The healthy tension of stress and stoicism

Stress has traditionally been postulated as an inherently bad thing; something we should look to eradicate from our life. Meditation and mindfulness are the subject of every luminary’s blog or memoir. “If only I had taken this up 20 years ago” is a common thread in the reflections of successful people.

These same people are typically on the downslope of the business (busy-ness) curve of their career and can afford some revisionist history of what got them there. The reality is, stress can be a good thing, when harnessed effectively. I recently read The Upside of Stress and I have to say – it resonated. The author, Kelly McGonigal, a clinical psychologists, posits that the stimulus that comes from stressful situations is not only healthy for productivity, it is healthy in general, full stop. We’ve all heard the arguments that stress will take years off your life – pre and post presidency photos serving as the visual manifestation of stress induced accelerated aging.

True. I am sure the defending the free world is likely on the far edge of the stress spectrum, but I am also sure the sleep deprivation and travel inherent in foreign diplomacy and running for office also contribute to that. Plus, the before and after shots are usually a juxtaposition of a choreographed “first day on the job” photo op and a Britney Spears shaved head esque, TMZ style, deplaning after a red-eye to Russia, surprise shot from the bushes.

Not only should we not compare ourselves to global heads of state, we should not let a bit of stress scare us. In fact, we should embrace it. It is my belief that stress is part of life’s zest. It keeps us alert, alive, and living on the edge.

As human beings we are wired for survival. The fight or flight mechanism in our amygdala keeps us on edge and ready to embrace life’s challenges – the only change is that we have replaced chance encounters with lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) with board meetings, presentations, and exams. Those that can harness the stress in those situations perform at the highest degree.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a seminal piece on flow. The state of mind that comes from deep focus on an important task. There have been countless examples of people taking things to another level by entering flow state in a stressful situation. Laird Hamilton at Half Moon Bay being an example of someone in extreme sport, or Alex Honnold in Free Solo. These people were able to level up their performance by leaning into stressful (life threatening) situations.

I am not suggesting we all trek to Yosemite and start a free climb, but I am suggesting that we should not run away from stressful situations in our own domain – we should run towards them.

When we do run towards them, however, we should approach them with a stoic attitude. This is best achieved through perspective. Perspective on the situation and outcomes. A common technique has been fear-setting, which is to imagine the worst possible outcome and learn to live with that. This is a tricky balance because you also don’t want to dwell on this to the point where it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it is good to go in eyes wide open.

The other thing that makes this a tricky balance is you don’t want to fear set yourself all the way to indifference. If you have convinced yourself that the outcome truly doesn’t matter then you may then take your foot off the gas.

This is where the balance of stoicism and stress is so important.

First we must seek our stressful situations to push the edges of what is comfortable. That is the only way to grow.

Second, we should approach the stressful situation with perspective so that the anxiety is not debilitating.

Third, find the edge where you are not crippled by the anxiety and then lean into the stress to achieve the best outcome.

This may seem like some sadistic self torture, but I believe this is where we find our greatest joy – embracing the challenges of life, pushing ourselves to excellence within those, while maintaining the perspective of the bigger picture.

That is the balance of stress and stoicism, in my opinion.

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