It’s a habit of human minds to believe that inner agonies are experienced only by us. They’re inside our heads, after all. We alone have to bear the burden of a particular torment. That’s especially true when it comes to stress, something we keep to ourselves and away from serious conversation with colleagues, supervisors, and even friends (too much of a buzz kill).
In a bravado culture, no one wants to be seen as not being able to take the pressures coming our way, so we suck it up. Instead of talking about stress and flushing it into the open, we think about it. Stress thrives on rumination. The longer we obsess about the alarmist thoughts set off by the stress response (which thinks you are about to die) and don’t challenge them, they become entrenched, and the stress along with it. Our mental isolation chamber, driven by the illusion of separateness, keeps us on the ledge of anxiety.
Two weeks before a stress management workshop I led at a large consulting firm, one of the team’s hardest workers had a massive heart attack and died on a bathroom floor. No one knew how close to the end he was, though everyone knew how much overtime he was pulling. He was overwhelmed but didn’t talk about his problems with anyone. Colleagues didn’t speak up about their concerns. A man in his 40s with everything to live for was gone because of the unwritten rule that we must appear to be invincible.
Talking surfaces the false beliefs behind stress, brings forward perspective and solutions, lets people know they’re not alone, and takes a load off. It’s time to talk about stress, to our colleagues, bosses, friends, and loved ones. The silent treatment has made stress public health enemy number one, a $1 trillion sinkhole that is destroying lives and bankrupting all of us. Its numerous health blowbacks are responsible for the vast majority of all doctor visits.
The fallacy that stress is a private torment that you have to deal with on your own has prevented any public policy solutions. Stress-triggered chronic diseases, from coronary artery disease to irritable bowel, and personal bankruptcies keep mounting. I started the Smash Stress Campaign to provide a vehicle to get people talking, and better yet, acting to kill the behavior that feeds stress. You can help by signing our petition here for stress screening for all, an effort that would add stress screening and management to the preventive services of the Affordable Care Act. It could have saved the life of the consultant who died in the prime of life. It could save yours or that of someone close to you.
The stress epidemic has gone uncontested for too long. We can change that by becoming a nation of first responders, creating a social movement of people who reach out when someone is in need, who talk and listen, not look the other way, who can be Stress Lookouts and Disrupters.
Think about someone you know who’s struggling with anxiety. Take a minute and ask them how they’re doing. Share the load by becoming a Stress Disrupter. It’s kind of like a Vulcan Mind Meld minus neck grip. Let the person vent. Agree to talk once a week or whenever the need is there. Inform them of their stress testing options — whether by treadmill test, saliva, or stress questionnaire. Help them get professional help, if it’s needed.
Who can you help take a stress load off today? Someone in your family, a work colleague whose health is deteriorating? Someone overwhelmed with fear of the future?
You can stop the rumination and help lower the emotional temperature that feeds fight or flight. Ask them: Is it an emergency or a projection trap? What’s the false story fueling the stress? What’s the most likely story? What’s a new story that could reframe the I-can’t-cope story that triggers the stress response? Yes, I have 200 emails, but I can handle it.
Let me know your stories here on HuffPost or at Smash Stress of what happened when you got the conversation going. Who were you able to help? What stress did you disrupt? Were you able to get someone to a stress test? What impact did opening up the conversation have on them, on you?
Let’s create a national army of Stress Lookouts and Disrupters. Social scientists have a truckload of evidence for the ability of social interaction to buffer stress and increase positive mood. And not just for the receiver, but for the giver as well. It’s truly better to give than to receive. Helping others for no other reason than the act of service is one of the most reliable ways to increase your own satisfaction.
As free time has dwindled and work hours have climbed, stress has soared, and there are fewer and fewer people with an unbooked minute or close enough connection to the people around them to step up and listen to a friend’s dilemma. The number of people who feel they have someone they can confide in has shrunk by a third in the last 20 years to two people, while a quarter of folks have no one to confide in.
We are the safety net. Let’s disrupt the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil code that keeps stress out of sight but seldom out of mind.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women’s conference, “The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power” which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.
Joe Robinson is a stress management and work-life balance educator, speaker, and author of Work to Live, Don’t Miss Your Life, and the Email Overload Survival Kit. You can find his work at www.worktolive.info and the Smash Stress Campaign at www.worktolive.info/stress-campaign
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