend that time with them.

“I know I should change,” he tells me. “My brother changed careers to spend more time with his family. He even started up his own business. It’s going well.”

“Is that something you want?” I ask him.

He pauses, just a little too long. “I don’t know. I mean, I want to spend more time with my family.”

I ask him more questions about what might be stopping him from doing that. He knows he doesn’t have to work 60-70 hours per week. He knows he can leave work a little earlier each day to get home in time for dinner.

But he doesn’t.

He’s stuck

Steve has a lot on the line, and he knows it. He’s beyond exhausted, and knows his kids are growing up with him barely in their lives. It’s time he (and they) will never get back. And there’s his wife. His marriage is being strained. It’s working well enough now, but if it keeps going this way…

I ask Steve lots of questions, bring up a lot of points he already knows. Nothing gets through to him.

In my coaching training, my instructor had an executive client who was stuck in Steve’s same position. Nothing worked, until he asked his client this question.

It’s a dangerous question, the kind of question if it lands wrong it might cause a client to fire you, or it can help create a breakthrough.

There was a good chance I would never see Steve again. With nothing on the line, I asked it.

“What are your favorite kind of flowers?”

The question knocks him out of his train of thought. “What?”

“What’s your favorite kind of flower?”

“Lilies… why?”

“So I know what kind of flowers to send you when you’re in the hospital.”

He goes silent.

“When you’re on your deathbed, who’s going to be there for you? Is it going to be your partners? Your clients?”

“It’s going to be my family.”

“Is that what it’s going to take for you to finally spend time with them?”

Steve who’s been talking non-stop for the last 30 minutes goes quiet for a long time. I can tell something’s shifted inside of him.


Coaching isn’t just about asking questions, it’s about having someone commit to action.

I ask him, “What’s the first tiny thing you’re going to do?”

“Start leaving work a little earlier to make it home for dinner.”

“When are you going to start?”

“When I get back from this trip.”

After that, Steve finally settled down a bit and got some sleep on the flight.

I hope he followed through on it. I have no way of knowing.

How much stress is too much?


For you, how much stress is too much? How much do you have to have before you’re willing to change? Steve – exhausted, never letting himself recharge – was setting himself up for breakdown – if not a mental or health breakdown, then a family breakdown.

His stress wasn’t a bad thing. He enjoyed the thrill of work, but his worry about his family was a signal it was time to change, even just a little.

What is your stress trying to tell you?

10 Comments on “How Much Stress is Too Much?”

  1. Yep, we were definitely trained by the same person! I remember him sharing the flower story with us as well. Definitely a powerful technique if used properly.

  2. Wow! That is a powerful and thought/emotion provoking question. Well done for helping him to make a shift in his thinking Mark – you sure seem to have a calling for supporting people to manage their stress more healthily. Thank you, I’m adding that question to my toolkit and will use it mindfully.

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