Killer Stress

I used to take pride in my stress level.

I used to believe that my long, extravagant to-do lists and full schedule of extracurriculars were signs of success, and the fact that I could barely sleep at night and felt on edge during the day were simply signs that I cared. That I wanted everything I did to be perfect.

This is how I lived for most of my college years, especially when I started to get heavily involved with the student newspaper. I put on a lot of weight, snapped at the people I loved, and had professors and co-workers seriously questioning my ability to handle my anxiety (for real).

From iStockphoto

It wasn’t until a fellow editor and friend sent me home early from the newsroom one day (to de-stress, essentially) that I realized my stress was all consuming, and instead of helping me perfect what I did, my inability to manage it was negatively affecting my work and my relationships.

I’ve learned to relax a little since then, to not take on projects and jobs unless I have the time (and it’s something I truly want to do, not something I feel obligated to do). I’ve learned that exercising and eating right are just as important as completing assignments on deadline and worth carving out time for in my day. But mostly I have learned that while achieving goals is fulfilling, no measure of success is more important than my health or spending time with the people I love. (Cheesy, but true).

I still worry about small things, that I admit probably don’t matter in the long run. I still like to be prepared and organized, and can’t function well without my planner, but I don’t lose sleep over the fact that a source hasn’t called me back or that I haven’t completed every single task I wanted to do that day. I understand now that if one thing falls through, everything else will (likely) still be OKAY. But it took me a while, and a lot of self reflection to get here.

A few weeks ago I saw a documentary from National Geographic called Killer Stress, and I was immediately intrigued. The film looks at stress in other species and compares it to human stress. According to the film, stress used to be a reaction to life threatening situations, but today most Americans live in a constant state of stress. A human coping mechanism has now become a switch we can’t turn off.


The documentary also looks at the dangerous effects of prolonged exposure to stress, citing heart attacks and ulcers. But what I found most interesting is the evidence that our lifestyle and culture might be the biggest culprits of chronic stress and the health problems associated with it.

While I’m sure people in all countries experience stress, I also think the United States has a culture of exceptionalism and individualism, which contributes to chronic stress. If we fail, we fail on our own and if we succeed, we succeed on our own, and therefore everyone gets what he/she deserves.

We look to CEO’s and people of great wealth with idolization, and the belief that we can do it too. We value money as success and all the tokens it brings, including fancy cars, houses, and designer clothing. We look upon 80 hour weeks as a way to get there, and not something that is unhealthy, but something admirable.

I too, used to look at other people with schedules busier than mine, with more awards and accomplishments and wonder how they did it and how I could do it too. Sometimes, I still do.

But what we don’t place value on as a society is how much time we spend a week with our families, or sleeping, or the fleeting moments of relaxation, and dare I say it, laziness. We look upon these as signs of weakness. Sleeping is for those who don’t have what it takes.

However, as the film points out, a lifetime of constant work and stress is not healthy, and I would argue not fulfilling. It might give you the career you want, but life is so much more than that.

I recall a conversation I once had with my dad, who seems to always say wise things…

He has actually worked a lot of 60 to 80 hour weeks, but he once said to me, “You’ll find that a life of constant work, of working 60 plus hours a week might make you rich, but it’s no way to live.”

While I do think finding work that you love and are passionate about is vital to a happy life, too much work of any kind, isn’t.

So here’s to valuing a good night (or week) of sleep, and times of laughter with the people you love. Here’s to long walks, good movies and an evening in your sweatpants. Here’s to rolling in the grass, here’s to a life of balance, and managing killer stress.

Here’s to valuing quality of life over dollar signs.

“The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it.” ~Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie

(Also, if you like books, check out my new Read This tab for a complete list of books I’ve recently read and would like to read. Leave me a comment with suggestions for great books! I’m always up for a good story.)