Do you know how many people died of stress-related illnesses and disorders last year?
Neither do I. Sorry to disappoint.
But according to a study done by VU University Medical Center in the Netherlands, having a higher level of cortisol (stress hormone) in your system can increase your chance of death by up to 5 times.
The obvious question then is, why are people so stressed?
Surely in the age of technology and being as near to the cutting edge of evolution as we are told that we are, things should be easier now than ever. I mean, it’s not like you actually have to contend with a rabid wolf chasing you down these days.
But what is stress?
Stress comes in two different flavours – eustress and distress.
Not many people have heard of eustress. Even my word processor spell-checker is underlining it with that patronising red, squiggly line.
Eustress literally means good stress (eu- meaning “good” in Greek.) It is the stress that is an intrinsic byproduct of growth, like a weightlifter putting his body under stress to make it grow stronger.
Not to be confused with distress, which is the one that is more synonymous with helplessness, pain, heart attacks, and other crappy things.
So, what causes the distinction?
Both share the common state – stress, which is basically a dissonance between what is happening and what we would like to have happen.
Say you were hoping to get a pay rise, but your boss pulls the rug from under you. For most people, that is distressing. In your mind, you should be getting a pay rise, and by not getting it, it causes a mental rift – stress. Specifically, a negative, resentful mental rift – distress.
But stress has another important attribute – it is totally subjective. It is the subjectiveness that allows the distinction.
For example, a professional rugby player can be tackled by a 120KG flanker from the other team and stand up again thinking “well, I won’t run that way with the ball again.” He has grown stronger – although he didn’t get the outcome he wanted, which created stress, it gave him the opportunity to learn. It was eustressful.
But if I got tackled in the same scenario, I would be spending the rest of the match unconscious in hospital, nursing broken bones and a concussion for weeks. The scenario was the same, but the outcome was totally different. It would be a distressful experience for me because my body cannot handle the same level of stress as a professional rugby player.
However, I could build myself to the same level of the same rugby player through gradually-more-intense eustressful experiences (training).
It is the same psychologically. But unlike physical stress, the determining factor for whether something is beneficial or harmful is generally under your immediate control.
Let’s use a common example. Your boss fires you.
We are conditioned to see that as an inherently distressing scenario. Your career is over. They don’t want you and your heart is broken!
No it’s not. Your ego is broken. The ego that thought everything would stay the way that it is until the end of time has been shaken.
Life isn’t crazy and your boss isn’t crazy (necessarily). You’re crazy for thinking things would be any different to how they are now. Worse than that, you’re creating a negative rift in your head that will consume you if you allow it.
If you can accept things for what they are, they open up opportunities for growth. Stop labeling things that happen to you as good or bad. Nothing will change because of your judgement anyway, as it is only based on your narrow perception of reality through the laser beam of the ego.
Instead, just watch. When something happens, don’t leap to call it good or bad, just accept it for what it is. When you have no judgement, there can be no rift. With no rift, there can be no stress. You don’t have a paradigm in your head of how things should be, so when unexpected things happen, they don’t matter so much.
The universe has been around for billions of years, and it will be around for billions of years after we are all dead. Yet you want to change its trajectory to conform to your ideal of what you think it should be? That sounds mental, because it is.
Only when you are fully witnessing without reaction can you see the opportunities that arise. Losing your job may be the best thing that ever happened to you. It might be just what you need to write that book, or free you up to accept a better job.
To be clear, I’m not saying to never aspire to anything. You can have goals, things that you want to achieve or have. But don’t be invested in them to the point where your peace and well-being are dependent on their fulfillment. I may never have a Lamborghini (as much as I want one), but that’s alright. I’m not going to die miserably because of a car that I can’t take with me anyway.
So chill out and enjoy. We only get a glimpse of time on this planet – are you going to spend yours fighting with the infinite or going with it and enjoying the journey?
The choice is yours.