Stress

It was December 2018. I was working remotely for the IxDF. For the past six months, I led an effort to run experiments to improve our user experience. I faced tons of unknown unknowns1 on the way. We had to shift our vision every time we hit a wall. Our product-first people had to adjust the requirements as they’re learning on the way as well. It was an incredibly complex piece of work, perhaps an experiment in itself. Since the so-called experiments were not the only endeavor I was doing in the company, my overall stress levels increased. Things were not going well. Even after six months, I didn’t have anything to show for it.

Finally, in December 2018, I hit a big wall. My mind and my body couldn’t handle it anymore. I started showing symptoms of high stress: Fatigue, heart palpitations, sleeping difficulties, anxiety, discouragement, pessimism, diminished creativity, performance drop, disinterest, etc. I could see a massive pile of work that I need to do, but no matter how much I work, that pile was not getting smaller but getting bigger. I was sleeping on the couch in the living room, hardly eating anything healthy, working 14-15 hour days without getting any meaningful work done. I stopped going out for jogging or socializing. I was restless. I felt like I fell into a deep well, and I had no hopes whatsoever to see the sun again.

Artist: Gülfemin Buğu Tekcan — cosmodotart

I eventually got better —but the healing process was neither easy nor short. I am not going to talk about how I managed to get up again. But I let go of my work at the IxDF at the end. I loved my time there, and it changed me.

What I would like to talk about is this: We perceive stress as a bad sign. The story I told above also shows how negatively it can affect us. However, when we generally talk about stress, we are communicating about high stress — a variant that one cannot handle in a prolonged amount of time. The longer we experience high stress, the more detrimental effects2 we may observe within our mind and body. Yet, stress is a biological reality and an eventual product of our evolution:

[…] stress hormones promote the survival of the organism.3

Classifying an essential hormonal response as a bad thing is an utter nonsense. Not only it helps us to stay alive by activating our fight-or-flight mode4; stress is a powerful driver for growth. When you stress your body or your brain, you allow your body to adapt. It’s like you unlock an unknown: You now know that you can face a similar stressor again, and you need to be prepared for such a future encounter. Athletes know this very well because the muscle they build depends upon the amount of stress they put into their bodies.

Elite athletes Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness explain how to utilize stress to become elite achievers in their magnificent book “Peak Performance”. Coming from a background where you can physically see the effects of stress, they translate their knowledge into areas beyond the body. Out of more than a hundred highlights I drew from their book, this one shows the essence of how stress can be useful:

[...] our adaptive stress response is rooted in molecules called inflammatory proteins and a hormone called cortisol. Inflammatory proteins and cortisol are activated by stress and serve as biological messengers, telling the body, “We’re not strong enough to withstand this attack!” As a result, the body marshals an army of biochemical building blocks and directs them to the area under stress, making the body stronger and more resilient. This is the body’s incredible, preprogrammed way of better preparing itself to face future threats.5

There is much to talk about stress, like how we can utilize rest to maximize the benefits we get from stress or avoid stress when we don’t need it, like in a traffic jam. I am going to touch on those points in the future. However, I would like to conclude by repeating the fact that stress is essential and necessary for every one of us. While high stress can cause problems like anxiety and burnout, the lack of stress is also problematic since it leads to boredom and stagnation. We need to find the balance by challenging ourselves slightly —not too hard, not too soft. Only then can we achieve healthy, prolonged growth.

What is your take on stress? Have you ever experienced high stress for a prolonged period? What about lack of stress? Let me know in the comments.

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1

See Donald Rumsfeld’s statement: “Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.

3

Stress hormone on Wikipedia

4

See Understanding the stress response from Harvard Health Publishing: “[…] combination of reactions to stress is also known as the "fight-or-flight" response because it evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling people and other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations.”