Embrace the Stress!

No worthwhile life is stress free

When did stress become such a bad word?  Maybe it’s because it’s around the New Year but I’m gonna lose it if I see one more article about “22 ways to live a stress free life.”  Stop and ask yourself for a second – would you really want a stress free life?  Sounds pretty horrible to me.

Stress reminds us that we are alive.  Evolutionarily, stress came packaged with the lizard brain.  This is the fight or flight response you learn about in grade school science.  The caveman version of stress (and Walter Cannon’s) is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack or threat to survival.  When we moved out of the caves and into the 20th and 21st century, stress came with us.  It too evolved.  Stress developed ways of convincing the lizard brain that a late book report, or showing up late to a meeting is the first world equivalent of facing down a hungry sabretooth.

I’m the first to admit that you don’t want to be under pressure ALL the time.  Everyone has seen the corporate stresshoppers bouncing around every downtown urban center in the world.  These poor bastards are constantly at the end of their collective ropes, one bad review from a coronary implosion.  The science is out on that level of stress.  Live in that pressure cooker for too long and you’re gonna pop.

Let’s take a second though and look at the other side of the spectrum.  Those that live without any stress at all.  Have you ever met a really happy trustafarian?  Maybe when they’re younger and having all the funds to do whatever they want is still new.  But even then, there is an almost frantic malaise that seems to emanate from their booze soaked pores.  History is spackled with these diminutive creatures.  Think of the entitled nobility of yore who turned political back-biting into blood sport simply because they were bored.  A trustafarian acquaintance of mine recently had a mental break due to his stress free lifestyle all while continuing to post ever happier pictures on Facebook.

A mental break from too LITTLE stress?  How does that even happen?

For most of our history as a species we have been simply struggling to survive.  To find our next meal.  To not end up as a chew toy for marauding wolf packs.  That was our purpose.  Live to tomorrow.  Make babies.  Feed babies.  Protect babies until they can protect themselves.

If you’ve ever read Harari’s excellent book Sapiens, he explains that a side effect to human survival is community.  As the size of community grows so do the fictions that allow us to relate to others.  These fictions can be religions, corporations, ethos, zeitgeists, etc… but they are completely man made meaning that they don’t exist in nature without man.  Each human’s personal fiction is how they fit (or don’t fit) into the community’s larger fictions.  In other words, their purpose.  Having purpose comes with its own stress, but it’s a good stress.  A real purpose is something that you stand up for, something you fight for.  Not having purpose comes with a different stress that often takes a longer time to realize.  This is the understanding that you are just a boil on the ass of society, not contributing ideas or even simple labor.  This is what happens to our trustafarians.  Their stress free lifestyle ultimately catches up to them when they finally come to the realization that they’ve made zero contribution to the collective fictions of society.

The stresses brought about by purpose typically come in the form of accountability.  This is holding yourself accountable to your own values.  To fighting for your purpose.  This is holding your friends and co-workers accountable for playing their own role in society.  To keeping their commitments, living ethically, not allowing #metoo moments to happen.  These stresses are the lube that keep the gears of positive human interaction turning.

Another super valuable stress is adapting to change.  Life is change.  Stephen Hawking said it best, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”  Almost every blog you read on success will at some point mention that you have to take yourself out of your comfort zone.  The more often, the better.  Leaving your comfort zone is stressful.  Nobody wakes up in the morning wanting to do it, but the feeling and education you get after successfully navigating unknown waters is worth it.

That’s what the term deliberate practice means.  Working on a skill in an area where you are out of your comfort zone.  If you’re learning to play an instrument, you don’t learn much if you keep playing the same song over and over again.  You HAVE to keep challenging yourself to get better.  That challenge is stressful.  Stress is a required ingredient in improvement.

There have been a number of studies done on the benefits of stress.  Moderate amounts of stress can boost your brain power, motivation and memory.  I’m sure you’ve experienced this.  When trying to complete a project for a deadline, just having the deadline forces a high level of focus.  Often, it pushes you into the zone where the work just flows.  When you leave the zone, you feel great.

Finally, when you look back at history, some of the greatest humans alive came from times of extraordinary stress.  Whether the stressful times made the leaders or the leaders made the times is always up for debate.  If you look at the Caesars, Churchills, FDRs, Lincolns, MLKs, the Gandhis, they rose in times of great stress.  Now, look at the leaders over the last 50 years.  Not a lot to be proud of.  It’s been more a decline in the collective purpose of the race.  Do you think history will remember Clinton or Bush?  Not that times of peace or a bad thing, but there’s always evil to fight, whether that’s a Nazi empire, global warming or poverty.

Stress is important to our well-being both personally and as a society.  My recommendation is that the next time you see another article on how to totally eliminate stress from your life, ignore it.

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