Dissecting Stress: ‘The Greatest Myth Is That Stress-Free Living Exists at All’
This past year a friend pointed out that my last name rhymes with anxiety. I’m not sure how the similarity had escaped me all these years, but it made perfect sense. I began my career as an international corporate lawyer, but for the better part of the past five years, I have researched and written about stress and anxiety. Early on, my editor began referring to me as a stress columnist, which I will grant is an unusual job title, but given my history, most would agree that I was born for the job.
Sometime around my 11th birthday, I became a refugee fleeing the Iranian revolution in 1978. My parents couldn’t get out at first. So for a few years I lived in the Netherlands, Germany, Scotland, England and France, staying with aunts, uncles and more distant relatives, as well as living at boarding school. Eventually my parents managed to leave Iran, and my family settled in Los Angeles along with close to a million other Iranian immigrants who fled the Islamic regime. We lived in the area now widely known as Tehrangeles.
I left California to go to law school in Washington, D.C., and later went on to work as a lawyer at a large firm. Stress is all relative, I suppose, but after a few years of more than 2,400 billable hours, I couldn’t escape the practice of law fast enough.
I soon joined the ranks of recovering lawyers and became a full-time consultant. Then my husband and I moved to New York City. And one morning after walking my dogs, I found myself standing with fellow New Yorkers at 6th and Bleecker. We viewed the horrifying collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin towers from 20 blocks away.
I suffered a post-traumatic stress reaction to the 9/11 attacks. It was like revolutionary Iran all over again. Eventually I rebounded.
But in 2007, life-threatening adversity revisited me. My kids were 1 and 2 years old, and our family had just moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. The call came one morning, just after breakfast. “You have cancer,” the caller told me.
Time and space shifted somehow. The ceiling and walls seemed to collapse in on me, suddenly claustrophobic. Despite no family history of the disease, I had late-stage breast cancer, a massive tumor and a ghastly prognosis. I was in my late 30s.
Over the next few years, with the specter of terrifying odds hanging over me, I instinctively chronicled my struggle in a journal.
A couple of years later, a series of essays I wrote about my experiences as a cancer patient was published by CNN Health. My world shifted again as my CNN editor, Mary Carter, asked me to regularly take on the topic of stress, to which I perhaps illogically responded, “I’m not sure I know anything about stress.”
As it turned out, I knew plenty, and Carter wanted me to go deeper—to enter the stress vortex. “People are half out of their minds with stress,” she told me. “Tell them how to help themselves.”
And for four years, I covered stories about stress in dozens of snapshots: the science of stress, the history of stress, and stress and adversity in philosophy, in culture and in various faith traditions. I developed a research perspective that few others have: I interviewed scientists studying stress and anxiety, as well as Zen masters, athletes, authors, rock stars, tech founders and many others. And when it came to stress, I was no armchair intellectual. My unique life experiences provided important context to the work.
Time passed, and I began to synthesize these fragments I had been writing about. I came away with a dramatically different story, a sense of the larger picture of modern stress that’s different from the one permeating our culture. Stress reminded me of the old story of the king’s men who went to examine an elephant for the first time in the dark. Each man described the elephant in his own way: One described the tusk; the other, the tail; and the third, the trunk. They were all correct, but they were all wrong as well, because the elephant as a whole looks nothing like its tusk, tail or trunk. In a similar way with stress, there is a disconnect that can be destructive.
Myth and Truth
The greatest myth is that stress-free living exists at all. It’s impossible for anyone to live in a state free of stimuli; in reality the only time you are truly stress-free is when you’re dead.
So what generates stress?
A stressor is typically thought of as any stimulus that knocks your body off balance. On any given day, our bodies are thrown off balance in hundreds of different ways, both big and small. Stressors can range from frustration at being stuck in traffic and negative interactions with colleagues to the sudden ping of incoming email, the anticipation of a first kiss or even exercise.
And here’s the kicker: The stimulus that knocks you off your equilibrium doesn’t have to be real. It can also be imagined. The devil of modern stress lies in the details of how we perceive events and circumstances, in the stories we tell ourselves and each other about our experiences. Because when it comes to stress, it’s less about what’s actually happening to you and more about how you think about what’s happening. Perception is everything.
Last year I was invited to give a short talk about stress to an assembly of elementary schoolchildren, some as young as 5. I began my presentation with two requests. If you believe that stress can be bad, I said, I want you to yell, Bad! There was a thunderous chorus of bad. Next I said that if you think stress can be good, I want you to yell, Good! The young children were so confident in what they knew about stress that there was not a peep in the yard.
The common narrative about how villainous stress is and how much it hurts and sickens has even trickled down to the very young. This is a problem for two reasons:
1. If you believe you are always under siege, then your body is constantly flooded with cortisol and in a dangerous state of inflammation. And this can be deadly.
2. This narrative is not entirely true. Stress can be bad, but only a specific type of stress: chronic, toxic stress. Toxic stress is a strong and unrelieved activation of the stress response—that means it goes on without relief for a long time.
Science also tells us about the other kind of stress: good stress. This is the life-saving, life-enhancing kind that’s like a superpower. It helped our ancestors either outrun a tiger or stay and fight it. Good stress can help you jump out of harm’s way, recover more quickly after surgery or give the best speech of your life.
And then there’s the third kind: tolerable stress. Like toxic stress, tolerable stress is severe enough to be harmful, to disrupt brain architecture. But it is marked by what Stanford neuro-immunologist Firdaus Dhabhar, Ph.D., refers to as “breaks, buffers and protective factors,” interspersing those peaks of acute stress with valleys of low-to-no stress, and tolerable stress and its rest areas—its peaks and valleys—are actually the ideal way to experience stress in everyday life. (Note that you can purposely create those breaks and buffers. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer shared his technique: sitting peacefully for 10 to 15 minutes twice a day, closing his eyes, breathing deeply and relaxing—thinking about nothing or as little as possible—to carve out recovery time for himself.)
Perhaps more important, tolerable stress is exactly the kind of adversity that can help you grow, learn, evolve and become the person you are really meant to be. This is the kind of stress that philosophers and men and women of faith have discussed for centuries: “The wound is where the light enters you,” the mystic Rumi observed. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote.
Stress and its impact underscore one fundamental truth: Our stories matter. Our stories form the core of our beliefs; they become the prism through which we filter our experiences. As Colum McCann, the National Book Award-winning novelist, told me, “Storytelling is the great democracy. We all want to—and need to—tell our stories. There is a certain catharsis in being able to tell your story, in confronting your demons.”
Research shows that one excellent way to avoid the damage of toxic stress is to reframe it. Take the fragments of your life, your experiences, and use them to tell a different story—creating a virtuous narrative instead of a vicious one. This reframing casts adversity as the pathway to growth.
Elite athletes are masters of reframing. Michael Gervais, Ph.D., a psychologist who has trained some of the world’s top athletes, told me he teaches his athletes to hit the stress sweet spot. In training, athletes move into situations that stress them, that purposefully test their limits. They make themselves as uncomfortable as possible, and they stay with that discomfort as long as they can. And the stories they craft and tell themselves about that discomfort—the self-talk—actually serve them and propel them to new heights. That self-talk helps them perform better.
It’s a dramatically different way of telling the story of stress. It’s also a very different relationship with failure and adversity. In Silicon Valley, for instance, entrepreneurs subscribe to the mantra “fail early, fail often.”
One very effective way of reframing stress is through narrative storytelling. Pioneering research by James Pennebaker, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, shows that expressive writing during emotional upheavals is a powerful way to self-reflect, shift perspective and reframe, and reap a wealth of physical and psychological benefits.
Writing about difficult experiences helps people downgrade uncontrollable stress by allowing them to put a narrative around traumatic experiences. In one of Pennebaker’s studies involving people with AIDS, patients benefited physically by writing about their diagnoses and how it had affected them; for instance, they experienced a reduction in the potentially deadly virus in their bodies and an increase in the white blood cells that fight illness. In another Pennebaker study, men who had lost their jobs and wrote about it experienced less stress and anxiety as they searched for new work. They also found new jobs faster than the other study participants.
After my interview with Pennebaker, I was reminded of the journal I kept in the wake of my cancer diagnosis. My writing had served as an intuitive, unconscious attempt to make sense of the often dismal fragments of my life. “You probably wouldn’t believe my life,” my journal began. “In a certain light, it would read like an encyclopedia of tragedy: revolution, disease, isolation, dysfunction, terrorism, failure and withdrawal. Before you check out, let me also tell you that if you were to meet me, you may think a sunnier person never lived.”
I continued to write through my darkest hours, when I was in the throes of chemo and radiation, emaciated, hairless and barely hanging on. Years later as a stress researcher, I recognized that writing may have played an important part in saving my life.
It turns out that the years of researching and writing about stress, adversity and what makes humans thrive were a gift to me. That work helped me piece together the punishing life experiences and re-examine them from a greater altitude, with an entirely different—and empowering—picture coming into focus.
“The obstacle in the path becomes the path,” the Zen proverb says. And it’s true: All those obstacles in my path became the pathway to my life purpose and mission. I am not only still standing, I am thriving. Adversity as a source of power is a dramatic shift in mindset. My past traumas, reframed, have given me profound insights. They have armed me with empathy and strength. They have also become my path to service.
This article appears in the December 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.