Your job is a never-ending mess of responsibilities and deadlines. Bills are stacking up. The dishes are a towering monstrosity threatening to topple your entire kitchen. You haven’t slept in a week. The dog is sick. Your family is coming to visit. The significant other is mad at you for something. That piece of shit Honda you’ve been driving just had its engine explode. You’re fat. The unhealthy burrito you were shoveling into your face was NOT structurally sound and just shat beans and cheese onto your last clean shirt. And to top it all off… you’re out of wine.
After you come to from your rage black out you’ve burned down your apartment building, eaten the dog and are naked in a gutter in Queens.
Seen it once, seen it a thousand times.
That’s what stress does. It makes you burn things and move to Queens. And yes, I’m sure many of you think you would never break the law. Many of you would die before you move to Queens. However, stress does some crazy things. To be fair, the statistical linkages between stress and dog-murder/naked-arson are still a little fuzzy. However, WebMD does site one of the effects of stress as it making you “feel frustrated, lose your temper more often, and yell at others for no reason”. Practically the same thing.
Ok, ok. Losing your temper doesn’t sound so bad. If you’re like me, you yell at others for no reason regardless of mood… because people deserve to be yelled at. But the effects of stress reach far beyond that. According to a recent Yale University study, stress actually shrinks your brain. The study found that subject who had gone through a traumatic, stressful event had lower gray matter in their medial prefrontal cortex. For the minority of my readers who aren’t neurosurgeons, that’s the part of the brain that controls (among other things) self-control and emotions. We can all picture the image of someone so overworked that they’ve become an emotional wreck.
The reason that stereotypical image exists is because it’s inevitable. Stress causes brain damage. What’s worse is that the area of the brain that stress eats is the area of the brain that helps you cope with stress. When we were evolving from duck-billed platypus to walruses to giraffes to humans (I don’t understand biology), this sort of behavior made sense. See when your brain gets stressed, it tries to initiate a flight or fight response. This response is a great thing to have when you’re in the wild because the stress is usually something trying to kill you. So you want to kill it or run the fuck away.
Unfortunately, in modern society, it is frowned upon to murder your boss and it’s frowned upon to run out of the room screaming whenever you get asked about project deadlines. So we just sit there and try to tell a few million years of evolution to chill the fuck out for a second and let us work. The stress quietly gnaws away your emotional control centers and you get closer and closer to moving to Queens. Queens! Plus, our gray matter isn’t the only casualty.
Stress has been linked to cardiovascular disease, hypertension, heart failure, heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, allergies, autoimmune diseases, acne, psoriasis, eczema, muscle plain, migraines, diabetes, infertility and premature aging. And those are just the physical responses your body starts churning out. When you factor in the emotional disorders such a depression and rage, stress can easily destroy every aspect of your life.
Holy crap! What do I do?! Stress is going to kill me which is making me very stressed out. There are options. In fact there are a billion options. There are so many different pieces of advice out there ranging from self-hypnosis to rubbing your feet on golf balls to having Asians stab you repeatedly with tiny needles. The amount of options is really quite stressful.
The important thing is finding what works for you and that generally starts with identifying what is making you stressed out in the first place. For example, social interaction makes me more than a little anxious. If you’re like me, but find yourself in a job or situation that requires you to constantly be around people, try to find a minute to be by yourself. Even if that minute to yourself is just sitting in the bathroom staring at the graffiti carved into the stalls. This was actually one of the reasons I loved smoking cigarettes: sometimes going outside and breathing fire is a lot less stressful than small talk. (Note: Not an endorsement for picking up smoking to fight stress)
If you find yourself overwhelmed by work and have so many things to do your brain might explode… make a to do list. While in some cases quantifying all your responsibilities can be more disheartening, usually I find that it always seems like a smaller mountain when I scribble it on my little legal pad. And you’ll get to feel the sense of accomplishment later when you complete the task and get to stab out the task line from the list.
Of course, the above examples are low on the stress totem pole. There are extreme stresses like chronic unemployment or severe family illness that won’t be solved by hiding in the bathroom and making a to-do list. However, as I mentioned, there are many, many, many strategies out there for trying to calm down and be less stressed. If you feel like stress might be slowly eating you alive, look some of them up. It might do you good.
One of my favorite anti-stress tips is “self compassion”
Or in other words, don’t be so hard on yourself.
I know a lot of people who live off stress. It is their lifeblood. It is their fuel. Also, there is a certain mentality that in order to succeed one must be constantly pushing themselves to their physical, mental and emotional limits. While you do sometimes have to work hard in life to get ahead, all work and no play makes you lose your damn mind. Building muscle involves the continual ripping of human tissue, but you have to work in time of rest and repair or you end up doing damage instead of looking good naked. Self-criticism, likewise, can be very useful, but it can also be pointless flagellation that’ll make you miserable and less productive. Acknowledge things could have gone better and try to do that next time, but don’t make yourself walk the plank.
Try to realize that it’s alright if you aren’t stressed all the time. The double-edged sword of stress is that we can get addicted to it because is makes us feel productive. When our eyes are bloodshot, our hair is falling out and we haven’t shaved in half a month we feel like we must be getting stuff done, because why else would we be so miserable? But studies have shown that working over forty hours becomes less productive. You may be making yourself miserable just to make yourself miserable.
So relax. Take a moment of zen.