That’s Men: The last word on redefining stress
I’m sure the hearts of the hurlers in that extraordinary, soon-to-be- repeated, All-Ireland final were beating so hard they were ready to jump out of their mouths and sail over the bar. And I’m sure cortisol and adrenaline and every other energising hormone known to man were shooting through their systems in industrial quantities.
Would you say, though, that they were “stressed” in the usual sense of the word? You might say, to coin a cliché, that they were striving with might and main. But you would hardly say that “they were all terribly stressed out there”.
That’s an example of how hard it is to define stress. I have begun to wonder if the word is a useful one at all. It’s a respectable, catch-all word. Everybody is willing to admit to feeling stressed. Indeed, doctors will sometimes use the word “stress” as a euphemism on sick certs if the patient has been made miserable by bullying behaviour from a boss or colleague.
Sometimes the word is used instead of “depression” because of the belief that it’s alright to be stressed but it’s not alright to be depressed.
Perhaps we would be better able to handle whatever it is that we are stressed about if we were not allowed to use the “s” word at all.
Are you exhausted because you work absurdly long hours? Might it be better to describe it in these terms than to call it stress? By spelling it out, might you be more likely to see that you need to do something about it?
Be more specific
Are you frightened because of what the next letter or phone call from the bank might bring? Why not drop the word stress and talk of this as fear? Might being more specific about it in that way suggest perhaps that you need to go to Mabs or to an accountant for some informed help and advice?
Do you feel miserable because of the excessive demands of your children? If you define it as misery rather than stress, might you begin to look at what changes you can make to address your misery and the causes of your misery?
Do you feel afraid as Christmas approaches because you know you cannot afford to meet the expectations of other people?
Instead of covering this with the word “stress”, might you do something different if you acknowledged that what you feel is fear; and that you feel this fear because of your expectation that you must meet other people’s expectations and because of your assumption that other people cannot be asked to change these expectations to something more realistic?
Taking the word “stress” out of the equation forces you to unpack whatever it is that is upsetting you. When you have unpacked it, in this example in terms of the expectations put on yourself and others, you may begin to see solutions.
So the next time you tell yourself that you feel stressed, just pretend for a few moments that the “s” word has been removed from the vocabulary and ask yourself what precisely you mean. It could make all the difference.
Addendum: if you think stress is confusing, try happiness. I was looking up a report on sciencedaily.com recently about a study which suggested that you are more likely to be happy if you try to be happy. I was not entirely convinced by the report but what really caught my eye were the accompanying links to related stories.
“Divorce can spell big boost to women’s happiness, UK research shows,” said the first headline. “Marriage may make people happier,” said the second. “Why are older people happier?” asked the third. “Married with children the key to happiness?” wondered the fourth.
To maximise your happiness, then, I suppose the procedure is to get married, have children, get divorced (if you’re the wife), grow old. Sounds like a lot of stress.
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind - Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His monthly mindfulness newsletter is available free by email.