A deeper definition of stress

So what is stress and why do we have so much of it? In life we learn that if we want something (food, shelter, money, degrees, respect, love, friendship, knowledge etc.) we have to work for it. We have to search for it, take all actions within our power to get it, and take care not to lose it once we do. Things do not just magically appear.

Stress on the other hand seems to be the opposite. It arrives in abundance without any seeking, and once we have it, no matter how hard we try, we can’t get rid of it. We certainly don’t strive for it… or do everything in our power to get it…

Or do we?

What if I told you that most of us are working harder at getting stress in our lives than we are at getting rid of it?

I know it sounds crazy. I wouldn’t have believed it a few months ago. But the more I think about it and read about it, the more I’m certain that this is the case. In fact I now realise that I was going around making stress seeking decisions all of the time. But more importantly, I’ve realised that it is completely in my power to just stop.

It all has to do with the way we define stress.

I use to think of stress as a panicky feeling that came into my life as a result of external factors beyond my control. Essentially I believed stress was caused by INSUFFICIENT RESOURCES AND BACK LUCK.

I hope you disagree with me, but I believe that that is the way that most of us define stress. When we believe that we have insufficient resources (such as time, money, support, good genes, education, etc.) to do the things required of us or that we want to do, combined with an unfair share of bad luck preventing us from getting those resources, we get feelings ranging from worry to anxiety, to full on panic. And voila! Stress.

This definition makes sense, but it is a surface level definition, and it is really unhelpful if we just stop there.

So what is the true definition of stress?

If we dig a little deeper we can see that all stressful feelings have something in common: FEAR.

Fear of not meeting deadlines, demands, and obligations. Fear of not being able to do it fast enough even if we do. Fear of not having a good enough job; not making enough money; not getting married or having a child by a certain age; not having enough friends; not raising our kids in the right way; not being young enough, smart enough, healthy enough, beautiful enough, tall enough, skinny enough, strong enough, funny enough, inspiring enough, nice enough, interesting enough, ambitious enough, generous enough, successful enough, likeable enough, or loveable enough.

Stress is the fear of not being ________ enough.


Why does our definition of stress matter?

Responsibility. The only way to get rid of stress is to take responsibility for it. If we can agree that stress is caused by our own fears, we are taking responsibility for it. And if we agree that stress is more specifically the fear of not "being enough" it becomes something completely within our control.

Think of how your definition of “being enough” may be causing you to act. How full is your schedule? How often do you say “yes” to things knowing you will have to rush to squeeze them in or that may have to cancel at the last moment because you won’t have enough time? Do you agree to take on things at work even if it means not getting enough sleep? Do you agree to do things with friends or to attend events that you really aren’t interested in? Do you look in the mirror and then schedule in extra workouts into your already full schedule? Do you agree to do extra volunteer hours even if it means not spending time with your family on your one free evening? Do you agree to go for drinks with colleagues even when you are so exhausted you can barely keep your eyes open? Do you often try to multi-task? Do you try to do everything? Do you try to do everything perfectly? Do you just try to do too much?

If you answered yes to any of these things, I would bet that your struggle to do these things is likely what is causing you to feel stressed. I would also bet that the driving force behind all of these things is your definition of “being enough” and the fear of not meeting that definition.

When we define stress in this way, we can start to see that stress has little or nothing to do with a lack of resources and bad luck. Rather, it is our fear of not being enough that causes us to make stress seeking decision every day.  But I don’t say that so that we can start blaming ourselves for the stress in our lives and beating ourselves up about it. I don't see taking responsibility for stress as a bad thing at all. In fact its wonderful. If we take responsibility for it we are no longer powerless to it. It means we don’t have to accept it as a part of life. We can choose to eliminate it completely from our lives. We can choose to be free.

All we have to do is change our definition of “being enough”.