Right now, I am a deeply stressed person. And I have been for a very, very long time.
I have been so stressed, in fact, that a handful of years ago I developed a strange condition—the way my dermatologist explained it, when I get sufficiently anxious my hands start to sweat but my sweat pores don’t open up because my stressed-out body is so out of sync, which means I get little “sweat bubbles” all over my fingers, which then makes my nails start to separate from my hands. It’s frightening, and honestly, quite gross. I have severe asthma that gets particularly finicky when the pressure builds, and that starts a horrible cycle of my body becoming more stressed because I can’t breathe and my brain thinks I’m suffocating to death. I seem to be inflamed all over, all the time. This not only physically hurts throughout my joints, but it also screws up my ability to digest food, and makes my weight seem completely unmanageable to me despite quite-average eating and exercise habits (I say seems because I’m a product of a shame-based culture where weight is supposed to be a matter of “personal responsibility” and I can’t seem to shake that out of my head despite knowing it’s bullshit). Finally, I have a pretty advanced compulsive behavior disorder related to stress. I’m not quite ready to talk about that one yet. But one day I will.
I’m so tired of it.
When I was younger, I actually thought I didn’t have problems with stress, because a) I grew up in a community where everyone was crazy stressed all the time, so I thought I was just being normal∗, and b) I have been so constantly stressed my whole life I didn’t even realize existence could feel any different (so once more, I thought I was just being normal).
Things are a little different now. I’m much more self-aware. I have a deeper physical understanding of my body and mind, and I’m better able to trace which of my experiences are “real me” and which are the outcomes of being extremely stressed out. I don’t self-blame as much. And, most importantly, I no longer believe that it’s in any way acceptable to see this as “normal.” And I’m pissed.
I’m pissed because so much of our stress comes from things that we as humanity simply made up. At this point, I see two giant areas of life as being unnecessary stress-producers: our workplace culture and our social habits. Neither of those exist as fixed entities in nature, and are the products of the human mind. And they’re hurting us. And we. just. made. them. up.
I can point to articles about the stress epidemic, though almost anyone who is going to be reading these words knows enough about the internet to do basic online research. I’d rather spend these lines urging you to tackle stress in your life and see all the ways in which it’s been unfairly imposed on you. I urge you to explore the ways in which you have more choice in this than you may have been lead to believe. And enter the slow, and difficult, and crucial practice of saying no to the made-up cultural structures creating levels of stress that our bodies are not designed to handle. Because we made up so many of our stressors, we have tremendous power that we could apply to getting rid of them. It’s not easy work, but it’s possible. And we must do this work, if not for our own sake, but for the sake of future generations who we hope to help lead better lives, with fewer completely preventable pains.
Now, I must clarify something—when I campaign for less stress, I don’t mean doing less. I don’t advocate for a life of leisure or avoidance of responsibility. I’m also not talking about trying to eliminate stress entirely—after all, it’s a natural process that isn’t inherently bad. Instead, I’m talking about fundamentally re-thinking the way we approach work, and relationships, and health, and ourselves. I want to fully understand how to have higher standards, and how to achieve more, and all the while simply keeping it to levels of stress our bodies can efficiently handle. I want to work with my biology, not against it.
This is why I make these worksheets, why I write, why I plan. I’m trying to figure out exactly how to do this. The worksheets are my tiny steps towards thinking in a more structured way that’s conducive to a less insane relationship with stress. I’m trying to heal. And whatever I figure out, I want to pass on.
So here are my general goals for tackling this topic in my work:
- Understand stress patterns—what causes my stress? How do I react?
- Build a strong support structure of resources and activities that help eliminate and manage stress
- Influence systemic change to help reduce stress unnecessarily caused by external structures outside of my direct control
Let’s do this.
∗ Well, that’s not entirely fair. Everyone who mattered to me and had influence over my life was very stressed. There were not-too-stressed people around, but my community tended to shame them and judge them as being lazy, boring, unambitious, and worst of all, selfish. I learned that language early on and it still rattles around my mind à la Wormtongue.