I’ve just woken up 2 hours earlier than my alarm (set for 5:30am) for the 10th time in the last fortnight. This same pattern persisted on and off or nearly a year in 2013 before I worried or did much about it. Self-observation of my behaviour then and now suggests that I must like stress, as I keep inducing it, using it and re-forming a self-identity based on it! This post contains some stories about how I “hold” stress from a few different perspectives, deliberately overstating the beneficial conceptions of stress from a chemical, sporting, medical, professional and linguistic perspectives.
From a chemistry perspective, my understanding is that chemicals such as adenosine, melatonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid assist with sleeping, and steadily increase to induce sleep and peak during the night. However they essentially have to ‘overpower’ other chemicals that would otherwise keep you awake e.g. adrenalin, acetylcholine. So, if your heart-rate and adrenalin levels are constantly very high, they increase the threshold for sleep, so reducing depth and duration (unless you up the levels of adenosine etc.). So, I can hold stress as a causal factor and sleeplessness as an outcome of chemical processes in my body, and nothing to be (psychologically or existentially) worried about!
From a cycling perspective, stress can be great for enhancing the experience and performance. Why not excitedly get up and go riding as early as 3am? Waking earlier makes it easier to in a few more hours and kilometres before you meet the rest of the bunch, are hit howling headwinds, are expected to be at work or before the cafes open. At that time of morning you can joyfully experience the tranquility (and safety) of empty city streets, dew-soaked pre-dawn beauty of biodiversity corridors or dramatic vistas across rolling hills. Riding for longer, harder at unnatural hours means you can be a better, happier cyclist, and helps reduce stress and induce sleep because you ‘use up’ the adrenaline and generally wear yourself out. So, I can hold stress as a useful motivator and performance enhancer for cycling and mountain biking.
From a medical and naturopathic perspective, stress is a great for the health industry. Stress can be temporarily reduced through medication from the pharmaceutical or naturopathic interventions, based on a thorough understanding of the chemical causes of stress. The side effects of stress are infinite and persistent, and even more so if you self-medicate with cigarettes, alcohol or sedentary TV-watching . Even if you don’t like medication, any number of highly paid health professionals could recommend any number of lifestyle, workplace, postural and dietary changes that could help you with your stress. So, I can hold stress as a great reason to engage with lovely health professionals, consume interesting concoctions, engage in new lifestyle changes and keep that whole ‘health’ industry thriving.
From a work perspective, stress is energising, thrilling and assists with some type of productivity. What better enabler of doing 16 hours work a day than being unable to sleep, and having thrilling deadlines to meet?! A bit of tension between current reality and desired future is often conceived as the very purpose of organisations and fundamental driver for working life. So, if you’re running low on cash and there’s some grant funding available, why not get up at 3:30am to complete the application before anyone else is even awake? The satisfaction that comes from completing the task and meeting the deadline frees up the rest of your day to work on other great projects, that at some point will also probably need for more cash and work to realise them (so the cycle continues). So, I can hold stress as a healthy enabler of a certain type and level of workplace and economic productivity.
From an etymology perspective, stress seems to have both a neutral and negative orientations. As a verb, “stress” figurative meaning is “put emphasis on”, from notion of “laying pressure on something by relying on it”. Originating in Latin “stringere” meaning to ‘draw tight’, the concept seems to have emerged in the 1300s as both referring to “physical strain on a material object” and “circumstance that causes anxiety or hardship”. It also seems that in 1855 it described as an abstract force in physics and its use in a psychological situation only emerged came about in 1955! So, I can hold stress as a wonderful linguistic invention of the modern age of enlightenment and industrialisation.
So, am I really saying that stress is good, healthy, and performance-enhancing?
I’m playing around with conceptions, and that whether stress is good or healthy or not depends how you (self) hold and relate to it (stress).
There is no reality except in how you hold reality. Whatever we think, perceive and experience to be the case, is how we hold it.
If I consciously or unconsciously hold stress as healthy, helpful or necessary then it will be exactly that. And I will be exactly that. I will define: my self, my best self, my desired future state, and others will experience who I am as being stress, stressed and stress-full.
I could also ‘not’ be stressed or experience stress. That is, pit myself against stress, be ‘anti-stress’ and put all my energy into avoidance. And in doing so, define myself by what I am not and do not want to experience, avoiding being: relied upon, focused on, emphasised, adrenalised, industrialised, deadline-driven, high-performing, chemically-induced or early-rising.
Or, stepping further back, I could recognise but not get caught in that whole dichotomy: I could refuse to let my self, conceptions and behaviour be held in the dichotomy between ‘stress’ and ‘not/un/anti’. (but hang on… isn’t at that still a relationship defined by absence and anti, reifying the concept even further?)
Perhaps, by pausing, turning one’s head to a slightly to a different orientation, letting go and deftly stepping through a (conceptual) mirror, one can live for and as something else: unknowing, unknown, and completely full-feeling. Something else that might feel a bit like sufficiency, appreciation, presence, generativity….and being held.