The DO Lectures series asked me a few months ago to contribute a piece to a collection of essays on stress (of course on a tight, stressful deadline), which it just released as The Stress Report, “a modern compass for a new, smarter, more productive way of working.”
The 134-page report examines the stress levels in various organizations and what new techniques can be used to alleviate stress (e.g. regular exercise, healthy nutrition, or Chief Wellbeing Officers). But is stress something that needs to be alleviated in the first place?
Unlike angst (I’m half-German, I am very familiar with the concept), which is always bad, stress can be good for us. Stress expresses a desire for intensity, for everything in nothing, whereas angst is a fear of everything, out of nothing. Stress confronts us as a small but impactful near-death experience that reminds us of our own mortality. It is humbling and marks the maelstrom of time for us. The absence of stress is worse; it allows more time and space for the undefined, nameless fear that eats our souls.
Stress, at its best, means being in the action, in the heat of the moment, in the flow, consuming and radiating energy. It doesn’t always feel good, but at least it makes us feel something. Between storm and calm, I choose storm. When I’m stressed, I tend to make mistakes, which often lead to more mistakes, but also occasionally, and perhaps, inevitably, to those epiphanies and instances of unexpected beauty that occur only in states of heightened sensation and awareness.
To me, stress has never been a consistent experience; rarely have I felt stressed for a prolonged period of time. Stress comes and goes, and it is usually worst before it comes. It is annoyingly predictable, but pleasantly spotty. Within phases of stress one can find both pockets of extreme tranquility and grace as well as such of anger and aggression.
Deadlines and our deep craving for drama
One of the most concrete devices of stress are deadlines, especially at the workplace. We seem strangely attracted to them. My theory is that they’re not just caused by our tendency to procrastinate out of fear of failure or sheer laziness. Rather, our affinity for deadlines stems from a deep craving for drama. Ironically, they make us feel alive. The rush of blood to the head, the bliss of late-hour limbo, the feeling special, the time crunch, the borrowed time, the extra-time — with every deadline (even those we meet), we die a little, and therefore live a little bit more intensely.
At work and beyond, without stress, without those (perceived or even artificial) signature moments that punctuate our comfort-seeking daily lives, we would be without leaps and peaks. Think about it: a first date, a wedding, the birth of a child, travel to foreign countries, an exam, the World Cup final — all stressful experiences, rich with adrenalin as well as the possibility of outright panic. But still infinitely better than the deadening routine of the underbelly of angst, the threat of obsolescence, of being forgotten without ever being truly stressed, ever having truly exhausted ourselves, ever having given it all. A stress-free life of happy monotony makes boredom look like a distinctive experience.
That said, stress must be managed. Framing it as something valuable and meaningful is a start (which is why I am writing this piece). Moreover, I think what often stresses us is not so much stress itself, but our stress about the stress: the meta-stress. What I mean by that is our chagrin with the very fact that we are being stressed, and our desire to be somebody else in that moment, or to be more precise, to revert to our previous, normal selves.
But, hey, ain’t gonna happen! When we’re under stress, there is no turning back, and instead of struggling to fit our new strange, condensed, and uneven emotions to the quandaries of our old souls and their comforting illusions of equilibrium, we must succumb to, no, embrace, our new, instigated, irritated, stressed selves.
The terror of effortless, evenly distributed angst
But yes, of course, if stress tips over the fine line to panic and even paralysis, the effects are no longer merely positive. If it becomes our default modus operandi in light of digital overload and efficiency pressures, if it turns into the kind of anxiety that stems from competing for social media attention, or worse, for work, for our position in society, our very existence and identity, then it will quickly turn into an agonizing disease.
Most critically, if we are deprived of agency — the ability to make autonomous decisions — by our immediate environment, “the system,” our bosses, and especially people close to us, then stress will become distress. If we are no longer able to produce against exponential productivity goals, if we are no longer allowed to create useless things or simply just be, at least for once, because of our (or marketers’) obsession with our “faster, smarter, better” super-quantified and optimized selves at work and in our homes, then, yes, we will devolve into emotional zombies rushing from one adrenalin kick to the other without ever earning the joy of true fatigue.
This advent of distress will surely be aggravated through the rise of automation and mass-unemployment, with more than half of our Western society’s workforce to be replaced within the next ten years by software or robots, according to some predictions. When that happens, we will feel numb instead of tingled. While constantly reminded and ever more conscious of what we feel, how we should feel, all the time, our souls will be emptied into a dark, noisy marketplace forever eclipsing what used to be the greatest promise of stress: the hope that all the commotion and elevated feelings might indeed lead to a new, higher plane.
With all desire, all suffering eliminated, only the terror of extended, effortless, evenly distributed angst will remain, and we may indeed yearn for those nostalgic times when we were still feeling stressed.
This post is a slightly edited version of the article “A Stressful Life” which appeared first in The Stress Report by DO Lectures, curated by Ian Sanders.