For years I lived in a constantly stressed state, thinking that stress was the badge of a successful person. If I was overextended, overworked, and overwound, then I thought it was confirmation I was doing something right. My perception was supported by all the messaging I ingested from society, the news, social media, and my peer group that said it was normal to be stressed. I celebrated living with my hair on fire, rocketing from urgent matter to urgent matter, all the while coiled like a mousetrap ready to spring.
I was an idiot to believe that, and it was reckless to actually live that way.
Stress is not a sign of success; it’s a sign of distress. A stress response is activating our fight-or-flight response (our sympathetic nervous system). Our mental and physiological faculties are narrowed and focused with the sole objective to survive. But success is not merely surviving; success is thriving well above the minimum for survival. Yet, I bought into the narrative that living in survival mode was success.
Among the many consequences of operating in a constantly stressed stated, there are two that had profound negative impacts on my life: the inability to solve problems creatively and effectively, and the toxic destruction of my family system.
The feeling of being “stuck” or trapped in circumstances that breeds frustration, hopelessness, and terribly rash decision-making is largely the result of an inability to solve a problem creatively, given the particular situation. I felt stuck for years in a profession and family structure where I did not have the freedom or support to pursue my emotional goals. I was in a crucible and the more frustrated I was, the more stressed I became, and the more the pressure and temperature rose. I couldn’t find the solution I needed for my circumstances because I was too stressed to think creatively about how to address my needs.
My constant fight-or-flight stress mode was no different than a gazelle being chased by a lion. The gazelle is in a stressed state and doesn’t use that opportunity think about the best way to reach the most delicious leaves on a tree. Instead, it is appropriately trying to avoid being eaten alive; it doesn’t even have the faculties to be creative or problem solve in that moment.
It was foolish for me to assume that my stressed state was somehow different. While I was not outrunning a lion over a short distance, I was trying to outrun an inescapable and inexhaustible predator – the fear of failure and the unreasonable expectations of society – AND I was trying to solve for problems at the same time.
In stress, our core objective is to seek safety not creatively contemplate the best way to find my happiness or success. If I’m always in a stressed state, I cannot possibly find the path to happiness or success. This was my operating condition for decades, stressed and high alert. It’s not surprising that I remained stuck, frustrated, and unhappy until I learned to shift out of the stress response which then enabled me to tap into my creative problem solving.
By living in a stressed state, I not only overlooked obvious solutions, but I also contaminated my family with the toxic byproducts of stress which ultimately led to the dissolution of my family.
Maintaining a stressed state over a long duration of time has numerous negative physical, mental, and emotional side effects. In that sense, stress is like radiation. In small doses, it might not be terribly harmful, but prolonged exposure can have disastrous consequences.
People who are exposed to large amounts of radiation can be radically damaged by it, and they can also become a carrier of the radiation and contaminate others that were not directly exposed. Stress has similar properties as radiation.
One way stress contamination can occur is when we carry stress home and into our relationships, where others feel the same stressors. When I was consumed with work or law school stress and it was all I ever talked about, it directly impacted my partner and sons. To revisit the gazelle analogy, it would be similar to a gazelle that is being chased by a lion leading the lion directly into the herd so the lion could begin to pursue other members of the herd.
Another way stress contamination can occur – and it’s the way I believe is more dangerous – is when the stress has contaminated us to the point where our perceptions and sense of reality mutate to reflect a constantly stressed state from an ever-threatening environment. For me, there was no normal, unstressed state anymore; my fight-or-flight mode was on 100% of the time, amped and ready for immediate action. This stress mutated my personality and identity to such a degree that I became the source of radiation in the family system, poisoning relationships and the family dynamic. To revisit the gazelle analogy, it would be similar to a gazelle being perpetually skittish and unsteady, unable to eat or drink, and constantly triggering the herd into a panic; the herd’s health and safety would be compromised by the one gazelle stuck in a stress response.
For the past year or more, some of us have felt like we are in a prolonged state of stress, always fighting or fleeing from something. We need to be able to shift out of the stress response in order to solve problems creatively and effectively, and to avoid contaminating the relationships and systems we value.
Shifting out of stress can be challenging, and our usual tools tend to numb the pain or discomfort from stress (whether that’s essential oils, or Ol’ Grandad, or dark chocolate, or even the occasional affair). Truly shifting out of our sympathetic nervous system response and back into a parasympathetic state requires deliberate attention to reconnect our mind and body (often through our senses), allowing our body to inform our minds that we are not actually in a threatening situation. Sometimes this is as simple as a grounding exercise, a sensory check-in, or healthy workout routine.
Had I previously known that prolonged stress leads to failure and not success, I would have sought to deactivate my stress response instead of amplifying it as a status symbol.