The Pressure Is Good For You, Or How To Make Stress Suck Less

Did you have a stressful day yesterday? I’ll bet you did.

Stress is the enemy of productivity, happiness and health. It’s all we hear about these days. As someone who has been badly burned out by nearly job I’ve ever had, this is alarming. In the past, a typical work week for me could somehow creep beyond 60 hours into the threshold of 80 to one-hundred. If this sounds like a #humblebrag, trust me, it’s not.

Being burned out isn’t just feeling tired, stressed, bored, paralyzed or desperately in need of a beach getaway with a cabana boy serving you cocktails (though, I profoundly wish it were). It’s like all of these things combined, blown up and magnified to the nth degree. This isn’t the “busy trap” or a first-world problem. Stress brought me to the limits of my relationships, caused me to have seizures at my desk, panic attacks in movie theatres, and generally speaking, made me a pretty shitty, selfish person who was both totally numb and miserable. Ew.

These days, everyone is anxious and burned out; packing their schedules too tight, filling their days to the brim and finding it increasingly harder to forge real-life connections in a world that just won’t seem to stop. Our culture fetishizes work and busy-ness (Americans work more than any other country in the industrialized world). Everything in my life felt toxic and un-balanced. I had a problem, and I didn’t know what to do.

So, I asked myself a question: what is my relationship to stress?

In Kelly McGonigal’s 99U presentation, she outlines a case study wherein a group of researchers asked an interesting question: does a country’s stress index correlate with other indices of well-being, like life expectancy, GDP and overall satisfaction with people’s lives? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does — but, in the exact opposite way than the researchers had anticipated.

In fact, the higher the nation’s stress index, the greater the GDP and life expectancy. As it turns out, the more stressed people are, the happier they seem to be in the work they do, the relationships they cultivate and in the communities they live in. How could this be possible?

Researchers also looked at what other experiences seemed to correlate with the high-stress index. They found what you might expect: on a particularly stressful day, we feel sad, worried, anxious and angry. But we’re also more likely to feel a great deal of joy and fulfilment in general.

In effect, the same circumstances that give rise to anxiety also make way for joy. It’s what McGonigal calls the stress paradox: the idea that stress can actually serve as a barometer for how engaged you are with your life. Stress, this all-consuming thing we hate, actually goes hand-in-hand with the things we crave most: love, happiness, wealth and carving out a sense of meaning in our (albeit, harried) lives.

In the West (and in most industrialized nations, I presume), we view stress as some sort of signal that we are unable to rise to the challenges set before us. That our lives are toxic. That we are doing something fundamentally wrong, and we should do everything in our power to reverse the course we’re on. But the truth is: if you change the way you think about stress, your reaction to it will be different.

Life is a series of choices, and these choices determine how you view stress. Is it something to be avoided, reduced, managed and suppressed at all costs? Or, can we begin to view stress as a positive, helpful and motivating thing that we can embrace and channel towards great success? Having the right mindset seems to be half the battle, and actually plays a big part in how stress affects you.

Call it magical thinking or a jedi mind trick, but here are a few ways I learned to make my stress work for me:

  • Realize you are not your job: Seriously. Much has been said on this topic, but this was one of the hardest hurdles for me to move past (and I imagine the same holds true for most of us working in creative fields). My life was filled with fear: fear of missing out on opportunities, fear of not being a ‘yes man’, fear of not being a team player, fear of not getting promoted, fear of not working hard enough, fear of burning out, and worst of all, fear of failure. When I felt like my job was an integral part of my being, it meant that every success (and every failure) was magnified. After working in a few start-ups, my years were filled with highs (“we just raised money!”) and lows (“we’re not scaling fast enough!”) that felt like mine and mine alone. It felt heavy. I think fear is a big part of stress (fear of the worst possible outcome, fear of things not working out), but when we decouple the self from work and realize we are not our LinkedIn profile, our Twitter bio or our jobs, we become less consumed by the things we can’t control. We are not the work we do — even if we love it. Surprisingly, this exercise has allowed me to be more present and energized for my day-to-day tasks, and (I can only hope), made me a much better co-worker and employee. Big time win-win!
  • Recognize stress as an indicator of a purpose-driven life: The same circumstances that give rise to stress also help us feel positive experiences. Even though stress feels, er, distressing in the moment, you can use it as a benchmark for how engaged you are with the things that bring love and growth into your life.
  • Check yourself out: Sometimes, the stress is just plain unbearable (and dumb). There were moments where I wondered if it was all worth it. The truth is: sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. When this happens, I examine the proverbial “return on investment” of my stress. Certain stressful situations amounted to great success in my career, while others simply weren’t an accurate reflection of my passions, beliefs or values. It’s a fine line, but just as you can use stress to your advantage, you can also use it as an opportunity to check in with yourself and rid your life of the stuff that’s dragging you down.

If you’re not at all anxious about the nitty-gritty details of your life (i.e. next week’s client presentation, a board meeting, picking your kids up in time for school), it probably means you don’t care. It’s only when anxiety becomes excessive and out of control that it starts to harm your performance. A little bit of stress is good, but everyone’s threshold is different — so it’s important you find your own sweet spot.

When anxiety overwhelms you or casts a shadow over your life, this is a serious problem (and also a good time to do a personal gut check as referenced above). But everyday anxiety (like the kind you feel before you interview for your dream job) isn’t the enemy.

Anxiety is an important emotion, cultivated through evolution, that gives you razor-sharp instincts and ninja-like advantages when you need them most. For people like me who are anxious by nature, your nerves are a sign of vigilance. Listen to them, act on them and turn nervousness to your advantage.

Understand that right now, the challenges you’re facing will serve to add meaning to your life. Stress can, in fact, make us stronger, smarter and happier if we learn how to embrace it. We can never fully eliminate stress, so let’s take advantage of it by getting better at dealing with it. The ball’s in your court, and, believe it or not: the pressure is good for you.

This post originally appeared on the Dynamo Blog.

Paintings by Gregory Thielker