I guess you could say I know what stress feels like.
Being a German lawyer, I passed through two grueling official exams that lasted weeks. As an attorney, I worked on multi-billion and -million-dollar cases.
And don’t even get me started on my Ph.D. (I somehow thought that picking a complex topic and then making it even more complex was a good idea…)
But do you want to know about the most stressful time in my life?
It’s when I left all that a few years ago.
I had spent a decade to become an attorney, landed a prestigious, high-paying job in an international law firm, completed a Ph.D. and gotten qualified to be a judge — and then got married with 48-hours advance notice to my boyfriend, moved to another continent and started my own business from scratch.
(And yes, you wouldn’t be the first one to question my sanity. But it actually was a calculated risk I took — or what some people call a “Yes Yes Hell No” decision.)
Instead of bringing home a big paycheck, during my time of transition I suddenly was utterly dependent on my ̶b̶o̶y̶f̶r̶i̶e̶n̶d husband (whom I had never even lived on the same continent with previously) for health care and even for my green card.
Speaking of health care, instead of living in the country with the world’s oldest health insurance system (my native Germany), I suddenly found myself in the US.
(An American acquaintance once said that the US health care system is neither healthy, nor caring, nor a system — and who am I to argue with his assessment?)
While everything turned out fine and I would make the same choice again, both my husband and I are beyond glad that I am past that transitional period.
It was more stressful than any high-stakes legal exam or case could ever be
Typically, when people talk about stress it relates to something they’re doing.
But stress that comes from who we’re becoming is so much more intense.
If we assumed for a moment that insects could experience stress, which experience would be worse?
Being a bee who’s busily moving from one flower to the other — or being the caterpillar who’s falling to pieces in preparation of becoming a butterfly?
I know I’d find it easier to be the bee than the butterfly-in-the-making.
I believe this is not only my subjective experience or preferences.
Case in point: the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory which measures the susceptibility of a stress-induced health breakdown.
It does so by listing life events according to their impact and giving scores for each. For instance, a change in eating habits gets 15 life change units. A change to a different line of work gets 36. A marriage gets 50. And so on and so forth.
Count all of them together for the previous year and we get a rough estimate for how stress might be affecting our health. According to this scale, a score underneath 150 points correlates with only a slight risk of illness.
If I count together all the different life events that happened during my transitional year, my score was well over 300. 😱
(For comparison: the death of a spouse is ranked at a 100. That being said, it’s important to remember this score is only measuring stress, not emotional pain. My year was merely intensely stressful, whereas losing someone one loves is an emotionally utterly devastating experience. And of course, I’d pick intense stress over the loss of a loved one any time.)
So given that I have some experience (more than I care to have had, quite frankly!) in dealing with stress, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned.
Here’s what I recommend when it comes to dealing with insane amounts of stress:
1. Avoid it ❌
Seriously, if you can, avoid insane stress brought on by too many life changes. A number of stressful life events can be self-initiated ones, such as taking on a mortgage to buy a house or deciding to start a family. I’m not saying to avoid self-initiated life changes, I’m just saying that it might make sense to spread these out if you can.
Of course, this is not always possible. But if you don’t have to change everything at the same time, don’t. When working with clients, I would never advise them to do as I did and to change their whole life at once.
Huge change might seem like the fastest course of action but it really isn’t.
That is because you need time to integrate each change. If you proceed to change at a slower rate, you need less integration time. A huge life change, on the other hand, takes a long time to integrate.
2. If you can’t avoid it, have compassion for yourself 💚
If it’s not possible to avoid stress from life changes, it’s really important to be compassionate with yourself.
Your stress might come from positive changes (a new job in another city that you wanted) or from tragic ones (like the death of someone you care about). If it’s the latter, my heart goes out to you and I hope that you get the support you need.
If it’s the former, congratulations! Just remember that it’s okay to feel stressed out even if you wanted the change to happen. Self-compassion is always helpful.
3. Get support 💬
Get support and lots of it. You may or may not need physical help (such as help with cleaning, moving etc.) but you could likely benefit from emotional support.
As American athlete Terrell Owens put it:
“A lot of emotional stress that people go through, some people figure out a way to handle it. They have a strong enough support system to keep going and keep moving forward. And some people, they feel like they don’t have that outlet.”
In my experience, the most intense stress is not the one that comes from doing but from becoming. From changes in our lives.
There are three things that can help in dealing with this: reducing the intensity by avoiding stressful life changes one can control, having self-compassion and getting external support.
While I didn’t follow #1, the other two were enough to help me get through my transitional period.
Oh, and I’m glad to report that the risk indicated by the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory didn’t manifest itself! 😌