As I See It: Stressing Over Stress
December 6, 2010 Victor Rozek
I’m writing an article about stress, under stress. I’d enjoy the irony if it was happening to someone else, but it isn’t. I had intended to write this piece all along, but I thought the deadline was a week away. And since I tend to be somewhat spacious with my writing process, enjoying it as I would a multi-course meal, being rushed stresses me out. But when my boss called and asked, “Hey, where’s the article?” the only appropriate response was to murmur a mea culpa and ask for his indulgence until the end of the business day.
It’s amazing how even a little stress can produce immediate, unwelcome results. As soon as I got off the phone, my blood pressure went up, my breathing got shallow, and I was impatient with my wife when she started offering advice on how I might approach the subject. Incidentally, she suggested reporting the truth of my own experience, which made it worse because it was actually a good idea and I’d have to admit it later, at which point she’s sure to remind me of my impatience.
But I’m not the only quivering mass on tension. For many IT professionals, the stress level is at an all-time high. It is pervasive and relentless and, as I documented in my last article, the impacts are not only debilitating, but can be fatal. Job loss-induced stress has been shown to increase the death rate (particularly among older employees) by up to 100 percent. Even the threat of job loss can, over time, cause serious chronic illness. But perhaps the most startling statistic was the long range effect of involuntary termination. Even 20 years later, death rates were up to 15 percent higher.
It’s almost beyond comprehension that a single incident (even if anticipated) can put into motion a series of minute physical changes that, a generation later, add up to premature death. How may such episodes any of us suffer during the course of a lifetime will vary with the individual. But we know that common occurrences such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or the dissolution of a relationship, can take a costly and cumulative toll on the body.
But the good news is we also have some ideas about how to combat it.
The essence of stress is feeling out of control; having outside forces pushing and pulling us in directions we don’t want to go. A child dies, a career is derailed, a hurricane hits, a home is foreclosed, and we feel helpless to stop or change any of it. Stress is the body’s full-throated “NO” to being jerked around.
Taking charge of something, anything, will help alleviate the sense of being swept away by the vicissitudes of life. Even if the situation cannot immediately be changed, we can, at least, control our reactions to it. Pain may be inevitable, but the amount of suffering we endure is optional. Taking charge of our thoughts and emotions can profoundly impact our experience of stressful situations. If losing a job is reframed as an opportunity to do something you’ve always wanted, the stress of unemployment will be tempered with excitement. Likewise, resentment over being laid-off–or living under the threat of future layoffs–can be transformed into gratitude for having had employment for as long as it lasted.
Gratitude, as a tool for stress relief, cannot be overestimated. With stress comes fear; the dread that the current situation will never end. But it is impossible to simultaneously live in a state of fear and be in a state of gratitude. Therefore, the more things I can find to be grateful for, the less fearful I become.
Even in the most stressful situations, there are things we can control. If, for example, I’m stressed over work deadlines (as I currently am), I’d best make sure that procrastination isn’t contributing to my stress level. Incompletes are chronic stressors. If every time I see the pile on my desk, or my messy garage, or the half-painted kitchen, and I feel the energy drain out of my body, there is an obvious solution to that problem. (Thinking of all my incomplete projects I’m tempted to say “ignore them.” But treating the symptoms with more disease is probably not going to be a winning strategy.)
But the flip side of procrastination can also be a problem. Perfectionism, while laudable in the abstract, can be a huge stress inducer. Not only is the pursuit of perfection a hopeless endeavor, but when best effort falls short of the Platonic ideal, it is almost always accompanied by a large dose of negative self judgment. Thus, the perfect becomes not only the enemy of the possible, but the begetter of needless stress.
In order to have any hope of managing stress, we must first do the unthinkable and admit to the part we play in nurturing our own misery. As an article on helpguide.org succinctly puts it: “Until you accept responsibility for the role you play in creating or maintaining it, your stress level will remain outside your control.” So blaming TPM for the fact that I can’t go out and play on the first and only sunny day in the last two weeks apparently won’t help me much. Too bad. Blame is easier than admitting that calendars still confuse me.
I could, of course, self-medicate. I could have a beer, but then I’d want a second beer and at some point my writing would get incoherent and I’d sound like George Bush and I’d get fired. Today, it’s hard being me.
Self-medicating is a common response to stress and it is almost always the wrong one. Drugs, booze, cigarettes, sleeping pills, adopting vegetative states in front of the TV and computer screens, overeating, and under-engaging with family and friends, are all familiar coping mechanisms. Unfortunately, they cause more stress than they alleviate.
Exercise, a good night’s sleep, sharing your feelings with someone who cares, and having a pet are far more effective strategies. The reason animals are such wonderful stress relievers is that, in contrast to situations where we experience loss, or disrespect, or humiliation, or embarrassment, animals provide us with the very thing we long for but are seldom willing to give: unconditional love. (Except some cats which, in my experience, mostly love me when I’m feeding them. But, hey, if you can’t stand being tolerated, get a dog.)
The severity of our response to stress suggests that prevention, to the degree possible, is preferable to cure. And perhaps the most potent stress-preventing strategy, especially during these uncertain times, is simply to care for one another.
It may be necessary to deprive someone of their job, but it is never necessary to do so cruelly. It may be best for a relationship to end, but it can be ended respectfully. People may suffer great loss, but they should not have to do so alone. Our protection is in connection.
Well, I think I may have salvaged my job for at least another week. I’ve alleviated my stress, albeit temporarily, by getting it all out on paper; and I can even find a measure of gratitude for having been stressed. As Jane Wagner observed: “Reality is the leading cause of stress for those in touch with it.” It’s good to know that my grasp on reality, however tenuous, is holding firm.