MSNBC has an interesting article on stress and its place in our society. Interestingly, the article makes an important point about the social value of stress. Take this, for example:

“People are now determining their self-worth on how busy they are and how much they have to do,” she says.

Competitive stressing seems to blend two of our favorite pastimes: bragging and complaining.

[…]

When someone goes on about how he works 14 hours a day and doesn’t see his family and hasn’t had a vacation and doesn’t get any sleep and, by the way, has 2,000 unopened e-mails, what he’s really saying is: I’m a very important and valuable person.

[…]

Stress is also a handy ready-made excuse for all sorts of bad behaviors, from being grumpy to making a mistake. You are so frazzled you only got four hours of sleep, after all.

Surely we’ve all done this at some point. I know I have. Stress is a common complaint and, when used tactfully, complaining about stress is an easy way to garner support, sympathy, and even to avoid more work. But is this bad? Why would we complain so much about stress if we weren’t really stressed? The answer is likely more simple than it may appear: stress plays an important role as a social construct, a method of defining ourselves in ways that are considered positive by others.

People brag about whatever their culture values. So, in the ’70s, the boast was: ‘Oh, I was so messed up, I don’t even remember the ’60s.’ In the ’80s, it was more about materialism. You bragged about what you had.

Today, the average worker isn’t going to make many friends by bragging about how stoned he got or crowing about his new Porsche. But since society values being busy and having an important job, stress has become the new status symbol.

Chances are that if you’re really stressed, you wouldn’t say much about it. Most people with anxiety disorders won’t speak much about it to others, except in those cases where speaking about it may reduce the burden of having to carry it alone. When irrational fears are constantly playing out in our minds, we can certainly experience the effects of stress. Yet, at the same time, many people with anxiety disorders also use anxiety itself as a coping mechanism to avoid being placed in uncomfortable situations.

Have you ever used anxiety as an excuse? I’m guilty of it. I once used anxiety as an excuse to convince my wife that I couldn’t go to dinner with some “friends” of ours. In all honesty, I wasn’t really feeling anxious. I just didn’t want to go to dinner with people who I thought to be obnixous. Anxiety was the perfect scapegoat and I played it up.

While it might make a convenient excuse, using anxiety and stress to avoid situations or responsibilities is only going to negatively impact your mental well-being. Much research has been done to this end and the conclusion is clear: we create our own realities. If you’re constantly telling yourself and others that you’re anxious or stressed, the result is invariably anxiety and stress.

The solution? Stop it. Just take a break for a while. Here’s another snippet from the article:

Start by practicing not complaining for one week, she says. You may feel a bit lonely at first because you aren’t part of the conversation, but you’ll start to feel strengthened and empowered. “It’s like saying no to cheesecake, you feel better for having done it,” she says.

So, for instance, when someone at work says, “I’m so tense I didn’t get any sleep last night,” instead of trying to outdo them, say simply: “I sure hope things get better for you.”

And next time you are tempted to one-up an overworked, overwhelmed and overly tired co-worker, ask yourself: Is this a contest I really want to win?

Keep this in mind the next time you find yourself turning to your anxiety — or stress — as a crutch. While both anxiety and stress are very real, and serious, health concerns, playing the “stress card” is ultimately more harmful than helpful. The moment you begin to tell yourself that things aren’t as bad as you think they are is the moment that you’ve begun to develop a positive attitude toward life. With practice, this positive attitude can bloom and may ultimately help to free you from anxiety.

Advertisements