Here’s the thing about stress: it sometimes helps people accomplish amazing things. I’m not just talking about the proverbial mother lifting a truck off their child; I’m talking about the parent who stumbles down the basement stairs to put the sheets in the laundry at 3am after their sick child has finally gone to sleep; the lover who holds their dear ones hand during a funeral; the delicious meal created out of an almost-bare pantry by an elder sibling while the parents work late.
These are skills that people aren’t born with, and usually aren’t even trained into; instead, they are called upon to do them in times of stress and scarcity, and they rise to the challenge out of necessity.
If you’re lucky, the stress eases, and it becomes a treasured story, like my memories of seeing my twins’ faces by moonlight as I held their bottles at night. Sleep was not really something I did back then, like many parents.
The Stress-Filled Life
But not everyone is lucky enough to have a choice. Some people are stuck in their superhero mode by constant stress, and I’m not just talking about refugees. We can inadvertently let our environments turn into stress-filled states, whether that’s from the responsibilities we take on or (these days) just watching too much news.
And make no mistake: the things that relate to stress – poor diet, sleep deprivation, elevated blood pressure – are actually killing you in slow motion:
Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process. Long-term stress can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression. – Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes.
Need more convincing? Here’s a whole video on the subject from ASAPScience.
Ha! You thought you were stressed before? Now you can be stressed about stress! Luckily, there’s a lot most people can do to alleviate their stress, starting with evaluating where their stress factors are and what they can change about them.
Problem is that most people, short of some big warning like a stroke or a divorce, don’t bother.
Why is that?
I have a theory.
Your Secret Identity
We forget what it’s like to not be stressed, and the state of being stressed feels normal. It’s as if you were a superhero who normally only puts on their costume and uses their powers when there’s an emergency – but the emergencies happen so much that you forget that you have a secret identity, that you can wear normal clothes instead of the costume.
Of course, there can be a lot of reasons for stress in your life, some of which you can control, some of which you can’t. However, there is one thing that sometimes keeps people from acting to alleviate the stress in their life: fear of dulling their edge.
If you have a lot of those stories to tell about how you overcame adversity, then it can become part of your core identity. I do it with finances; I’ve been near-broke or worse so many times, and always managed to pull through somehow. “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul” is just the tip of the iceberg – I am a veritable Odysseus of creative money generation and distribution.
Problem is, I never really got the skill of fiscal preservation. Or planning. And as a result I stumbled from financial disaster to disaster, each time congratulating myself on narrow escapes and clever money hacks. Even worse, when I finally started figuring out how to create some financial slack, it felt wrong; I wasn’t used to money in my bank account, and that led to a tendency of self-sabotage.
Here’s the secret: You can always put your costume back on. Especially if your super-power was developed out of necessity, you don’t lose that skill. It will be there for you when you need it. And meanwhile, you can try enjoying life in your secret identity, well-rested and with abundant resources, knowing that when you need to don that cape and spandex it will be waiting for you.