Strutting your stress
By Elizabeth Atmore
Friday, May 04, 2012

Forget the luxury car and the designer heels — stress is the new status symbol, and we’re as proud of our packed to-do lists as we are of our Jimmy Choos

Forget the luxury car and the designer heels — stress is the new status symbol, and we’re as proud of our packed to-do lists as we are of our Jimmy Choos

You know her, don’t you? The one who’s always “running to a meeting”, “juggling a THOUSAND things at the moment”, “SO STRESSED I could weep”, “being pulled in a MILLION different directions”, and talking more about how stressed she is than doing anything to resolve the things that are causing her headless-chicken state.

Heck, she could be you, 
if you just can’t help responding to a friend or colleague’s story of stress woes with your own, more stressful story (and secretly feel a little shiver of importance and accomplishment as you do).

The results of a UK stress study, where 60 per cent of respondents indicated that while they consider themselves stressed, they won’t necessarily be taking any action to change this, speak to the shift in how stress is viewed: far from being ashamed to admit we’re stressed, the word — and the associated actions and behaviours — has become a badge of honour, worn proudly and spoken of openly.

Proud as a (highly stressed) peacock

Western culture has long placed an emphasis on getting things done, with the implication being that the more things you have to get done, the more important you are. So, if your to-do list barely reaches the end of your pocket-sized notebook, you aren’t deemed as busy — and therefore as important — as the person whose to-do list requires several pages. Add to this the pressure to work late (who can possibly afford to leave at 5pm?), the fear that other people are doing more with their lives than you are, society’s almost allergic response to any hint of laziness, and the smug feeling of delight we get when people congratulate us on juggling so many balls without dropping any (in public, at least), and the result is a competition to see who is The Most Stressed.

“There’s a sense, especially among women, that other women are doing so much more than they are,” notes psychologist Stephanie Smith. “They are volunteering at four places and have five kids. They feel like they aren’t measuring up, so it drives them to want to do more and more. It can become a bad habit of getting swept away 
in busy-busy-busy, thinking that accomplishing something all the time is always good.”

Well, isn’t it? Apparently not. Studies have shown that the benefit of doing nothing once in a while is twofold: the obvious is that it gives you time to catch up on sleep or regroup your thoughts, and there’s the offshoot benefit of making you realise that either you have less on your plate than you think you do, or that even if you are as busy as you profess to be, you can still get it all done despite taking time out every now and then.

Are you addicted to stress?

What might have started as an attempt to make yourself appear important, or to make yourself feel indispensible (either at work or in your personal life), could have turned into an addiction to the powerful hormones (adrenaline buzz, anyone?) released by your body in response to the constant stress. It’s easy to become hooked on this feeling, where you get used to the adrenalin rush and slowly start to accept that feeling as the norm.

In her book Addicted to Stress: A Woman’s 7 Step Programme to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity in Life, Debbie Mandel says that there are warning signs that point to a developing (or already full-blown) stress addiction.

These are: tuning out during conversations because you’re thinking about other things, feeling rushed wherever you are because you feel that you ought to be completing the next task somewhere else, or feeling worried or nervous in your mind or body when you find yourself without something that you must do right now.

“In the case of stress addiction,” she writes, “all this business stems from the addict’s constant need to prove the self, suppressing feelings of unattractiveness, unworthiness and inadequacy seeping out through the seams of body and soul. It is a case of compulsion versus passion.’

Bow out of the competition

The problem with competitive stress — in addition to the potential stress addiction — is that you run the risk of both alienating yourself from those who are, frankly, sick and tired of hearing how stressed you are, and showing yourself up as someone who isn’t able to deal with the daily pressures of life. Think of it this way: if the tables were turned and someone was constantly telling you how busy they are, wouldn’t you quickly move from being impressed by how much they have on their plate to wondering why they haven’t figured out a way to deal with it?

Thought so.

  • Removing yourself from the ‘You have a headache? Well, I have a brain tumour’ game takes some getting used to. But once you do it, you’ll find yourself with more time to do the very things you’ve been stressing about. First you need to stop the boasting and the one-upmanship — no more regaling friends with stories of what you have to do. And instead of responding to their gloats by going one better (or worse), commiserate, and then ask when they’re planning to take some time to relax.
  • If you still feel the need to see exactly how much you’re getting done (and it is satisfying to feel that we’ve ploughed 
 through plenty of admin), write it all down and use your boldest red pen to scratch out each completed task.
  • Next, sit down and work out how much time you’re spending posting those ‘This is the most hectic day EVER!’ statuses on Facebook. If nothing else, realising that you spend two hours a day online will show you that clearly you do have some potential free time on your hands.
  • And if you still find yourself unable to resist the temptation to bore everyone around you with ‘Stress! Stress! Stress!’, do what one savvy lady did: treat the word as a swearword, and stick a ‘stress jar’ on your desk. Every time the word gets mentioned, Dh5 gets thrown in the jar. You’ll soon find something else to compete over — and with more than enough time to tick off your to-do list.


— Gallo Images


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