Why is life so stressful? How to Deal with Stress in the modern world
Stress. We all experience it. We laugh about it. We discuss it endlessly. And we get together with our friends to complain about it on a regular basis.
We also - and this is less talked about - self medicate stress with alcohol, drugs and sex.
How did we as a culture - as a species - come to a place where stress is so much a part of everyday life that most of the time we don't even notice it? Until we get sick, fall apart, or do something so totally out of character that we can barely believe it of ourselves?
What is stress?
Merriam-Webster defines stress as "a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation".
"Bodily or mental tension" doesn't quite cover it, does it.
Let's think about stress as a reaction to power - or more specifically, abuse of power.
The philosopher Michele Foucault in his book "Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison" (1975) talks about power as all pervasive in any given culture. According to Foucault, power - and the exercise of it - is interwoven through culture, education, the legal system and government in ways that those who experience its effects don't even notice: the perceived truth of any given scenario is based on power rather than objective scientific fact.
When looked at from that point of view, subjective stress arises from the effect of living with a structure of power relationships. This means that stress not only arises from what is in front of you, but also from the underlying stress of living with the exercise of pervasive, invisible cultural power.
Let's think about stress as a reaction to power - or more specifically, abuse of power.
Consider this scenario:
You have applied for a promotion. Your superior left some time ago and you have been doing the job effectively and with ease on a temporary basis. The messages from the hierarchy above you are positive - even flattering. You are doing a great job. So when the opportunity arises for you to formally apply for the job you are already doing, complete with pay rise and title, of course you expect to get it. Why wouldn't you?You apply for the job, ace the interview, receive some very positive feedback and sit back while the Board goes through the motions of interviewing others for the position, safe in the knowledge that the job is pretty much yours.
The day finally comes when the appointment is announced.
The Board has decided that what they really need is "new blood" in that position. You are introduced to your new boss who, although experienced in the level of management, has no experience at all in your commercial area.
Disappointing, yes? And then the bombshell. You are expected to train this person into the job that you have already been doing for all this time, with no promotion, no salary increase and no acknowledgement that you have made any contribution to the company or its profits.
You may even take it further up the hierarchy or to Human Resources. Their reaction is less than helpful.
They're dismissive. You're overreacting or even hysterical. Stop making a fuss and be glad you still have a job.
This type of scenario is happening all over the Western world. If you are gay, female, non white or trans, you may recognise this scenario, either because it's happened to you or to someone you know.
It's easy to dismiss the above as an example of white male patriarchy. It kinda is. However, those people wielding that white male patriarch power are often as unaware of what they're doing as you were until the above scenario happened.
Hard to believe?
Let's go back to Foucault: accepted truth is a function of power rather than scientific fact.
Accepted truth is shrugged off as "the way things are".
From the Board's point of view it's totally reasonable to employ someone's son in law's cousin's college friend in order to create a favour owed. Several favours owed, in fact: from the person employed, the son in law and cousin involved. The creation of the favour owed is the point of exercise of power from that point of view.
How that scenario affects you or anyone else not involved in the creation of this cascade of favours is totally invisible to those on the top end of it. To you, it feels like an exercise of power specifically aimed at you. To them, you don't even enter the equation.
Really - you are invisible to them. And when you start becoming visible by attempting a formal complaint, the bemusement and/or hostility you are met with arises not from your position in this network of power, but from theirs. How dare you? It's nothing to do with you.
It's really not about the young black woman who thought she had a promotion in the bag.
And yes, the person who is not even considered in this situation is usually female, gay, black, trans or a combination of the above.
And it feels really personal to her. It is the point where she gets an inkling of the invisible network of power that she is not a part of. And in her then thoroughly demoralised state, she begins to believe she will never be able to fully participate in that network.
However, from Foucault's perspective, she is already a part of that power network, just not on the winning end of it.
What to do? What to do?
You may think there are only two choices here: either leave, or eat shit.
But in truth there are more choices. But the priority is to deal with the stress hormones.
This kind of stress releases hormone messengers in the body that redirect blood flow to the most primitive part of the brain and body. That means you're not thinking. The frontal cortex isn't getting enough blood for that, because your system is concentrating on survival. The most efficient bloodflow is to the reptilian brain and to your muscles. Which is why people often get digestive issues when feeling stressed. They can literally feel sick to their stomach under stress, or get heartburn ... or in some cases, a stroke or heart attack.
Stress is exhausting, can create heart palpitations, panic attacks and various results that may or may not be familiar. And then you feel like you're really ill, which leads to more stress.
Deal with the stress hormones first. How?
Get my First Aid for Stress Audio and transcript download. Do what it says and in moments you'll be feeling more like yourself.
If you're an exercise freak, go running, do your workout, do whatever it is that you do to make you feel strong. If not, get a mini trampoline and jump up and down on it as soon as you enter your home for several minutes - even before that first drink or cup of tea. Do this every day while you're in the planning phase.
Your body needs to metabolise those stress hormones in order for you to be able to think clearly and plan your next step. You do this by exercise. Ever see those nature programs where a deer is chased by a big cat? The stress hormones released give the deer the extra energy it needs to run away. If it gets caught, it will go into "freeze". If by some miracle the big cat loses interest, you'll notice the deer getting up, shaking all over and particularly shaking its legs ... and then wandering off back to the herd as if nothing has happened. That is your aim - shake off the adrenalin and get back to normal.
Next, strategise. Make a plan.
Update your CV. You've been doing that job in all but name so use it. How much did financial turnover increase on your watch? What were the efficiencies you introduced and their outcomes? How did you develop your staff? How about that boost in staff morale your implementations made. List them all. They're important.
Call in a few favours of your own. Use your LinkedIn contacts. Ask your friends for help. Find out who's hiring in your area of expertise.
Take back your own power by creating your own positive exit strategy.
While you are dealing with the stress and creating a plan, you may still have to do the training up of your new boss. This is not an easy situation to be in. However, do not undermine him, no matter how tempted - you still have to pay the bills and you want a great reference.
- Be pleasant and apparently helpful.
- Do what you are asked.
- Volunteer nothing, but answer questions fully and frankly. Then stop.
- When your co-workers sympathise with you, agree it's disappointing, but do not say or do anything that might come back to haunt you. This is temporary.
- Remind yourself constantly you are on the way to a much better position.
- Use your mini trampoline every day.
The underlying stress of living in a culture where power is pervasive (that would be all of them, by the way) is insidious. Everyone is stressed by it and most of us don't even notice how stressed we are just by everyday living. We notice the stresses in front of us, but not the exercise of power that gives rise to the stresses of those scenarios.
I hope to have given you enough pointers in this post to at least make a start in coping strategically with the stresses you're dealing with right now.
Work with me one to one to pinpoint exactly where your most empowering action lies, or try a free sample by completing the form below.
Any thoughts or feedback on this are welcome in the comments below.
First Aid for Stress
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