I was giving a tutorial to students, few months ago. I wanted to discuss critically about stress with them, so I gave this brief introduction.
Stress has a very bad name. Normally, it is associated to something negative. And, most important, is it usually considered to be a quality of the object. Indeed, we use to think that something can be stressful, that something is a source of stress: an exam is stressful, a job interview is stressful, a test, or a competition is stressful. And the common sense suggests that we should be able to reduce, to manage the stress. But nobody question what the stress is. And for example: can we imagine a life without stress? What would we do without stress?
I found some definitions of stress, taken from the dictionary. Stress refers to different fields, not only psychology. Stress is for example:
- The relative force of sound or emphasis given a syllable or word in accordance with a metrical pattern.
- Accent or a mark representing such emphasis or force.
- The internal resistance of a body to such an applied force or system of forces.
- To subject to tension, pressure
So, there are very different definitions, but all recall the force, the emphasis, the pressure, the tension. So, if stress has to do with a force, how can it be negative? Without stress, without force, without emphasis the life would be flat; can we imagine a life without tension? Tension means that there is a direction to something else, it means that there is movement. What would be without tension, or without pressure? The death! That is the only condition of absence of any tension.
But more interesting, if we follow these definitions, is that the stress (when intended as a difficulty) is not caused by the external object (the exam, the test, the interview), but quite on the contrary it is caused by our resistance to it, by our internal resistance!
What produces the stress is the internal opposition to doing something. Why a resistance? Maybe because we feel an imposition; maybe because we fear to fail; maybe because we perceive the obstacle is too big for us. So the stress has to do with a representation. A representation is for example: “I know what they expect that from me”; or, “I know that I will not pass the exam, because the teacher doesn’t like me”; “I will fail the interview because I am not good enough”. So, we always have many representations, about us and about the others, and this constitutes the greatest internal resistance, because it works opposite to our direction. Many times these kinds of representations are what black us from doing something, even if we would love to. Many times these kinds of representations lead us to fail.
When we are in the representation we are not following our direction, we are not creating a story, we just avoid. We are trapped in our fears, our pre-judices, we are anticipating the defeat. On the opposite, we can most likely reach some results when we stop to fear the fear.
There are some conditions in which most likely we don’t face these problems. Usually children are less stressed, because for them everything is a game, they are playful; even what adults perceive as a problem for kids can be a game; because kids are less likely to interpret, to give meanings, which sometimes is an advantage. And in fact, when we don’t anticipate with the interpretation what will happen (I will fail), when we feel our desire in what we do (when we don’t just take it as a task) we are successful, we are lighter, we proceed feeling that nothing can go wrong. When we cultivate our desire and we are determined about that, it is impossible to fail. Quite on the contrary, stress as commonly intended refers to others’ expectations (that we suppose we have to satisfy). When we don’t ask where is our desire, then most likely we will feel an unsustainable pressure, an unpleasant tension, because the force we feel pushes us in a direction that we don’t like, to somewhere that we don’t want.
Another example Sigmund Freud noticed already 100 years ago that during war people was less likely to suffer mental diseases, and I wonder that probably was less stressed, because when there is some urgency, something that we cannot postpone, something that we cannot discuss, something that we have to do, then we have no other choice, we cannot make too many reasonings, we simply have to do, and then we do. During war the perception of time changes; during war people may feel that everyday is the last day. This condition might seem unsustainable, but probably at the same time it reliefs from many “stress” that we have today (have to make a career, have to get married and buy a flat that I will pay in 30 years, have to make babies, etc…) Of course if everyday could be the last day, there is no time for thinking like this.
On the other side, I think that is also a common experience for many people, that when we have a deadline we become very productive and we can do everything that we haven’t done before: maybe we can prepare an exam in last 3 days, even if we started to study 1 month before; we multiply our resources when we have no time, when we cannot postpone and think about it too much.
Stress is something that we experience when we make too many plans, when we reason about something instead of doing it. Stress becomes a negative power when we try to control the process, when we don’t just do what we are called to do, when we are caught in a loop, when we cannot stop thinking.
It is also interesting that psychiatry identifies the “Post traumatic stress disorder”, something that for example affects the militaries after they come back from a war. Interesting is that the stress comes after the war, and not during it. Maybe because people only start thinking about what happened when they come back to the usual life, and only at that point they start making questions (since the American war in Vietnam this is the image that also most of the movies seems to give: the military comes back home after an absurd war, and when he meets his old friends he cannot understand anymore what’s the meaning of life, what’s the right and the wrong, what’s the sense of life, what he should do etc…).
To conclude, stress is not about the situation in itself. The situation, any situation, is not already given, is not already defined, is not the same for all of us. The situation is how we perceive it, how we describe it, so it has to do with our values, our judgement, our word. The obstacle in the end is not just what impedes (hinder) us to reach an objective; quite on the contrary, the obstacle is what only permits, allows something to happen. A deadline is not a limit, a deadline is the precondition for us to do (without deadline we wouldn’t probably do nothing). A deadline is stressful if for example we don’t like the work we have to do, if we don’t understand the meaning of our job, if we have to work for someone we don’t like: if we give the deadline (the obstacle) a specific bad meaning. But otherwise only the obstacle allows us to direct our power, our force, only the obstacle allows us to direct the stress, the pressure.
On the contrary, what if we don’t care of anything? What is the opposite of stress? I think that probably the feeling of boredom is at the opposite of stress, because we get bored when we cannot find our desire in what we do, and we don’t see reasons for doing it. Can we say that getting bored is better or worse than being stressed? I don’t think so; in one case we feel too much pressure above us, in the other case we don’t feel any pressure. In both cases our desire remains in the background.
Being stressed and being bored are sometimes simply two expressions of the same problem. Being stressed means being busy with things that we don’t feel ours, and sometimes this is just a strategy for filling a life which otherwise would be too empty, and then boring. But of course the point is not how many activities we have to do. Two hours of a work that we don’t like can be a torture, while sometimes we might enjoy our work so much that we don’t even notice the time passing. The common sense always consider the stress as something we can quantify, calculate, while there is no stress at all when we just follow what we do, when our desire is at work. But when we are caught by some activity our attention is caught, so we are distract from everything else, we are just doing, we are not in the reasoning, in the interpretation; we are in the abstraction.
Stress has to do with interpretation, with representation, that’s why it can change many times during life. So is possible to prevent stress? Is possible to manage the stress? I argue that stress is not to be managed; what we can do with stress is trying to read the stress, trying to see where it leads us. Stress is related to desire. It can indicate that what we do is not related to our desire, for example. But also, clinical experience shows that what we desire the most bring us lots of stress (some people feel much anxieties for something they apparently fear, but secretly desire);
Stress can then be a great resource, it can turn to be something that indicates us the way to follow, how to proceed. Stress can be a signal for us to listen, we don’t have to immediately think of managing the stress or reduce it, stress can tell us much about us.
(all paintings are from Manet)