I met a sweet, funny and interesting woman over the weekend. We were both authors at a regional book festival and became new friends throughout the day while we sat next to each other. We talked about many things–parenthood and our kids, art, the publishing world, diet and fitness–and then, toward then end, we talked about stress. At first, it was just a casual conversation about the workflow of a creative person but then she leaned in toward me and, in a soft voice that conjured up the confession of a dirty secret she said, “You know, I have no idea why I’m so stressed. My husband makes all the money… my kids are in school… I only work on books from time to time… I don’t really have anything to worry about but I constantly feel… so… stressed.”
I hear this a lot from people just like this woman. People who don’t really seem, at least to me (or even to them selves, if they are being honest), to have stressful lives. What’s going on here?
I’ve written about “stress” here before–and, really, the word “stress” has become so ubiquitous that it is actually challenging to know exactly what we are talking about when we talk about stress. Perhaps we need a stress ranking chart like the ones with all the smiling and scowling yellow faces that they have in the hospital for pain. You know? So, ma’am, is your stress a half-smiling, only just kind of worried looking yellow face or a twisted up, devil-eyed screaming bloody murder yellow face? And, most of what I’ve written and believed about stress was what we’ve been told: all kinds of terrible hormones are released when we are under stress and this will make us very sick.
I wonder if the trouble in understanding whether this is always true or just sometimes true is kind of dependent on the sort of stress we are experiencing? There are big life events like death, divorce, job loss, catastrophic injury and disease that can lead us into very serious and real stressful periods that trigger all sorts of secondary stuff. I have actually seen this stress-health dynamic in action on a personal level when, three years ago, I dealt with heart palpitations and a candida overgrowth episode that required both severe dietary changes as well as medication but was undoubtedly triggered by heavy stress that affected my body’s own immune system. Once I was able to begin to change the circumstances of my life, I was able to control the symptoms my body had created in response. It took over a year and a whole lot of running and meditation, mind you, but it worked.
What I’m questioning these days is the kind of situation my new friend described. The I’m-so-stressed-but-I-don’t-know-why situation. I realize now that I have begun to relate to this kind of stress in different ways because I think the state of being stressed and not knowing why only leads us into a weird loop of stress that feeds off of stress for no good reason and keeps the whole thing going and going and going. Much of it has to do with our nearly compulsive preoccupation with being busy. This compulsion is described nicely in a recent NY Times article called “The Busy Trap.” Columnist, Tim Kreider, describes the quintessential busy person:
Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.
So, maybe the stress that comes from this kind of perceived busyness is completely self-inflicted. But why? Again, Tim Krieder:
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.
Last year I completed my certification as a creativity life coach. Now, admittedly, most people who enter these kinds of programs first do so because they want the benefit of the philosophy and methodology for them selves and this was exactly the case for me. During the course of my studies, however, what I discovered about myself was so life changing that I share it with others as often as I can. My practice coach and mentor, a beautifully grounded and wonderfully wise woman gave me what would become the questioning mantra of my day to day “busyness” stress: What if I didn’t have to do all of this right now? A few weeks later, in a practice session with another student, the stress I regularly experience at the deadline of a project as a result of my own procrastination was beautifully likened to the pressure needed for a piece of coal to turn into a diamond. Needed.
Wait a minute… maybe it’s possible that if I begin to think about my stress in a new way, it won’t actually be stress? Maybe it’s actually a really integral part of my own personal workflow? Maybe I don’t need to believe that it will give me heart palpitations or make me sick? And then, a few days ago my mother, a person who knows my stressful nature better than most people, sent me a link to a popular, new video over at TED. It’s by health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, who admits that she’s been teaching the harmful effects of stress for a decade. She came to TED to talk about a new stress study that looked at people, in varying combinations, who did and didn’t have stress and did or didn’t believe it was harmful to their health. They tracked these people, their health issues and their death rates and here’s the upshot: People who experience a lot of stress but who didn’t believe it was harmful had the lowest health risk of anyone in the group, even those who had relatively little stress. Watch the video if you have the time. Make friends with your stress.
But, back to busyness for a moment because it is all this busyness that is causing us all so much stress, right? I am beginning to believe that this perceived busyness can also often be exacerbated by the people we hang out with. Since meeting Jeff about a year and half ago, I have had the amazing experience of being around one of those people that Kelly McGonigal referenced in her TED talk–the people who have the amazing capability to flip the stress switch to off when it’s done enough damage for the day and to really take the time to truly relax and who don’t have a thought in their mind that stress could possibly make them sick. And it’s not that he has some giant pile of money that keeps his mind at ease, it’s not that he has a rosy relationship with his ex or luckily has the easiest kids in the world to parent. We all have our stuff and some of us have a different perception of it. But, what if we could believe that we have the power to create our own balance if we choose to do so? What if we believed that we can choose to be un-busy… or at least to attempt to notice, as my mentor told me, if we really need to do everything right now?
From the busyness article:
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.
And, then, when we get back to our busyness, we can begin to embrace what we once thought of as that awful, nasty debilitating stress as the glorious and necessary fuel for our creative engines.
TRY THIS WEEK: Banish your busyness, find a new life rhythm.