Power – Load = Margin


It’s a pretty simple equation, but truth be told, I often overestimate my power and underestimate my load, especially these days.  Then, I wonder why pain ensues.


In the above equation by Dr. Richard Swenson, power represents factors like your time, skills, strengths (emotional, spiritual, and physical), finances, and education.  Load includes both internal and external factors that you carry including your own personal expectations, work and family obligations, relational problems, personal health issues, civic engagement etc.  


When load exceeds power, the result is negative margin or an overloaded state.  Severe negative margin over time is another name for burnout.  Obviously, burnout is harmful and can manifest in symptoms like exhaustion, withdrawal, hostility, and depression.  People who are overly stressed and lack margin may say things like, “I can’t stand this anymore.”  “I dread going to work.”  “I don’t even care what happens with that person.”


As we go through daily life, our bodies are constantly adapting to the environment.  Multiple body systems work simultaneously to respond to stress including the nervous system, heart and circulatory system, liver, spleen, adrenal glands and immune system.   As noted by Dr. Hans Selye, stress is “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it.”  Our lay language refers to stress as the unpleasant circumstance we face. However, in reality, stress really is not the circumstance (competing deadlines, visits from in-laws that challenge us, lack of sleep), but it is our response to the circumstance.   As you probably know, not all stress is negative.  


Stress is a catch-all for our internal physiological mechanism that adapts us to change:  distress is negative, eustress is positive, hyperstress involves prolonged periods of stimulation, and stressors are the outside environmental changes that trigger the adaptation response.


When the stress response is initiated and sustained too frequently over time without a chance for recovery, we may find ourselves in states of alarm or resistance and overdosing on adrenaline and cortisol to the point of exhaustion.  When we resolve the stress response in a way that results in success, we may be unaware of damage to our bodies.  In contrast, when the result is failure, perceived failure, or frustration, some deleterious effects will eventually follow including tissue aging, problems with the immune system, stroke, heart attack, etc. (Swenson, 1992, 2004).  


Although much of the energy used in the stress response can be compensated for through rest, a certain amount may be lost and unrecoverable. This is why it is critically important to keep energy in reserve and do our best not to waste energy on unimportant issues. 


Dr. Swenson presents a helpful analogy of the similarities between stress and driving a car (Margin, page 61)

“Every time we enter into a stress response, we are taking our car for a ride.  When the gas tank runs out, we can always fill it up again (replenishing our supply of superficial adaptive energy).  Yet each trip also puts wear and tear on the vehicle that is irreversible (depleting our supply of deep adaptive energy).  This is not a reason to never drive.  But it is a caution to beware of what kind of trips we take.”


What are some of our stressors (real or perceived)?

  • Change
  • Mobility
  • Expectations 
  • Time pressure
  • Work
  • Control
  • Fear
  • Relationships
  • Competition
  • Overload
  • Illness and Death
  • Frustration and Anger


Remember that avoiding all stress is not the goal and is also as unhealthy as having too much stress.  Without novelty, change, and challenge, one remains stagnant and fails to grow or feel purpose and meaning.  


Think about your life as the writing on the pages of a book.  You desire to have healthy margins around the edge, but when they are too wide, there isn’t much substance to read and enjoy. In our frenzied states, many of our living books contain text that stretches from top to bottom and edge to edge with not a speck of white space or time to recover.  Truthfully, some of those words could be deleted or rephrased just as activities in our lives could be more focused and reduced to a more reasonable load.




Self-Coaching Activity

1.  Think about your power and load and assess your current life margin. 


Is it where you would like it to be?

 2.  If you are lacking margin, what can you do to reduce and better manage stress in your life?  

 *Stress reduction:  Which tasks and responsibilities (that no longer bring value to your life) assumed in past seasons can be reduced or removed altogether?

 *Stress management:  How can you better carry your load?


3.  Look at the above list of stressors and consider one area where you would like to decrease and remove some stress.  

Which area did you choose?  ______________________________

What is one way that you can cut stress in this area of your life?   


How can you take a step at removing that stress today?  Tomorrow? Over time?

 4.  Look at the list below of stress-management techniques.  

  • Pick one of the following or another stress-management technique of your choosing and commit to doing it 2-3 times this week.  
  • What technique do you choose? ____________________________
  • Practice it today.
  • Evaluate how doing that activity felt for you after the week is over.


Stress-Management Techniques

*Set Realistic Expectations


*Generate goodwill



*Deal with conflict in your personal life (confess and forgive)



*Accept things that cannot be changed

*Regain some real and/or perceived control in your life

*Make time for a hobby, relaxation, etc.

*Sleep-- get a good night’s rest!

*Spend time or talk with a friend



Margin is the space between our load and our limits.

Marginless is red ink: margin is black ink.

Marginless is hurry; margin is calm.

Marginless is anxiety; margin is security.

Marginless is a disease of our culture; margin is the cure

Richard Swenson, M.D.


Trouble and distress have come upon me, but your commands give me delight.

Psalm 119:143 




Swenson, R. A. (1992, updated 2004).  Margin:  Restoring emotional, physical, financial, and time reserves to overloaded lives.  Colorado Springs, CO:  Navpress.




Swenson, R. A. (1998).  The overload syndrome:  Learning to live within our limits.  Colorado Springs, CO:  Navpress.




Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD (February 21, 2018) Stress management.  



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