A few years ago, I was at a leadership conference where a ton of the typical leadership platitudes were delivered, but when John Maxwell stood to remind everyone that growth was only realized through the struggle, I was triggered.
I slung a few texts like “I’m so sick of the message that the grind is the only way to grow” that were not well received. As the self-proclaimed president of the club of martyrs and perfectionists, I was not immune to this thinking for SURE, but I was freaking tired.
I slunk back, thinking maybe I was out of my mind.
Fast forward a few years, and I STILL think about that moment and that woman who felt alone, wondering if the glory and growth are in the struggle.
There are clearly some truths that difficult situations and moments can be breeding grounds for growth and learning. We know this, and we feel this. But how much is too much?
I’ve talked in past issues about our addiction to dopamine which productivity can undoubtedly produce. But what about the role of stress? How culturally, stress has somehow become a marker of success alongside productivity.
- Pushing through is celebrated.
- Bad experiences “happens for a reason.”
- Grinding it out is a mark of dedication and loyalty.
- Your lack of sleep equates to just how needed you are.
On one side, as high performers, we relish difficulty. In the moment, it feels exhilarating.
But we all know what sits on the other side of this – the burnout and resentment that can shrivel our souls and, after studying the effects of long-term stress, can kill us. Cool.
Stress isn’t inherently bad for us. Stress is a physiological response that occurs through a collection of neurons in the middle of your body that becomes activated when a stressor triggers it. Acetylcholine and epinephrine (adrenaline) are released when those neurons are activated.
Acetylcholine and adrenaline also help us focus. They are great! And needed! Do you ever feel like you do your best work under a bit of stress, say at the last minute? This is why.
Short Term Stress is Good for You
In addition to helping facilitate focus, acute, short-term stress benefits your immune system as it combats infections by activating things like your spleen.
But what is considered “short-term stress“? Generally speaking, when you can no longer achieve good sleep for most nights of the month, you have most likely moved from short-term stress into chronic stress.
Medium Term Stress is Inevitable
We all have periods in life where we have several weeks or a couple of months where there is more stress. It’s inevitable when we are dealing with a lot, either at work or home, and you are near your max.
Have you ever gone through a really stressful period only to make it to vacation and then get sick? That’s because the short-term stress activated your immune system, but now your adrenaline response has crashed, and you’ve crashed with it.
There are science-based tools to increase your capacity for these situations, but we can talk about those later…or shoot me an email, and I’ll send them to you.
Let’s Talk About Chronic, Long-Term Stress.
Chronic stress is resoundingly bad for you, negatively affecting your heart, and can even be a predictor of early death. You can generally recognize long-term stress as difficulty sleeping more than a few nights a month. Everyone will have nights where they don’t sleep well, but if you are chronically not sleeping, your body may be experiencing long-term stress.
First, consider the source of your long-term stress. You may be dealing with long-term family issues, trauma, PTSD, or other reasons you are chronically stressed. These are real experiences that most likely need medical professionals or therapists to help you through those. And I send my love.
Do You Ever Have Anxiety About Not Having Anxiety?
If you’re like me, you plow through stressful situations, just wanting to get on the other side. And then you get on the other side, and instead of feeling peaceful, calm, and stress-free time, you are riddled with either anxiety or the need to put dumb stuff on your to-do list? My sister and I talk about the anxiety of not having anxiety, and it’s frustrating as hell. And the more conversations I have, the more I feel like a LOT of us suffer from this.
Your brain may have become dependent on chemicals like adrenaline in our system for prolonged times with chronic stress. So rather than decreasing after a stressor has passed, we have a drippy faucet of these neurotransmitters.
Do you hold a core belief that stress and suffering = value and worthiness?
In other words, if I’m suffering, you can see that I’m trying.
Be honest with yourself and explore if you are using stress and suffering as a marker of success. I certainly have/do, and I can get stuck in battle mode when I move too quickly through stressful times. I constantly think about something Matt, my Pathly reflector, said: “your brain is made for coherence and not the truth.” It wants to make sense of the situation.
So, if stress reinforces the idea that you are valuable and worthy, your brain seeks out stress.
For some, sharing needs, hopes or dreams can be super vulnerable and uncomfortable, and your brain will race right back to what it knows, stress. This is where self-sabotage can come in and derail you before you even have a chance to recognize it for what it is.
Short Term Tools
It’s not as easy as recognizing your behavior and changing it to experience immediate relief. But there are some short-term things you can do on top of things like exercise, diet, and sleep.
|Get out of the stress cycle by releasing more serotonin
Serotonin is a well-being neuromodulator that typically produces a feeling that we have what we need. There are two ways to naturally release serotonin:
Social connection – humans are excellent, but the good news for those of us who sometimes find humans tricky is that pets can do the same thing! Social isolation is also associated with the build-up of a chemical in the brain called tachykinin which can lead to increased fear, aggressiveness, and hypersensitivity.
Play or hobbies – Participating in activities that give us a sense of delight or help us lose track of time are good for producing serotonin.
Supplements are not a one-size fits all solution. Examine.com does an excellent job of centralizing the studies you can look at depending on your individual situation, but here are two to explore:
L-Theanine – This supplement produces a neurotransmitter called GABA, which can help slow your brain down. It can take that edge off that makes you feel like you have to complete your to-do list before you can chill out and help you manage stress.
Ashwagandha – Shown to reduce cortisol in otherwise a healthy but stressed individual.
Because of the beautiful ability of our brains to rewire over time through repeated behavior, we can change our relationship to stress.
Sometimes, guardrails aren’t just for getting other people to respect your needs, but for you to respect your own needs.
|Increase focus when it’s needed
In our meeting-heavy, fast-paced culture, we must block time to focus and get the work done that we need to get done.
|Practice radical acts of worthiness
I’m working on this one hard right now. If you are going to break the cycle of thinking that stress and suffering are what make you worthy, doing things that break existing patterns and establish new patterns can slowly break this thinking over time.
NOTE: I’m NOT talking about baseline things normal human beings should do without it being called “self-care,” like taking a bath a night or getting a manicure or taking a walk.
Do what you want to do, especially when it’s inconvenient – If you are especially busy, take a lunch break to go sit on a bench and read a book. Pay for aftercare one day and spend the afternoon alone doing something that lights you up. Teach your brain that checking things off the to-do list doesn’t equate to value and worth.
Listen to yourself and your own intuition when things are quiet – More beautiful words from Matt – “In the absence of something is where longing comes from.” Recognize your longing. Ask yourself questions, and don’t ignore that longing.
Question your immediate thoughts – This can be a bit in conflict with number two, but often when we are wired for stress and acceptance, our thoughts may not be an accurate portrayal of the situation. Separate facts from thoughts. For me, inaccurate thoughts typically arise in a moment of stress, while my intuition shows up when it’s quiet.
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From The Vault posts are topics that I’ve shared with my newsletter that were a big hit. Want more value packed information like this coming directly to your inbox?
- Wapner, Jessica. Vision and Breathing May Be the Secrets to Surviving 2020. Scientific American.
- Zelikowsky, Moriel and Hui, May and Karigo, Tomomi and Choe, Andrea and Yang, Bin and Blanco, Mario R. and Beadle, Keith and Gradinaru, Viviana and Deverman, Benjamin E. and Anderson, David J. (2018) The Neuropeptide Tac2 Controls a Distributed Brain State Induced by Chronic Social Isolation Stress. Cell.
- Bilkei-Gorzo A, Racz I, Michel K, Zimmer A. Diminished anxiety- and depression-related behaviors in mice with selective deletion of the Tac1 gene. J Neurosci.
- Cleveland Clinic, Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA).
- Huberman Lab Podcast Episode 10