Life is stressful… and it always has been. The human species has always faced danger. Let’s face it, we cannot outrun most of those predators that would make a meal of us, nor are we physically strong enough to win against them in hand to tooth and claw combat. Nature has not always been kind to humans, either. Feast or famine have been a way of life for humans since the beginning of time. So our early ancestors had plenty of stress to deal with. Luckily, we humans have been endowed with the ability to think and create to combat our relative physical weakness, and to adapt to the challenges of nature and our environment.
This ability to adapt has enabled us as a species to grow and create a new world where many of the physical and environmental dangers our ancestors faced are of little concern to the average human being… at least in modernized nations. The average human being in modern society does not have to worry too much about being eaten by a tiger, for instance. However, as we have progressed as a species and as a civilization we have created new, and perhaps more daunting, dangers and challenges.
Aside from the global challenges of war, global warming, and corporate globalization, there are new and equally dangerous individual and regional challenges as well. And these new challenges have a profound impact on our individual and societal health. For this blog post I will focus on humans as individuals, not on society as a whole as we don’t have nearly enough room for that!
So what is success, and how does it relate to sabre tooth tigers?
Most of us, particularly in Western countries… and I would argue, especially in the US… have defined success in terms of how much money we earn, how many “things” we possess, and/or how much status we achieve. To achieve this success we typically work long hours, and sometimes in jobs or for people that we really do not like. The effect of adhering to such a definition of success can be deadly.
How? Two words: chronic stress. And in many ways, chronic stress is more dangerous than that sabre tooth tiger our ancestors had to deal with. The reason is that our early ancestors were equipped with tools and intellect to deal with the tiger. Once the threat was dealt with, the stress of the encounter was pretty much over… or you were dead.
However, today’s stressors are not as cut and dry. They linger, sometimes (often) for decades. The effect of chronic stress is devastating to both the human body and the human mind. Medical research has linked dozens of fatal and chronic diseases to stress. In fact, data shows that 75-90% of all family doctor visits are stress related, over 20% of healthcare claims are stress related, and over half of deaths of Americans over the age of 65 are… you guessed it… stress related.
And that’s only the medical side of the equation. Chronic stress also takes a real toll on our mental health. Numerous mental illnesses, such as an array of anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and addictions are typically associated with stress. Even those who do not develop serious mental illness still suffer from chronic stress through deteriorating or underdeveloped relationships, lack of healthy social supports, or just time to self-reflect and grow as people. Often times we are too focused on making enough money to pay rent, or getting that next promotion, to attend to these needs. The damaging effects of chronic stress on our mental well-being is every bit as dangerous as the physical damage.
So what can we do? We gotta pay the rent, right?
There are a lot of things we can do to minimize or eliminate success driven chronic stress.
First, we can rethink our definition of success. What is more important, the new car, promotion, a large bank account, or healthy, strong relationships, a happy and healthy life. It is entirely possible to have it all… if you have reasonable criteria for what having it all means. My personal opinion is that there can and must be a balance.
Second, get a career you love. If work doesn’t seem like work at all, then by definition it will not cause you as much stress. Again, there may be (but not necessarily) trade offs between doing what you love and doing what brings in six figures. The real question is the six figure income worth the sacrifice.
Third, develop a healthy lifestyle. Begin an exercise program, eat healthy foods, and take time out to self reflect and distress. All of these activities are great stress busters, and may even help you make healthy decisions about other aspects of your life.
Fourth, make time for relationship and for play. Developing great social and family networks are fundamental to our emotional and mental well-being. Humans, even the most introverted of us, are social beings. We need support, and without support networks (family and friends) we can develop serious mental illness. Family and friends provide us support, guidance, and a sense of belonging that is fundamental to our emotional health. Having good support networks is a great counter to chronic stress.
Fifth, develop the habit of positive thinking. One of the unique things about humans is that we are the only species that can create emotional responses by just thinking about a situation. That means that even when we are at home or on vacation, we can take the stress of work with us if we keep pondering the challenges we left on our desk. It also means that the way we think about that work, or anything else, determines whether or not we have a stress response to it.
One way to avoid carrying stress around with us is to change how we think about our work, or about any other stressor. Instead of dwelling on the dangers and negatives, learn to dwell on the positives. Developing this habit can literally change your brain chemistry, and make you a happier and more effective person.
Regardless of how you deal with chronic stress, one thing you must realize is that if it is left unprocessed it does not go away. So even if you are the kind of person who is able to manage your stress related emotional reactions, or take on a great deal of stress and still function, this does not mean you are immune to the effects of chronic stress. The problem is, stress is additive. While you may have a high threshold for stress, eventually it will catch up to you. Best to take steps to drain off some of that stress related negative energy before it boils over.