A few months ago the DO Lectures series asked me to contribute a piece to a collection of essays on stress—on a tight, stressful deadline. It just released the collection as The Stress Report, “a modern compass for a new, smarter, more productive way of working.” The 134-page report examines stress levels in various organizations and the new techniques that can be used to alleviate stress—regular exercise, healthy nutrition, Chief Wellbeing Officers, etc.
But is stress something we really need to alleviate?
Unlike angst, which is always bad, stress can be good for us. Stress expresses a desire for intensity, for everything in nothing, whereas angst is a fear of everything, out of nothing. Stress is like a small but impactful near-death experience that reminds us of our own mortality. It is humbling and marks the maelstrom of time for us. The absence of stress is worse because it allows more time and space for the undefined, nameless fear that eats away at our soul.
Stress means being in the action, in the heat of the moment, in the flow, consuming and radiating energy. It doesn’t always feel good, but it makes us feel something. Between a storm and calm, I often choose the storm. When I’m stressed, I tend to make mistakes, which often lead to more mistakes. But occasionally, and perhaps inevitably, these mistakes can lead to epiphanies and instances of unexpected beauty that occur only in states of heightened sensation and awareness.
I find that stress is never a consistent experience; I rarely feel stressed for a prolonged amount of time. Stress comes and goes, and it is usually worst before it comes. It is annoyingly predictable, but pleasantly spotty. Within phases of stress one can find pockets of extreme tranquility and grace, as well as waves of anger and aggression.
Our Deep Craving for Drama
One of the most concrete devices of stress is deadlines, especially in the workplace. People seem strangely attracted to them. My theory is that our affinity for deadlines stems from a deep craving for drama. Ironically, a deadline makes us feel alive. The rush of blood to the head, the bliss of late-hour limbo, the time crunch, the borrowed time, the extra time — with every deadline (even those we meet), we die a little and therefore live a little more intensely.
Without stress in our lives—without those (perceived or even artificial) signature moments that punctuate our comfort-seeking daily lives—we wouldn't have leaps and peaks. Think about it: A first date, a wedding, the birth of a child, travel to foreign countries, an exam, the World Cup final — all stressful experiences, rich with adrenaline as well as the possibility of outright panic. But this is infinitely better than the deadening routine of the underbelly of angst, the threat of obsolescence, of being forgotten without ever being truly stressed, ever having truly exhausted ourselves, or ever having given it all. A stress-free life of happy monotony makes boredom look like a distinctive experience.
That said, stress must be managed. Framing it as something valuable and meaningful is a start, which is why I am writing this piece. I think what often stresses us is not so much stress itself, but our stress about the stress—meta-stress. I'm referring to our chagrin with the fact that we feel stressed and our desire to be somebody else in that moment. Or, to be more precise, we wish to revert to our previous, normal selves.
When we’re under stress, there is no turning back. Instead of struggling to fit our new strange, condensed, and uneven emotions to the quandaries of our old souls and their comforting illusions of equilibrium, we must succumb to—or even embrace—our new, irritated, stressed self.
The Terror of Effortless, Evenly Distributed Angst
If stress becomes panic and even paralysis, the effects are no longer positive. If stress becomes our default modus operandi in light of digital overload and efficiency pressures—if it turns into the kind of anxiety that stems from competing for social media attention, or worse, for work, our position in society, our very existence and identity—then stress quickly turns into an agonizing disease.
When we are deprived of agency — the ability to make autonomous decisions — by our immediate environment, “the system,” our bosses, or people close to us, then stress becomes distress. If we are no longer able to produce against exponential productivity goals, if we are no longer allowed to create useless things or simply just be, due to our obsession with our “faster, smarter, better” super-quantified and optimized selves at work and at home, we will devolve into emotional zombies rushing from one adrenaline kick to another without ever earning the joy of true fatigue.
Our distress is aggravated by the rise of automation and mass unemployment, with more than half of society’s workforce likely to be replaced within the next 10 years by software or robots, according to some predictions. When that happens, we will feel numb instead of stimulated. When we're more conscious of what we feel and how we should feel, our souls will be emptied into a dark, noisy marketplace forever eclipsing what used to be the greatest promise of stress—the hope that the commotion of life and our elevated feelings might lead us to a higher plane.
With desire and suffering eliminated, only the terror of extended, effortless, evenly distributed angst will remain, and we may indeed yearn for those nostalgic times when we still felt stressed.
This post is a slightly edited version of the article “A Stressful Life” which appeared first in The Stress Report by DO Lectures, curated by Ian Sanders.