How Stress Can Shape a Life

The psychologist Richard O’Connor believes that we tell ourselves stories about our lives to control stress. Stress has a way of becoming a chronic condition. It wears down your body and damages your brain, especially when combined with depression.

Yet stress is a killer we often crave like a drug. We create stories that help us make sense of an unbalanced life.

Stories of Challenge

In my work, I often felt I wasn’t doing much if I weren’t insanely “busy,” meaning stressed out completely. As much as I swore to cut back and lead a more balanced life, I could never do that for long.

Unless I felt the edge of stress, I thought I was drifting and had little motivation. I didn’t think of it as stress. It was the excitement of challenge.

Like a lot of us, the people I considered the heroes of our culture and workplace could handle more stress than anyone. They could take the heat, drive themselves ceaselessly and thrive on the challenge of super-achievement.

Take this story that made the front page of the local paper where I used to live. An attorney was driving to work on a snowy day and saw a car ahead of him slide off the freeway, hit a rock, and crash-land on its side. He stopped, rushed to the scene, pried open a jammed door and pulled out the dazed driver.

Just then another car plowed into them and sent the lawyer flying into a ditch. He got up, brushed off the snow, stayed with everyone until help arrived, then drove to work where he had a great day in a high-stakes case. Wow, what a guy! The super-achiever who jumps into the challenge and feeds on the energy of each wild situation without a moment’s rest.

There’s an important story-line here. It’s the heroic control of stress. It becomes a challenge, a test of strength and endurance. It’s a story that hides the biological damage under praise and success.

Stories of Loss

The rest of us tell humbler stories about living with stress. We try to control it through schedules and medication, lists of priorities and days of relaxation. The tools usually don’t work because the world won’t let up its constant pressure to do more.

Stress is one of the connectors between the social world and our intensely private experience of depression. I’ve read a lot about the effects of broad social and cultural changes on our inner lives, but most of that is far too general to relate to what I feel right now in my little corner of the world.

OK, we’ve lost the old bonds of community and extended family, we’re on our own in a storm of information. We face the confusion of choice, confusion over identity, rootlessness – all that may be true. But it’s the immediacy of stress that helped me make the connection, not with big social changes, but with more immediate crises.

Stress hits us through tension and the fear that we can’t handle the most threatening problems. There isn’t enough money to pay debts. I could lose my job any day. We could lose our home to the bank because we can’t make mortgage payments. I’m sick – or my partner or my children are sick – and the health costs are staggering.

The fear of loss is always there – more and more loss until disaster hits or until we settle into a pattern of living in a diminished way. We’re trapped in a world of pressures that have pushed us down. Trying to get up is a constant struggle.

That’s the way the social dimension has combined with biology and my inner life. The constant stress has deepened depression.

Spiraling Down, Spiraling Up

The story I tell myself in depression is that all these dimensions of my life have proven too much for me. I’m not good enough to handle them. I’ve never been good enough. I’m stressed all the more by memories of failure – threats I’ve run from, challenges I couldn’t meet, self-destructive actions.

The person I am, I’m certain, continues to lose control to the pressures of living.

But when I’m not depressed, everything looks different. I feel I can live the story of victory over challenges. Stress is a stimulant, one I need to stay motivated, to live at the top of my game. I’m even afraid that if I lose the tension and excitement of constantly pushing myself, I’ll start to drift into emptiness again.

There’s always an imbalance, tipping me into a spiral. One spiral takes me deeper into depression until it spins itself out. From the bottom of the whirling storm, I start to spiral upward on the other side.

In both modes, the stress is a powerful force: stress from the world and stress from inside.

Awareness of the Story

These days I feel as close to balance between the spirals of excitement and depression as I’ve ever been. I believe I have a better chance now to sustain this balance because I’ve worked at learning skills to keep me going.

I think we all have the capacity to observe ourselves in action. Usually, I used the ability to detach from experience enough to tell myself the story of how I’m living.

That’s the basic tool. Today it’s known as mindfulness – the ability to see your life as your living it and accept its changing flow without being controlled by it. Then we have to work with that awareness to retell our stories.

I know everyone doesn’t live this way, but does it make sense as one explanation? It rings true for me. How about you?

Visit John’s award-winning website Storied Mind.

This article is reprinted with permission of the author and is copyrighted.







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