We hear about stress all too often. Stress, and how to manage the impact of stress, is a common theme of morning talk shows, best-selling books, and even your own conversations. And honestly, isn’t the constant stream of stress-talk stressful?
People discuss stress so much we’ve become desensitized to the very real danger. Because when it comes to stress, there’s a lot at stake.
The human cost of stress
According to the American Institute of Stress, 120,000 Americans die every year from work-related stress. And chronic stress exacerbates the six leading causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, lung disease, accidents, stroke, and diabetes.
Stress is also a common trigger for weight gain and substance abuse, both known risk factors for the causes of death mentioned above. The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that 58% of stressed adults have experienced undesired weight changes, and another 23% admit to drinking more.
Other research conducted on the risks and consequences of stress have confirmed these findings. In fact, a study done by the Integrative Analysis of Longitudinal Studies of Aging found that the more stressed a person is, the higher their risk for premature death.
Researcher Carolyn Adwin of the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University had an interesting take on the results, “People who always perceived their daily life to be over-the-top stressful were three times more likely to die over the period of study than people who rolled with the punches and didn't find daily life very stressful.”
This should come as no surprise because the greater your stress, the higher your cortisol levels. Cortisol is also known as the “stress hormone.” Elevated cortisol levels are closely linked to decreased immune function and bone density, poor learning and memory, higher blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart disease. The Stress Solution by Dr. Rangan Chatterjee provides a simple conclusion: stress makes you sick.
The state of stress
So we know stress is literally killing us. But why? Why do we allow our worries and fears to get so big, our bodies have a physical response? This is, of course, a part of what makes us human, but aspects of our environment make stress spread like cancer.
The APA seeks to answer this question by surveying Americans about their stress levels, causes, and side effects in its annual State of Stress report. Their research aims to understand the impact of stress on individuals and society at large.
This year, participants responded unexpectedly. Instead of worrying about the pandemic or domestic politics and policies, they were concerned about the economic toll of inflation, supply chain issues, and the war in Ukraine.
APA CEO Arthur Evans, Jr. had this to say, “The number of people who say they’re significantly stressed about these most recent events is stunning relative to what we’ve seen since we began the survey in 2007. Americans have been doing their best to persevere over these past two tumultuous years, but these data suggest that we’re now reaching unprecedented levels of stress that will challenge our ability to cope.”
Given what we know about the human cost of stress, this is incredibly alarming.
The death of stress
These trends are dangerous and, frankly, unsustainable. But what can be done? How can you reclaim your life and live with purpose without sacrificing something?
The truth is, you've been sacrificing yourself. When you feel stressed, one of two things happen. You either acknowledge it with your mind or ignore it until your body says “stop.” And no matter how hard you try to fight, you can’t deny the mind-body connection hard-wired into your humanity.
Why does your heart race when you get on stage? Why does a pit in your stomach form when you’re waiting at the doctor's office? In your mind, you’re worried, anxious, and stressed. But your body has ways of expressing these feelings, too.
When your mind is stressed, your body suffers. When your body is stressed, your mind suffers. This cycle is crushing, but you can choose a different path.
I can’t help but think of tennis player Naomi Osaka. The pressure to be the best is incredible, and the stress of her position caused her to take a break from tennis in June 2021. Her decision sent shockwaves throughout the world, because athletes are expected to perform, no matter what.
But Naomi had the wisdom and courage to recognize that even though she loves tennis—she loves herself more. She noticed how her stress was affecting her. She chose to prioritize herself. And she adapted to take care of her mental and physical well-being.
Recognize. Prioritize. Adapt. Simple to say, challenging to execute.
For most, reducing stress is on their “nice-to-do” lists, not their “to-do” lists. But shouldn’t the goal of minimizing stress carry the same weight as any other aspiration?
At the moment, it seems easier to ignore how stress is affecting you, put your self-care goals on the back burner, and forge ahead to accomplish your goals. But this path is detrimental in the long term.
I challenge you to set a goal to live free from the shackles of stress. This goal will require negotiation, sacrifice and hard decisions at times. But when you pursue the goal of you as fervently as your other professional and personal goals, the payoff is incredible.
So make a conscious decision to make you the goal. Which you, you ask? That’s something only you can answer.
We are all things complicated, and becoming the person you want to be should trump any other objective you’re chasing. Recognize that you have value. Prioritize you. Make you your non-negotiable goal.