Stress, it seems, is an inevitable reality of modern life. Everything seems to be a trigger: work, school, family, money, urban living (including commuting, incessant noise and overcrowding), even our own dreams and desires can stress us out.
The stress I’m referring to is chronic stress vs the type of acute stress we feel when we do something that takes us momentarily out of our comfort zone, such as doing something physically demanding, asking someone out on a date, delivering a speech, sky diving, or having a near-miss collision while driving home.
Sounding the Alarm on Chronic Stress
The insidious nature of chronic stress is what troubles me most for three reasons:
- We can’t readily feel it.
- It causes serious and even fatal diseases.
- It’s self-perpetuating.
I want to spend time on all three of these points, but point #3 is the one that, if addressed, can help reduce or eliminate the impact of #1 and #2 and help us lead a better and longer life.
1. We can’t readily feel it.
When we experience acute stress, we can feel it immediately. Our heart races, we sweat, our senses are heightened, and some of us even get nauseous. However, when we’re under chronic stress, our body doesn’t respond and adapt to a shot of stress hormones the body releases as we react to a situation, it responds to a constant bathing in these hormones, which dampens our ability to perceive and feel that we’re under stress. Once we feel it or seek help for it because of its negative effects, a lot of damage can already have taken place, especially if we believe the stress is negative and out of our control.
2. It causes serious and even fatal diseases.
Chronic stress is the ultimate silent killer in both its persistence and its devastation of all body systems. It’s a major contributor to cardiovascular disease, obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar & diabetes, cancer, memory loss—even dementia, impaired cognitive function affecting learning and decision-making, premature aging, immune system disorders, mental illness (such as depression, anxiety and withdrawal), bone and muscle tissue loss, and a number of gastrointestinal disorders.
3. It’s Self-perpetuating.
Chronic stress begets more chronic stress. When we’re under constant stress our bodies adapt in undesirable ways. Unfortunately, the result is a downward spiral that, if left unchecked, can make it impossible to recover because its effects can permeate all aspects of our lives.
Here’s an example: Bob has a stressful job. His responsibilities lead him to think about work constantly. He’s all-consumed during the day and during his commute. He’s distracted by it when he’s at home and he even dreams about it when he’s asleep. In order to try to alleviate the stress, he spends more time on work, hoping that that will make him feel better. In order to do that, he spends less time on leisure and on other aspects of his life that he finds rewarding: he reduces the number of hours he sleeps, he stops going to the gym, he stops making his own food—opting for on-the-go options instead, he outsources anything and everything that requires time and energy, he spends less time with his significant other and he spends less time on what he would call “fun” activities. Bob also starts self-medicating with TV, drugs (alcohol, illicit or prescription), junk food, Internet surfing, or with any other mindless behaviour that requires little to no mental faculties; and/or by spending money on toys & luxuries he rarely has time to enjoy but that help justify the crazy hours he’s spending working. He’s effectively slowly turning himself into a member of the walking dead.
Bob has developed a bad case of tunnel vision. Short-sighted management of his chronic stress has become all-consuming and negatively affects every aspect of his life. He’s so preoccupied that he fails to notice or appreciate the seriousness of the changes in his behaviour. Bob’s inability to think about and process all aspects of his life is slowly and predictably leading to greater sources of stress over the short and longer term.
Here are a few questions to consider when evaluating his situation:
- How can he think about the long-term impact of his decisions when he’s in constant survival mode? Saving money and taking care of his health don’t address his need to feel better right now, which means trying to get more done at work so that he feels less stress.
- How can he make good decisions today when he keeps living for tomorrow by thinking “life will be better once I just get through this…”?
- How can he be in tune with how he’s feeling and behaving when all he can think about is getting rid of this constant feeling of having the weight of the world on his shoulders?
- How can he make good decisions both at work and in his life when his ability to think rationally and problem solve is impaired?
- How can he manage the daily demands on his time and attention when his ability to remember and process everything he’s supposed to do is affected?
Chronic stress Has a multiplier effect.
The following are the predictable outcomes if Bob remains in this state of chronic stress over the longer term (more than a number of weeks). He will:
- Damage his body and his mind, maybe even irreparably and/or fatally.
- Become dependent on pharmaceuticals.
- Jeopardize or end relationships with friends and loved ones.
- Burn through more resources—namely money—than he would have in a less stressful situation.
- Burn out and lose his job or get fired due to reduced performance.
- Have less or nothing saved for a rainy day and/or saved for retirement.
- Neglect or abandon altogether interests and activities that made him who he is.
He will, in essence, lose his sense of self in all other areas of his life that matter more than any career ever could.
The outcomes listed above can also happen when we experience long-term exposure to other sources of chronic stress:
- Abusive relationships, bullying
- Caring for a chronically ill or disabled family member
- Living in a state of constant uncertainty (fear of job loss, injury, food or shelter shortage)
- Feeling a constant lack of control over your well-being and your future (money scarcity, illness)
- Believing your social status is at risk (social position, financial status, fear of shame, popularity)
Chronic stress creates a vacuum that literally sucks the life out of us. It turns us into sick automatons. We lose our spark, that quality that makes us who we are; that "je ne sais quoi" that makes life feel like an exploration of the world and of the self, not a race we’re desperately trying to win.
Socially-acceptable Destruction of Self
Isn’t it interesting that, given its deleterious effects, there are no “stress interventions” similar to the type of help we offer for any other type of abuse of the mind and the body? It’s the only form of socially-acceptable self-destruction. Astonishingly, the behaviours associated with it can even be a source of a high praise when the conditions are right.
As long as we tolerate, and even embrace, the constant pressure to accept ever-increasing levels of chronic stress, we will only get sicker and feel emptier. As a society and as individuals, we need to reclaim our right to have a high quality of life and we can do that by reducing our dependence on status and stuff and increase our dependence on what can’t be bought: resourcefulness, connection, and a sense of purpose. We can choose to dissociate our sense of worth from the amount of pressure and responsibility we believe we can manage. After all, our lives might depend on it.
UPDATE: Here's additional material that might be of interest to you. Stress can definitely eat away at us...but mostly if we view it as a negative presence in our lives. Interesting additional information that says more is under our control than we sometimes might think. Bottom line: we need to make sure we feel good and confident in life and not bad and out of control.