That one word: Stressed. It’s all too often the answer when friends ask how we are. Although we might say it all the time in hushed confessions over much-needed glasses of wine, it’s a word that has no place in the polished versions of ourselves that we project online. Sure we post our awards, public speaking engagements, thriving social life and holiday snaps, but the physical and emotional burden that comes with maintaining our ‘best self’ is kept out of shot.
‘Stressed’ has a negative visual; it's rarely said with a smile by someone who feels they are thriving at work and that everything is going well. And yet those people too are undoubtedly also experiencing stress – it’s just they’re reaping the positive effects of it.
Because the truth is that feeling stress isn’t necessarily a negative thing in itself. We all need stress to be at our best. And, amazingly, we can actually transition from a negatively stressed person to a positively stressed one — the question is how? (Without undergoing a personality transplant or some sort of transcendental therapy at a retreat in Peru?)
Since quitting my high-powered job at the very peak of what was inarguably a very successful career - stressed, sick and totally burnt out - it’s a question I’ve been searching for the answer to.
‘Stressed’ became my default response for ‘how are you?’ and ‘how is work?’. ‘It feels like I’m running on a treadmill and someone keeps putting the speed up’, was another. As the Editorial Director of the fastest growing digital media company for women – with a feisty team of journalists, art directors and creatives reporting to me, and a ‘sky is the limit’ C-suite above me – overwhelmed became my default state. Have you ever taken a big job knowing in the back of your mind that you’ll probably be able to handle it for two years, but that’s ok, because by then you’ll have figured out your next move? Only to become so caught up in achieving company targets you forget to plan your next move and end up feeling like there’s no way out and you’ll just have to be this stressed forever. At the ‘peak’ of my career, in my highest status position, I was sleeping two hours a night, struggling to find a solution to persistent IBS, and feeling very lost.
Part of my burn out, I now realise, was how I perceived stress at the time. In her TED talk ‘How to Make Stress Your Friend’, health psychologist and Stanford lecturer Kelly McGonigal says she spent years telling stressed out people that stress was bad for their health. She then discovered a shocking truth – that it’s only the people who believe stress is bad for their health that actually suffer significant health problems due to stress. She cites a study of 30,000 people in the US who were asked how much stress they had experienced in the last year over a period of eight years, and whether they thought stress was harmful to their health. From correlating death records, the study found that people who reported high stress had a 43% increased risk of dying – but that that risk only applied to the people who also believed that stress was harmful to their health. Those who reported high stress but didn’t think that stress was harmful to their health, actually had the lowest risk of death, even compared to those who reported low stress.
So with the right perspective, a highly stressful job can contribute to a healthy lifestyle. McGonigal went on to observe: “Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort”. In other words, a degree of stress is inevitable, but if you’re working towards a goal that has meaning for you, it’s likely to feel positive.
Not 100% positive 100% of the time, of course – that’s getting into mania territory. Even on a professional path that holds ultimate meaning for you, there will be periods of low energy and lost vision. But rather than using what little energy you have to berate yourself for being unproductive, these periods can be reframed as creative rest. As part of the senior management team, in my editor job, I was offered business coaching. Of all the good advice the softly spoken Canadian woman in her 50s at the other end of the phone gave me, the necessity of down time was the piece I found myself regurgitating to others most often. My coach explained that the graph of success is very up and down and that nobody can be at peak performance 100% of the time. We require downtime in order to re-energise, gather our learnings and create some headspace before we can shoot back up to peak performance. Your ‘best self’ has to include periods producing work that is ‘good enough’ rather than perfect.
In the Harvard Business Review, psychiatrist and leadership development specialist Dr David Brendel writes: “I help clients reach peak performance by actually doing less work at key times – and by engaging in downtime activities that cutting-edge research shows to be effective in boosting productivity.” How many times have you stepped away from your desk and gone for a run or to meet up with friends, only to find the answer pops into your head once you’ve stopped consciously looking for it?
For me, the transition from negative stress into positive stress required a more radical step away from my desk. With hindsight, I had started to perceive the stresses of my job as negative because I had lost passion for what I was doing. What I really wanted was to work was myself, not manage a big team and to retrain as a psychotherapist. A year on, I’m doing both, and to my great surprise, I’m earning more than ever. I do experience stress often enough working with luxury fashion clients alongside studying for my Masters, but I find the stress motivating rather than debilitating. The stress feels like it’s working for me, not happening to me, and with that as the foundation, everything seems more enjoyable. Now that I’m viewing my career as a marathon with highs and lows, rather than a sprint on a treadmill, the ascent back up to peak performance feels worth it again.
As any therapist will tell you, the first step is awareness. If you’re feeling downbeat and unproductive, remember that productivity is cyclical and that taking your foot off the pedal and concentrating on other areas of your life during those times can ultimately help you achieve more. If the low period and stress starts to feel like prolonged distress, it might be time to reassess whether the work you’re losing sleep over still feels meaningful to you, or whether your goals have actually shifted and it’s time to make a change. If the satisfaction you get from the job feels worth the stress it takes, you’re likely in the positive stress zone. You’re also very lucky.