Why Are We So Stressed All The Time?

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A bipolar, body-positive bread enthusiast with a fucked-up pretty much healed ankle and a history of disordered eating, continues to try to figure shit out.


I do not know how to not be stressed.

I was born with a perpetual knot in my neck and a propensity for pacing and generally fretting about everything — from what I’m going to make for dinner to the state of the nation. I used to lie awake at night and plan what I’d take with me if my house caught on fire. (Parakeet. Poster of white tiger. Barry Manilow records.) I’d work myself into a frenzy over a pond of tadpoles with too little water. I worried about my weight, my ears, my clothes, if people liked me. I lost sleep over AP classes, the midterm 'C' in Calculus, my hair.

Everywhere I looked was another opportunity to kick my nervous system into overdrive.

I’m still stressed; I’m just stressed about different things. Kids. Work. Money. Trump. The stability of my marriage. My mental health. My kids’ mental health. My relationship with my family. Whether or not my kids watch too much TV or eat too many nitrates. Whether or not climate change is going to kill us, and how soon. What I’m going to make for dinner.

Stress is my default.

My resting heart rate is like 110. Every day has the potential to be downright awful, even if it’s not awful at all, even if there is no reason for me to believe it might be anything but awesome. I’m always in fight-or-flight mode. I’m always looking for trouble on the horizon. I’m always scanning for a potential opportunity to say something like “OMG THIS DAY. I CANNOT BELIEVE IT.”

Are you?

From our fighting kids to our flailing finances, people are just stressed. We are all just so stressed. So stressed that, in the absence of real, actual stress, we will create stress.

Stress is our baseline.  

It’s not that we like it. Stress doesn’t feel particularly good. In fact, it’s probably actually killing us and we know this. Your heart pumping out of the normal range, the nausea, muscle soreness and tension, the inability to sleep, short-tempered bursts of emotion, no one signs up for that.

But historically, we have signed up for stress.

 

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In fact, humans were probably in the front of the fight-or-flight line just waiting for their turn to let endorphins take over. WE LOVED IT.

Why?

Because it kept us alive. The fear of death is why we didn’t die*. 

*As much

Those endorphins, stress if you will, are what separated us from from the animals, literally. Our eagle-eye for danger might have been the only thing standing between us and a sabre tooth tiger. We needed that stress. We required those endorphins to keep us at peak performance

But the sabre tooth tiger is extinct.

It’s not our fault that our body wants us to freak out over everything, it’s pre-programmed.

For the most part, we don’t live in fear for our very lives (of course, that is, unless you are a marginalized person or someone currently living in Texas/a war-torn nation). Most people are just fine. Our biggest daily threat is something more like driving a car, a thing that shouldn’t cause panic in the average person — but tell our biology that. We will stress out about anything. We are always looking for the proverbial tiger.

We don’t want to be stressed, we just don’t know how to be any other way.

And when I say “know,” I mean, we are just trying to protect ourselves, on the most basic physiological level.

It took our physiology a long time to catch up with the threat of being eaten alive. It took a lot of watching our families die, before we were like “OH snap. That tiger is definitely going to eat me if I don’t run.” That didn’t happen overnight.

And it looks like it’s taking an equally long amount of time for our bodies to recognize that a work deadline and being eaten alive are not equitable. That’s how evolution works, but it doesn’t work in a vacuum.

Our bodies change as we tell them to. Whether I’m going to make spaghetti or enchiladas for dinner feels like a big decision to me this morning. In truth, it’s just a matter of what form the hamburger I’m already thawing out is going to take. Even writing this article, which should have been written last week, because that was my self-imposed deadline, is causing me panic.

Neither of those things warrant tension, but in the absence of a sabre tooth, they demand it.

I don’t like it, it’s just automatic.

It’s not our fault that our body wants us to freak out over everything; it’s pre-programmed.

Where's the tiger? Where's the tiger?

Do you hate it? Me too. Guess what? It's not required anymore.

The way to release this stress, and halt the raging river of endorphins that go with it, is to remind ourselves constantly that there is no tiger. I am currently in no real danger. If my shoulders are hunched to my ears and I’m sweating because of a phone call I have to make (because who even makes phone calls?), those are biological reactions, not evidence of real, genuine threat of life. In the absence of real threat, all of those endorphins and excess cortisol are just making me scared and fat and sleepy and sick. That’s what our body does with all the hormones we don’t actually need, it diverts them to something else.

 

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That "something else" is all of the things that are the long-term implication of walking around constantly scanning the horizon for potential threat. Heart disease, weight gain, kidney and endocrine issues, reduced immunity — name a thing, and there’s a real possibility that we can trace it back to some undue stress we’ve subjected ourselves to.

But once we are armed with the knowledge that our kids bickering isn’t a life or death situation, even if it feels like one, we are armed with the ability, or at least the awareness, to change the way we see potential stressors. We just have to teach our physiology to interpret these things in a different way.

We just have to remind ourselves that we are not dying and peace is not impossible.

I’m not talking about an “attitude of gratitude” or any other woo Oprah shit. I’m not talking about making a list of all the things that you’re #blessed to have. Because frankly, fighting kids will never feel like blessing.

I might be able to twist a work deadline into an opportunity to express gratitude (because money and food and stuff), but for the most part, the things that stress me out are not a super fun awesome time. They are irritating and tedious and sometimes require more attention than I’d like to give them, but they are not life threatening. They do not have to prevent me from finding peace.

Peace is available, and the way to it is to look around ourselves and see evidence of genuine danger, and then let the rest of that shit go.

You don't need it anymore. 


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