Stress is a strange phenomenon in our modern lifestyle. Almost everybody you ask claims to be stressed all the time. Being stressed is a batch of honor, a measurement of our importance. At the same time, we are suffering. Our stress eats our soul, it affects our sleep and reduces our quality of life to a mere existence. Desperately we try to keep afloat, yearning for the next holiday.
How did something that hurts us become such an elementary part of our lives? Why are we so bad in combating stress and what the heck is stress? Is it some leftover from our Pleistocene ancestors? A deep-rooted instinct to fight, flee or freeze in the eye of perceived danger?
Stress – A Good Tool Gone bad?
According to research, stress is exactly that: an emergency reaction of our body that is highly useful to escape a situation of acute danger but turns against us when we are unable to outrun our stressors. Medical News Today, provides a good introduction to stress as a physiologic effect. Stress makes your blood pressure rise, it raises your breathing frequency and your heart rate, it slows down your digestion and lowers the immune reaction, your muscles tense up, and you can’t sleep. In short: your body activates his emergency systems to react to imminent danger, sacrificing all activities that are only beneficial over a longer term.
This highly efficient process is extremely useful fighting of or escaping an acute danger. However, in today’s world, most of our stress factors - especially those at work - are not just temporary and acute. Today’s stress does not derive so much from fending off a hungry saber tooth tiger; it is rather caused by the overflowing email inbox and demanding bosses.
Stress & Me
I spend my entire career to this date in general management positions, running different companies in Hong Kong for their respective owners. Part of my job description is to act as a buffer between the local staff in Asia and the owners overseas. My role is to solve problems as much as possible locally so that my bosses don’t have to worry about them. At the same time, I try to isolate my local team members as much as possible from outside pressure.
Being in this role for more than a decade, I encountered a fair amount of real stress: the stress of a customer not paying, the stress of a crucial staff members leaving at the worst possible timing, the stress of important numbers not adding up, or a team member making a severe mistake that I should have spotted earlier. Sometimes, it is simply the feeling of fighting too many fires simultaneously, not being able to solve all issues in time.
Being stressed out is an awful feeling. It feels pretty much like I imagine drowning to feel like. You keep paddling as hard as you can and still barely keeping afloat, all while swallowing a good amount of water in the process. Or like losing control, standing on a steep slope and failing to keep the traction under your feet. Stress is closely linked to fear.
The two Sides of Stress
Despite having experienced all of the above feelings in their full intensity, my relationship with stress is not all that straight forward. While I feel physically tormented in stressful situations, these challenges at the same time bring out the best in me. When the situation requires it, am sharper, faster, more focused and more efficient. Adrenalin and other hormones work like an extra battery that power me through the day, enabling me to jump from one issue to the next, without slowing down or feeling fatigue.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that in the complete absence of stress, l tend to procrastinate. I am inclined to work on multiple tasks at the same time, starting something new before having the last project finished. It is fair to say, that this is not always the most efficient modus operandi. As soon as the sea level rises, however, I can switch to emergency mode, and in a very weird way, I even enjoy this situation, especially if I am surrounded by team mates who are motivated and dedicated to going into battle with me.
The Danger Lurks at Night
The danger of stress for me lies mainly outside of my work environment. While stress during working hours has likely a net positive effect on me, the collateral damages outside of work are devastating. Tossing around restless throughout the night and waking up in the wee hours of the morning, way before the alarm rings, is not exactly the best way to start a day.
Being trapped in your thoughts all throughout the weekend and lacking focus on whatever I am doing in my free time, gets me not only into trouble with my wife half but also prevents me from relaxing and recharging. And knowing of severe problems waiting for me in the office, can lead to small bursts of anxiety pretty much at any given moment.
Stress costs a lot of energy and can severely diminish willpower. It might be pure coincidence that STRESSED spelled backward is DESSERTS, but the danger of gaining weight in phases of severe stress is real. Just like a Mayan goddess demanding human sacrifices for a good harvest or a war path, your body demands compensation for powering through your stressful workday, usually in the form of sugary food and ever-increasing doses of caffeine.
Couple Therapy – Fixing my Fragile Relationship With Stress
Luckily my tool box to keep stress under control has broadened significantly over the past years. Guided mindfulness meditations in the morning and occasionally at night are a very powerful mechanism to lower anxiety levels and stay focused.
While meditation has been a game changer and has a huge calming influence on me, I am the first to admit that meditating when you are feeling stressed, is about as fun as sitting on an anthill with a naked butt. On a stressful Monday morning, the restless chimpanzee that usually occupies my monkey mind is joined by a crazy horde of wild bonobos, screaming, showing their teeth and throwing feces. Just getting a few calm breaths in and reaching a few seconds of inner peace, feels like a major achievement, under this circumstances.
Running, Hiking or Muay Thai are other great ways to reduce stress. Physical exhaustion can be a great relief to an exhausted mind. While sport is, in general, a huge vent to blow off some steam, it takes an immense amount of willpower to tie your running shoes after working overtime or go to the late boxing class. Being under pressure gives you the perfect excuse skip the run that is marked in your calendar and going to boxing class when your head is exploding with dozens of unsolved problems costs you quite some effort. Discipline is the only way to assure that you are not falling out of your tracks. Especially in busy times of your life it is important to consciously schedule physical activities.
Talking about scheduling, I realized that hard cut-off times for work and scheduled reading or meditation time before sleeping can make a big difference.
All the methods above are healthy ways to minimize the negative effects of stress. However, at the end, there is no patented recipe that eradicates all negative effects.
Stress is Just Human, Tell Him!
The very best way to combat stress is to focus your energy on solving the underlying issues. Solving your problems will also remove the stress. Obviously that is sometimes easier said than done.
While you are firefighting it looks as if the ultimate way to deal with the physical effects of stress is not to fight them, but to embrace them. As research shows, how we perceive stress determines largely how much it affects us. If you believe that stress is harming you, it likely will.
Accept the effects of stress for what they are, a physical reaction to a real-world problem that you need to solve. A manifestation of your fear of not being able to handle the challenge. Demystifying stress a first big step towards keeping the side effects in check.
My inner dialogue with my stress sounds like this: “I know I have trouble to sleep, because I have an unsolved issue at work. I will try next week to solve this issue by following plan X and if it succeeds the stress will also level off. I understand that my body reaction to the situation and it is fine. It maybe is wise to focus more on work and postpone some social events, as I would be not a good companion. However, let me make sure that I do at least get my workout in and stay disciplined with my diet and don’t skip my meditation in the morning. I am stressed right now, but that is OK. This is temporary and a natural reaction. Let me focus on getting the problem out of the way; then stress will be gone too.”
All this is not preventing me from feeling stressed or losing sleep. But so far it prevented me from burning out and from giving up.
My relationship with stress might be a difficult one, but at least it looks as if I found a reasonable way to arrange myself in this complicated relationship without getting crazy.