I read something recently about how stress is only ever our reaction to a situation.
Hmm. Why yes, yes it is. So why did that realisation seem to come as such a surprise to me?
Because after over a decade of working in the corporate world – an environment where not only is stress often the norm, but people almost compete over how stressed they feel – I’d genuinely come to believe that stress is a culture we all have to be part of. And hands up, I have totally been a perpetrator of that in the past too.
Tired and in need of a break, pissed off and feeling powerless, continually overworked and under-appreciated? I’ve called all of those things stress in the past, partly because it’s a far more socially acceptable issue than dealing with anything that lies underneath that diagnosis, and partly because in all honesty it was often easier to just stick with stress than delve into those underlying issues instead.
But in reading this one particular sentence I suddenly realised that by choosing stress rather than stopping to recognise the issues at heart, we’re not only stopping ourselves from taking control and fixing the situation, but are also potentially doing our bit to stay in the negative mindset that the less than pleasant people perpetuating these cultures of stress want.
You know the ones I mean: the people who encourage you to work at 100mph, to relentlessly devote all of your energy and attention to getting job after job done, and to exist on adrenaline.
The secret I didn’t realise for the longest time is that living that was isn’t productive or healthy in the short term, and definitely won’t do you any good in the long term.
It’s what leads you to the medical condition of stress and all of the health issues that can cause, it’s what takes you to a place of mental and emotional breakdown, and it’s what overtakes your mind until eventually you can’t find fun or relaxation in the rest of your life either.
Believe me, it’s a feeling I’m more than a little familiar with. I’ve worked in jobs before where 12+ hour days weren’t just the odd exception, they were often actively encouraged… but not rewarded.
And yes, in those days I was someone that thrived on that stress even when it took me to the point of near breaking. Because yes I was tired, I looked awful and couldn’t switch my mind off to fully enjoy any of the things that were really important to me; but I knew I was doing what was asked of me against all odds, and as someone who’d always been praised as “clever” and “a hard worker” that was where I found my validation in life.
It was exhausting. And more than that, it was bullshit.
In truth while I was working long and hard I definitely wasn’t working as well as I could’ve; and for all I felt relatively successful at work, I had no outside life to speak of and found my stress bleeding over into home time so I couldn’t even enjoy the few things I did.
The worst part of all of this was that every time I’d complain about it and someone would suggest I change the situation, I’d tell them I couldn’t. I felt completely stuck and had no idea where to even begin moving forward.
Of course that wasn’t true; it never is. Because no matter how out of control you may feel about your life, it’s still your life, and so there’s always a way to take charge and make some changes.
It starts with recognising that and acknowledging the fact that your life is worth more than one adrenaline-fuelled project to the next, and with making the decision to change your reaction to difficult situations and reclaim life as your own.
Reclaiming your life involves setting some boundaries and sticking to them; whether that’s leaving the office before 6pm at least once a week, taking one evening a week to do the thing that lights you up and refreshes your soul without a mobile phone in sight or putting your foot down and taking the holiday that you’re owed.
It also involves standing in your truth and choosing to speak that truth, even if that means saying no when everyone expects a yes, or putting your hand up to complain about something that’s not acceptable.
However you start to go about taking back your power the key is to stick with these things, even when the going gets tough and doing that gets scary.
When you have those boundaries and that truth it’s way easier to see the difficult situation for what it is – something around you rather than something you’re immersed in – and in doing so to choose your reaction.
And when that doesn’t work and you still find yourself caught up in the stress with no way of moving forward, well then maybe it’s time to start making bigger changes – even if that seems impossible.
For me, the big change back then was to start looking for a new job. And after months of complaining that there was nothing suitable out there, the day after I made that decision a friend got in touch to share the advert for a job in her team. I applied, and three weeks later was handing my notice in.
There is absolutely a life away from the stress heads, but we’re the only ones who can decide whether to follow it.