Captain’s log, stardate 20200314
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Should I stay or should I go?
Sent by Jonathan Stark on March 14th, 2020
People use the word “stress” a lot. For example:
- “I’m totally stressed out!”
- “He’s under a lot of stress.”
- “Buying a house is stressful!”
We intuitively understand that “being stressed” means that you’re “under pressure”, or that you’re “tense”.
But what does “under pressure” mean exactly? You’re not physically being pressured in the same sense as an ’84 Mazda in a car crusher at a junk yard.
What does “tense” mean exactly? You’re not physically being pulled in the same sense as high tension wires on a suspension bridge.
Let’s step back and look at the definition of the word stress. Here are two usages from Google:
* Stress—pressure or tension exerted on a material object. e.g., “the distribution of stress is uniform across the wing” * Stress—a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. e.g., “General Organa was under a lot of stress“
The first definition is about stress in the physical sense. The second is about stress in the psychological sense. Both usages are so common that they probably seem literal.
But I don’t consider the second one to be literal. My guess is that the physical definition is the original one (i.e., literal), and the psychological definition probably started out as a metaphor (i.e., not literal).
Here are a couple examples of what I’m calling the original / physical / literal meaning of the word stress:
“If you try to lift a car using a broom stick as a lever, it’ll break if you apply enough pressure.”
“If you crouch down to pick up your toddler after Thanksgiving dinner wearing a suit that hasn’t fit since college, your slacks are probably going to succumb to the tension by splitting neatly up the rear to reveal your turkey themed boxer shorts.”
What do these physical versions of stress have in common?
There’s an object of interest (e.g., the broom, the slacks) that is being pushed or pulled in two different directions at the same time. This situation creates tension or pressure.
If we extrapolate this metaphorically to the psychological realm, the object of interest would be a given individual and perhaps the stress is the result of being pushed or pulled in two different directions at the same time.
What does it mean to be pushed or pulled in two different directions psychologically? Some of these might sound familiar:
- “I know I shouldn’t eat this entire carton of ice cream but it tastes so good!”
- “I know I should bank this bonus, but I’ve been working so hard… I owe it to myself to buy that new car.”
- “I should finally publish my novel, but… what if people hate it?”
- “My parents want me to go to medical school, but I want to study dance.”
- “I’d love to do music full time, but what about all the money I spent on that law degree?”
- “My heart says stay, my head says go.”
It’s fight vs flight. Proactive vs reactive. Chaos vs order. Discipline vs rebellion. Taking a risk vs playing it safe. Right vs easy.
If you think back and analyze the most stressful events of your life, I betcha that you’ll recall that you were “torn” about what to do. You were being pulled in two different directions.
I can think of loads of examples from my own life, both big and small. As I think back, these examples fall into two main categories:
- I knew at the time what the right thing to do was but delayed making a decision (in some cases for an absurdly long time) because of various weaknesses, complications, or procrastinations.
- I didn’t know what the right thing to do was and delayed making a decision (in some cases for an absurdly long time) because of various weaknesses, complications, or procrastinations.
In every case that I can think of, nothing was gained by delaying my decision as long as I did. In fact, the longer the delay, the longer I was “stressed” or “tense” about the situation. I can think of plenty of examples where the stress was definitely way worse than whatever was involved in the decision itself.
Here’s the thing…
If you find yourself stressed out about something, it means you’re being pulled in two different directions and there’s a decision to be made.
So start by asking yourself “what are the two directions I’m being pulled in here?”
Once you have identified what they are, pick the right one and act on it. If there’s no obvious right one, just commit to either one and act on it.
Not deciding leads to more stress. Decisive action leads to less stress.
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