I’ve been thinking about stress a lot lately. It was a big topic in the explanation of some test results I read this week. I’ve been feeling a lot of stress because of the disability insurance insanity and that’s thrown me into a setback. And of course, stress comes up constantly as I research how to fix my adrenal problems. But today it came from a different source.
A friend sent me a chat message on Facebook a few hours ago. We chatted about the snowstorm and a nice video online, then J mentioned the pain she’s having in one of her joints. The pain is apparently (according to her and her doctors) due to bad sleep, and the bad sleep is from stress. One of the first things she wrote was, “Well, I think it’s more my inability to handle a totally normal amount of stress, which is embarrassing.”
Oh boy. We have a problem here. And the problem isn’t just hers, it’s our society’s. (Note that I live near Boston, in the northeastern United States. You can choose to believe whatever definition of “our society” that you want.)
My symptoms started in the early 1990s, but my diagnosis came 10 years ago. I was working multiple jobs and letting my type A personality rule. I was also dealing with the end of a serious relationship. My doctor told me I needed to sleep more and stress less. I literally laughed when he said that. It was a joke, right? After all, if that was doable, wouldn’t everyone do it? It’s taken me many years, but I finally understand the roles that stress and sleep play on our health. I understand how important they are. Having seen the light, I’d never go back. Sadly, most people haven’t seen the light. Yet.
As I read more and more about autoimmune disease, adrenal fatigue, etc., I realize that while our bodies can handle a certain level of stress, most of us take on more than that level on a regular basis. And that’s the “normal” that J referred to. Not being able to handle the stress that everyone else does (or that they say they do,) she said, “makes [her] feel like a loser.” See, she thinks that being stressed out all the time, working constantly, taking on too much, is “normal” and that she should be able to handle it because everyone else appears to.
Well I’ve got news for J and for everyone else who believes that. Our bodies were not designed for that level of stress. Besides that, you can never be sure how much stress someone else really has. What they say may not match up with the reality. And you don’t know how well they’re handling it. I have a friend, R, who does so much. He works a lot, does a ton of side projects, and is planning a wedding. He loves it and he’s happy. He doesn’t think it’s stressful at all. You’d think he’s handling it well. But I’ve been watching him put on an unhealthy amount of weight. Other people drink too much. Others become sick regularly (I bet you have that one friend who catches every cold that comes along but is otherwise healthy, right?) Some live perfectly healthy lives, but then die young. You just never know how someone else is really handling their stress. And by the way, you can’t control your own exposure to stress entirely.
Of course, that’s a big part of the problem: people usually define stress as being anxiety-provoking, but stress can come from positive things too. Too much fun at a party can stress your body. A job you love, if worked too many hours, can cause stress. It’s not just emotional, it’s physical. Living in a house with mold you’re allergic to can be a stress. An infection can be stress. And sudden incidents can be stress. You can be taking great care of yourself, keeping stress levels low, when suddenly you get cancer, a loved one dies, you and your spouse lose your jobs in the same week, your roof starts leaking during a hurricane. Some things you can not control
The one thing you can control is your response to the causes of stress.
As for me, when I got diagnosed I quit all of my jobs and rested for several months, then started a 9-5 work schedule. You may have to leave an unhealthy relationship, quit a demanding job, move to a more relaxing environment. Maybe you need to start meditating, writing in a journal, and taking deep breaths regularly throughout the day. The best way to handle stress is different for everyone, but I think it’s vital that each person figures out what works best for them.
A difficult one for me is not letting other people’s stress influence me. When a loved one is hurt, it’s hard not to get stressed out, but I’m talking about the more superficial kinds of stress. That’s why I try to do my taxes long before the deadline every year – when everyone else is stressing out in mid-April, I don’t get swept up in their hecticness.
In our culture, though, it’s considered a good thing to be constantly busy. People compete to be the busiest. Like, if you’re not busy, then you’re not important or you’re not doing enough. Ask someone, “What did you do last week?” and they start listing off so many tasks that it seems impossible they did it all in such a short time. Would someone say, “I read a great book, watched some tv, and played with my cat”? I doubt it. I mean, I think it would be great, but I’ve never heard that before. Instead, people try to sound busy all the time. More than that, they feel they should be busy all the time. That’s unhealthy! The truth is, you’re actually smarter than everyone else if you take some time to yourself, read a book, write in a journal, and get some exercise instead of working an extra 10 hours. Even knowing that, I find it hard not to get swept up in their attitude that more is better. After a lot of practice, I’ve learned how to avoid infection with that attitude, but I see that J and most of my friends succumb to it.
Let me ask you, if you can afford to, do you take vacations from work? I used to work at a company that offered a lot of vacation days, and for some reason, people didn’t use them all! Some said the place would fall apart without them. Others made up different excuses that basically said the same thing. In some offices there’s pressure on employees to not take vacation (that’s illegal!) but this was one where we were encouraged to take it. I always took mine. I figured if the place would fall apart without me, if I couldn’t set things up to run without me for a week or two, then I wasn’t doing a very good job. Maybe my coworkers should have tried that perspective. Instead, they wanted to feel important. We often define ourselves by our jobs, and they needed to feel that their job needed them as much as they needed it. (And by the way, we survived when the new mother was on maternity leave for 3 months, so I think we can survive 1 week without you.)
And while we’re talking about the office falling apart without you, or a friend not being able to get by without you, or whatever, consider this: how well will they do if you let yourself fall apart? If you don’t take care of yourself, then what will happen? On the other hand, if you take the time to take care of yourself, you’ll be a better employee, friend, parent, etc.
Of course, like I said before, it’s your attitude towards stress that makes a huge difference. On paper, J does it all right. She works reasonable hours and doesn’t bring any work home with her at all (another hurtful attitude that our society thinks is not just acceptable, but admirable!) The thing is, she feels guilty about not bringing work home. And that guilt is stressful. She feels guilty about not working more, even though she works all of her required hours and gives it her all. And, by the way, she does a fantastic job at it. So what’s the problem? Her friends and family complain (really, they brag) about the many long hours they work and yet they seem to handle the stress just fine. So she feels that she should do the same. To me, that’s like saying that since my friend H can run a marathon, I should be able to also. And because my friend M is trilingual, I should be too. And my friend A is a rocket scientist, so I should be able to be one also. Life doesn’t work that way. We all have our talents. Just because one person can handle working long hours (though you can’t be sure they’re handling it well at all) doesn’t mean we all have to. J has many talents that others don’t have but, like so many, she’s focusing on what she can’t do instead of on what she does do. And what does that lead to? Let’s say it all together now:
Ten years after I laughed at that doctor I now see how much I was harming my body. Unfortunately, I did a lot more harm before I realized what was happening. Now that I see it, I’ll never go back. I just wish everyone else could see it too.
There are plenty of other sources for tips on dealing with stress. There are web sites, books, classes, and more. And you can easily read up on the biology of what happens to our bodies when we experience stress. That alone could be enough to convince you. I cringe every time I read about it. But right now, I just want people to understand that it’s not good for us. And that working more, doing more, being more, isn’t what makes us happy. So that means that many of us are measuring ourselves against an idea of “normal” that will ultimately hurt us.
Let’s face it, this blog doesn’t have the readership to make huge change (but I do get excited as I see the numbers going up every week!) Still, if this helps just one person, I’ll be happy. So please share it with people you know who need to slow things down. And please share a comment here or on Twitter telling me how you’ve learned to handle your stress and/or what made you see the light. The more examples we have, the more we can help others.
Disclaimer: I’ve said this in other places but I feel it needs to be said again here: I’m not a doctor. I have no medical training. I am not offering medical advice. Everything here is my own opinion, not fact.