How Much Stress Do You Need for Success?

A lot of anxiety in life is both unwanted and involuntary.

Often when I have an early morning flight, I can’t sleep deeply. The worry about sleeping through my alarm clock has me waking up involuntarily, every hour or so. Even when I should have enough sleep to feel rested, I wake up groggy.

I try to tell myself that the alarm clock will go off, I’ve never slept through it before, so get some high-quality sleep now before you can’t on a big flight. But somehow that line of reasoning rarely changes anything.

Anxiety doesn’t even have to be about a specific problem. I sometimes worry about being wrong in my writing. Advocating something which I later discover is wrong, or actually harmful. Perhaps even being called out by a higher source of expertise for charlatanism because I could have known better had I only done my research correctly.

I can tell myself that what matters isn’t being perfect about picking the right ideas to believe in, but being willing to change them in the face of new evidence. I can also persuade myself having higher sources of expertise disagree with you, or even being wrong about some things are unavoidable, and what matters is doing one’s best.

Sometimes recognizing an emotion’s irrationality isn’t enough to eliminate it. That’s an obvious reality, and if you suffer from unwanted anxiety in your life, there are probably some good methods to handle that.

However, despite the prevalence of involuntary anxiety, I think there’s also a great deal of voluntary stress we inflict upon ourselves. Anxiety that comes, not because we can’t help feeling worried, but because we believe we should feel stress.

When Should You Be Stressed?

An example for you might be school. You get stressed around exam time because you feel the pressure to pass your exams, but worry you might not be able to. This may arise automatically from the environment.

But then that feeling gets compounded because it also includes a belief that says, “I should be stressed prior to my exams. People who don’t feel stress during exams, get lazy, don’t study, fail, drop out of school, can’t find work and end up living on the streets, etc.”

Well maybe it doesn’t go that far. But there may be this implicit assumption that “not feeling stressed” = “undesirable life outcomes you want to avoid”. Therefore it’s not merely that you get stressed prior to your exams, but that any attempt to alleviate that anxiety would also be a bad idea because it would lead to these undesirable life outcomes.

I think it’s that additional belief, which states that the feeling of anxiety and stress is necessary or good which makes a lot of anxiety more intractable. After all, there are probably a lot of ways you can deal with mild involuntary anxiety, provided you don’t also believe that alleviating that pain is something unwise. Even if you do feel serious, uncontrollable anxiety, knowing it isn’t vital to your success as an individual may give you the power to seek out treatment.

Given this, how much anxiety and stress do you actually need?

Anxiety and the Tao

This has been a question on my mind a lot lately. I’ve started watching some of Alan Watts television series on Buddhism and Taoism. I’ve also rekindled my previous interest in those eastern philosophies, which I had read years ago but drifted away from in my recent fixation on a more scientific view of the world.

While I’m still a complete novice in these subjects, there seems to me to be a lot of good ideas related to this very question I’ve posed. Namely, that Buddhism suggests that much of our suffering in life is due to this kind of voluntary anxiety. Taoism, similarly, argues that there is a natural way of things and we should follow along this, rather than try to actively resist it.

Rereading a lot of this writing has made me reflect on this kind of voluntary anxiety and suggest that perhaps most, if not all of it, is unnecessary to live a successful life. I haven’t fully convinced myself of this conclusion yet, but I’d like to share it tentatively with you, if only to spark a discussion which can improve my thinking about it.

Is Stress Useful at All?

The strongest argument I can think of, for the beneficial nature of stress, is that we evolved it for a reason. If negative emotions had no practical significance, they would never have been designed under selection pressure in the first place.

This argument is one I think weights heavily against any idea that some subset of our natural functioning range of emotions and beliefs is either entirely escapable or harmful. Either the experience is an unavoidable side-effect of our proper functioning (say, cognitive biases), or the experience is helpful in some subsets of experience, so eliminating it would be maladaptive (say, negative emotional states).

But such a line of argument only suggests that a certain experience might be beneficial, in part. I don’t think it reasonably follows that the proportions in your life are necessarily correct. After all, we may recognize that anger or disgust have important functions (in preventing being taken advantage of, or engaging in activities that may make us sick), but that you can also feel these emotions too much, or in places where they aren’t useful.

Similarly, I think a lot of stress and anxiety in modern life isn’t strictly necessary. For one, we rarely face the life-or-death consequences that require an immediate fight-or-flight response. Second, because we can intelligently design systems to render stress unnecessary.

When is Stress Useful?

My sense is that stress is useful to prompt a specific action, to a specific threat, or to promote alertness during a brief period of danger. That’s it. Any stress which doesn’t facilitate these purposes is wasted and therefore any beliefs that stress is necessary must be limited to these contexts.

So take your final exam situation I mentioned previously. Here the stress can serve two purposes. First, it can prompt you to take action against a specific threat. In this case, the answer is obvious—studying—to prevent doing poorly on your exams. Once you feel this stress, momentarily, you should take action to create a specific studying plan and implement it. Stress beyond that point is wasted since you cannot do better than that.

Second, it can keep you alert in during a period of danger. But this function isn’t relevant for exams because they are known in advance. They won’t come jumping out of the bushes to maul you to death. So being in a constant state of alertness is wasteful. Indeed, it’s probably actively harmful since chronic stress worsens learning and memory.

Or consider my personal examples of stress. Worrying about my alarm clock is wasted effort. I’ve already taken action by setting my alarm and there is no continued environment of unforeseen danger. Worrying about being wrong is also wasted effort. Once I’ve taken what actions are within my power to prevent being willfully ignorant, there’s nothing more I can do. Having any continued stress won’t reduce even a tiny bit the chances of being wrong.

So this idea—that fear, stress or anxiety should create a specific prompt to action, or promote alertness in a period of danger—means that most stress isn’t helpful. You need just enough to encourage the necessary action and no more. Since periods of persistent danger are much rarer today than in our ancestral environment, persistent stress is most likely a harmful overreaction. Like an allergy reacting aggressively to a harmless substance, you may feel persistent stress to a situation where dangers are actually minimal.

I might even go further and say that, provided you have the decisiveness to take action immediately upon perceiving a problem, virtually any stress is unnecessary. This is one reason I advocate for productivity systems that allow you to capture and process tasks, so even if you can’t deal with something immediately, you can feel confident that it will be dealt with later. Systems like these can take the place of stress.

How Does This Belief Help?

Given that, in the specific cases, stress is usually unhelpful beyond some minimal threshold to take specific actions to specific threats, then it certainly reasons that being stressed as a person is generally unhelpful to being successful in life.

This then corresponds to a more generalized belief that many people hold. Namely, if they didn’t feel stress and anxiety, they’d end up being one of those foolish, incautious people for whom entirely avoidable misery befalls.

Instead, you could replace that belief with a different one. Namely, it’s possible to be successful as an individual with almost no stress. All that’s necessary is simply to take the correct action to the specific threats, and avoid putting yourself in genuinely dangerous situations for long periods of time.

This isn’t idle theorizing, I believe there’s good evidence that this is in fact the case for many successful people. Cal did great work in these two books, explaining the mysterious combination of extremely high achievement and low stress in students. I’ve personally known examples of low-stress, high-achievement individuals. Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but the existence of low-stress, high-achievement people does put water on the theory that high stress is a prerequisite to accomplishment.

Now obviously having this belief isn’t enough. Anxieties in life can come involuntarily, and recognizing their irrationality may not be enough. But even mitigating the toxic belief structures that many of us hold which posits that frequent, persistent anxiety is useful, is an important first step.

What are your thoughts? This is an idea I’ve only recently been exploring, so I’m curious to see whether it lines up with your experience. Bonus points for anyone with good references to research that supports or contradicts my hypothesis!

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  • Burner221

    Nice post, Scott. I like your writing style here, it was clear and easy to follow.

  • Burner221

    Nice post, Scott. I like your writing style here, it was clear and easy to follow.

  • Interesting post, but you seemed to be talking a lot about personal experiences and resulting theories, rather than looking at the decades of research and many books about stress, both causation and mitigation. Is there a particular reason you haven’t looked at much external literature (or at least don’t mention much)?

  • Shrutarshi Basu

    Interesting post, but you seemed to be talking a lot about personal experiences and resulting theories, rather than looking at the decades of research and many books about stress, both causation and mitigation. Is there a particular reason you haven’t looked at much external literature (or at least don’t mention much)?

  • Janka

    You absolutely need to see this http://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend
    As usual, it’s all in the head.

  • Janka

    You absolutely need to see this http://www.ted.com/talks/kelly
    As usual, it’s all in the head.

  • Andrew Ulvestad

    Most of us have access to clean water, cheap food, and shelter. There’s really no reason to feel constant stress. In addition, a lot of outcomes we can only influence and not specifically determine. What happens if the exam happens to have a question on a topic you forgot to talk about? Art says it best: http://www.artdevanyonline.com/1/post/2012/12/all-you-need-to-know-about-zen.html

  • Andrew Ulvestad

    Most of us have access to clean water, cheap food, and shelter. There’s really no reason to feel constant stress. In addition, a lot of outcomes we can only influence and not specifically determine. What happens if the exam happens to have a question on a topic you forgot to talk about? Art says it best: http://www.artdevanyonline.com

  • Amazing post. Stress plays important role in success. Sometimes it makes us more creative or innovative and helps to improve skills and ability.
    http://www.jeffjacobsonagency.com

  • Jeff Jacobson Agency

    Amazing post. Stress plays important role in success. Sometimes it makes us more creative or innovative and helps to improve skills and ability.
    http://www.jeffjacobsonagency….

  • Scott Young

    I haven’t read that much of the research yet, beyond a bit of cognitive behavioral therapy. This post was just putting forth some tentative hypotheses, so don’t take it as an expert’s opinion. It just happened to be a question that had been on my mind lately, so I wrote about it.

  • Scott Young

    I haven’t read that much of the research yet, beyond a bit of cognitive behavioral therapy. This post was just putting forth some tentative hypotheses, so don’t take it as an expert’s opinion. It just happened to be a question that had been on my mind lately, so I wrote about it.

  • Wildcard

    A timely post for me, given my current battles with anxiety. I certainly agree with you that most of us have established a microcosm in which we’ve redefined anxiety and its triggers. Unfortunately, I think that’s also in-bred a real change in our sympathetic nervous system. I’ve been exploring mindfulness practices, which I find are helpful, but often occur after the trigger elicits an emotional response — even if I’ve reasoned that the situation is not harmful to me. You’ve definitely taken on a complex mind-body problem! I recommend reading some of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work, as he has also conducted active research in using mindfulness to alleviate stress and other ailments.

  • Wildcard

    A timely post for me, given my current battles with anxiety. I certainly agree with you that most of us have established a microcosm in which we’ve redefined anxiety and its triggers. Unfortunately, I think that’s also in-bred a real change in our sympathetic nervous system. I’ve been exploring mindfulness practices, which I find are helpful, but often occur after the trigger elicits an emotional response — even if I’ve reasoned that the situation is not harmful to me. You’ve definitely taken on a complex mind-body problem! I recommend reading some of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work, as he has also conducted active research in using mindfulness to alleviate stress and other ailments.

  • Reading this, I’m understanding your curiosity to be whether or not the stress we invent for ourselves is necessary to lead a successful life, and perhaps there is a limit to necessary stress insofar as that we only need enough stress to promote action and the excess can become harmful, or is simply unnecessary.

    Before I start discussing it, I’ll just say that I’ve done plenty of googling on the effects of stress, depression, and anxiety on the brain. I’ve read a few scholarly articles on the topic and the consensus is that long term stress damages neural connections, it can cause learning disabilities, and generally make one prone to anxiety, particularly when that stress is experienced at a younger age. There is also research to support new findings that the brain continues to develop and grow well beyond the body, to around the age of 29, so couple stress at a young age with brain development and it makes some sense. Here’s one recent-ish article to start.

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201402/chronic-stress-can-damage-brain-structure-and-connectivity

    But I don’t want to go into those aspects of how specific stresses affect the brain. First, I think it’s important to clarify the kinds of stress that you’re discussing. Is it mild self-imposed stress, or is it a little more compulsive? Is the stress based on a societal belief (or variations thereof) that “if I’m not studying, I’m not going to do well” (I’ll just be honest and say that sets of my asian culture alarm, which I know of from first hand experience). Or is the stress the intense level of depression, anxiety, or something more chronic? Maybe those ranges of stress are important to consider. I know we aren’t talking depression, but anxiety can really manifest itself in plenty of ways. It does appear that you are discussing a core belief about the validity of stress and it’s use, using stress as a tool and if you should encourage it as a tool, or if you should allow it to only enter as it naturally does in order to make choices.

    What your article really made me wonder about was motivation. Fear based versus love based motivation. There is the student who thinks “if I don’t study, I won’t do well” and then there is possibly the student who studies simply because they enjoy it and that specific worry doesn’t ever have to occur – that person is rare. Oftentimes I wonder how much of my actions are born out of fear-based motivations, which often link to a sense of anxiety towards my choices, and how I wish many of the actions were made out of love-based motivation. Love based motivation would be reading or experiencing something and passionately following along that course, being stirred as humans are, but at some point, the other desires such as competition and desire for perfection or excellence add up and lead to a sense of striving and that stress perhaps allows one to make good decisions. It probably also has to be coupled with a sense of acceptance if things don’t go as perfectly planned.

    Anyway, my thought is that stress and anxiety have their pros – anxiety specifically can teach someone their triggers, tells them what levels of quality of life they wish to maintain (even if it’s unreasonable, it still points something out to the individual), and can therefore affect some positive choices, however, allowing yourself to be consumed by those stresses without acceptance of the unpredictability of life I think would lead to a sort of chronic stress that is really unhealthy for the brain. At that point if anxiety starts to fuel your decisions, are your motivations fear based, and how do you get to a calmer path of more love-based (or interest based) motivations?

    Alan Watts has this talk called The Mind where he discusses the cyclic nature of worry and goes into discussing trying to make the mind quiet. I think the break between anxiety/stress and acceptance is where that cycle can get broken, to yield a positive effect.

    There is also another discussion by a psychology professor, Jordan Peterson, primarily about philosophy and existentialism, it’s a little… not positive at the start, but he discusses the importance of sticking to something as a way to not be adrift in your twenties, to make a choice, to “catalyze an identity” – it’s definitely a distant branch to what you’re discussing, but stress, to make such choices, stress about paths or outcomes and the long term of that has very big implications for one’s sense of identity.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=425&v=SsoVhKo4UvQ

    It’s a big question that you ask and I can only perceive the answer if many other underlying questions about a person’s motivations, beliefs, and environment are answered! Good luck!

  • scienceandcake

    Reading this, I’m understanding your curiosity to be whether or not the stress we invent for ourselves is necessary to lead a successful life, and perhaps there is a limit to necessary stress insofar as that we only need enough stress to promote action and the excess can become harmful, or is simply unnecessary.

    Before I start discussing it, I’ll just say that I’ve done plenty of googling on the effects of stress, depression, and anxiety on the brain. I’ve read a few scholarly articles on the topic and the consensus is that long term stress damages neural connections, it can cause learning disabilities, and generally make one prone to anxiety, particularly when that stress is experienced at a younger age. There is also research to support new findings that the brain continues to develop and grow well beyond the body, to around the age of 29, so couple stress at a young age with brain development and it makes some sense. Here’s one recent-ish article to start.

    https://www.psychologytoday.co

    But I don’t want to go into those aspects of how specific stresses affect the brain. First, I think it’s important to clarify the kinds of stress that you’re discussing. Is it mild self-imposed stress, or is it a little more compulsive? Is the stress based on a societal belief (or variations thereof) that “if I’m not studying, I’m not going to do well” (I’ll just be honest and say that sets of my asian culture alarm, which I know of from first hand experience). Or is the stress the intense level of depression, anxiety, or something more chronic? Maybe those ranges of stress are important to consider. I know we aren’t talking depression, but anxiety can really manifest itself in plenty of ways. It does appear that you are discussing a core belief about the validity of stress and it’s use, using stress as a tool and if you should encourage it as a tool, or if you should allow it to only enter as it naturally does in order to make choices.

    What your article really made me wonder about was motivation. Fear based versus love based motivation. There is the student who thinks “if I don’t study, I won’t do well” and then there is possibly the student who studies simply because they enjoy it and that specific worry doesn’t ever have to occur – that person is rare. Oftentimes I wonder how much of my actions are born out of fear-based motivations, which often link to a sense of anxiety towards my choices, and how I wish many of the actions were made out of love-based motivation. Love based motivation would be reading or experiencing something and passionately following along that course, being stirred as humans are, but at some point, the other desires such as competition and desire for perfection or excellence add up and lead to a sense of striving and that stress perhaps allows one to make good decisions. It probably also has to be coupled with a sense of acceptance if things don’t go as perfectly planned.

    Anyway, my thought is that stress and anxiety have their pros – anxiety specifically can teach someone their triggers, tells them what levels of quality of life they wish to maintain (even if it’s unreasonable, it still points something out to the individual), and can therefore affect some positive choices, however, allowing yourself to be consumed by those stresses without acceptance of the unpredictability of life I think would lead to a sort of chronic stress that is really unhealthy for the brain. At that point if anxiety starts to fuel your decisions, are your motivations fear based, and how do you get to a calmer path of more love-based (or interest based) motivations?

    Alan Watts has this talk called The Mind where he discusses the cyclic nature of worry and goes into discussing trying to make the mind quiet. I think the break between anxiety/stress and acceptance is where that cycle can get broken, to yield a positive effect.

    There is also another discussion by a psychology professor, Jordan Peterson, primarily about philosophy and existentialism, it’s a little… not positive at the start, but he discusses the importance of sticking to something as a way to not be adrift in your twenties, to make a choice, to “catalyze an identity” – it’s definitely a distant branch to what you’re discussing, but stress, to make such choices, stress about paths or outcomes and the long term of that has very big implications for one’s sense of identity.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?…

    It’s a big question that you ask and I can only perceive the answer if many other underlying questions about a person’s motivations, beliefs, and environment are answered! Good luck!

  • coyotespike

    Excellent post – as usual your research and comprehensive thought makes the article stand out.

    Personally, I spent a long time intrigued by the quasi-Buddhist idea of being high performance and no stress. Some stress gurus sound as though they think any stress at all is harmful. But we humans are anti-fragile systems – we need a little stress to thrive! The best sort of stress is when you choose a meaningful goal: you choose the problems you want to solve, and in the process of solving them they shape you. So choose wisely, and accept that good stress.

    I like to think of Tennyson’s Ulysses, who says, “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! As though to breathe were life!”

    Other folks have talked about “amor fati”, or the love of fate, an idea more related to eustress (good stress) than it appears at first blush. With amor fati, you try to emotionally accept that what has happened or is happening, like an exam, really is there. You accept it and move past it. You put all your emotional resources to dealing with the challenge constructively, and by taking action you alleviate some stress. Which brings us back to your article, and your thesis that we can alleviate nearly all stress by well-targeted action. It’s a challenging thesis, and one I’m happy to ponder.

  • coyotespike

    Excellent post – as usual your research and comprehensive thought makes the article stand out.

    Personally, I spent a long time intrigued by the quasi-Buddhist idea of being high performance and no stress. Some stress gurus sound as though they think any stress at all is harmful. But we humans are anti-fragile systems – we need a little stress to thrive! The best sort of stress is when you choose a meaningful goal: you choose the problems you want to solve, and in the process of solving them they shape you. So choose wisely, and accept that good stress.

    I like to think of Tennyson’s Ulysses, who says, “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! As though to breathe were life!”

    Other folks have talked about “amor fati”, or the love of fate, an idea more related to eustress (good stress) than it appears at first blush. With amor fati, you try to emotionally accept that what has happened or is happening, like an exam, really is there. You accept it and move past it. You put all your emotional resources to dealing with the challenge constructively, and by taking action you alleviate some stress. Which brings us back to your article, and your thesis that we can alleviate nearly all stress by well-targeted action. It’s a challenging thesis, and one I’m happy to ponder.

  • Gene Day

    This sounds like it would be an ideal way to look at things for someone who has complete control of their circumstances.

    Practically, I think most people are in the phase of trying to get complete control of their circumstances – namely being financially and professionally stable. I think if you get one these areas taken care (e.g. you are financially stable), then you feel secure enough to use the stress for the other demand (e.g. your professional life) as a positive force for personal development. This kind of follows a Maslow’s hierarchy type of theory. I think a lot of people are working to get both of these things areas right at the same time while taking care of other obligations, which can be extremely overwhelming.

    For most people (well, at least for me) there seems to be these temporary feelings of overwhelm where high levels of external demands and expectations cause you to be stressed – where you’re trying your absolute hardest to get to where you want to be and meet these demands. At these times, it’s hard to not feel exceeding levels of stress because the stressors are external. In this case, your only options are to push through – perhaps to the detriment of your health, abandon the activity or external stressor, or to choose different activities to help relieve the stress or make the job easier. The third option is probably the most ideal but probably is the hardest to devise cognitively, and can be risky task if you are testing new systems during a time of increased external demand. So that’s why I think most people just settle to work harder and over-stress themselves.

    Perhaps there are better solutions to take on external demands? Practical ones that can generalize to greater populations. The idea of habits seems to take a step in the right direction. It’s just a lot easier said than done to make positive habits and break bad ones while juggling a life full of external pressures.

  • Gene Day

    This sounds like it would be an ideal way to look at things for someone who has complete control of their circumstances.

    Practically, I think most people are in the phase of trying to get complete control of their circumstances – namely being financially and professionally stable. I think if you get one these areas taken care (e.g. you are financially stable), then you feel secure enough to use the stress for the other demand (e.g. your professional life) as a positive force for personal development. This kind of follows a Maslow’s hierarchy type of theory. I think a lot of people are working to get both of these things areas right at the same time while taking care of other obligations, which can be extremely overwhelming.

    For most people (well, at least for me) there seems to be these temporary feelings of overwhelm where high levels of external demands and expectations cause you to be stressed – where you’re trying your absolute hardest to get to where you want to be and meet these demands. At these times, it’s hard to not feel exceeding levels of stress because the stressors are external. In this case, your only options are to push through – perhaps to the detriment of your health, abandon the activity or external stressor, or to choose different activities to help relieve the stress or make the job easier. The third option is probably the most ideal but probably is the hardest to devise cognitively, and can be risky task if you are testing new systems during a time of increased external demand. So that’s why I think most people just settle to work harder and over-stress themselves.

    Perhaps there are better solutions to take on external demands? Practical ones that can generalize to greater populations. The idea of habits seems to take a step in the right direction. It’s just a lot easier said than done to make positive habits and break bad ones while juggling a life full of external pressures.

  • Gene Day

    Amor fati… I like that

  • Gene Day

    Amor fati… I like that

  • Robert OHara

    Having read your article is has some interesting points but seems to stop at some causes in times of real problems – death, depression, trauma etc which all cause high levels of stress.
    Also and as you mention, most stress, anxiety etc are learned processes throughout life as coping methods but with added and additional stress problems, these can push us into high levels of stress, almost like a stacking system (that falls over).
    A great attempt at the simple explanation but further input needed if continual or extreme stress but it is amazing how we all cope with these when having strength of thought and confidence in ourselves and with death related issues “time” to heal our thoughts and emotions.

  • Robert OHara

    Having read your article is has some interesting points but seems to stop at some causes in times of real problems – death, depression, trauma etc which all cause high levels of stress.
    Also and as you mention, most stress, anxiety etc are learned processes throughout life as coping methods but with added and additional stress problems, these can push us into high levels of stress, almost like a stacking system (that falls over).
    A great attempt at the simple explanation but further input needed if continual or extreme stress but it is amazing how we all cope with these when having strength of thought and confidence in ourselves and with death related issues “time” to heal our thoughts and emotions.

  • Nj

    Do check out for a guy called “Gary Weber” in YouTube, if you are really interested in putting an end to your anxiety. Or check out his blog – it’s called – “happiness beyond thought dot blogspot in”. Thanks.

  • Nj

    Do check out for a guy called “Gary Weber” in YouTube, if you are really interested in putting an end to your anxiety. Or check out his blog – it’s called – “happiness beyond thought dot blogspot in”. Thanks.

  • Tim deFuri

    I agree, strongly.

    The real problem with the idea that stress has to accompany hard work is that often creative solutions come from being relaxed.

    I find that when I’m stressed my world gets smaller and I am less able to find inventive answers to my problems.

    I’ve recently switched from a high stress job to setting my own routine. I spend a lot of time thinking about my next steps and much less time churning on small tasks.

    It’s strange, but I feel like when I was stressed 24/7 it affected my memory and made me accomplish less. Ironically the thing that stresses me about my output now is that I don’t feel strung out all the time. I literally had to start writing down all I accomplished in the day to begin accepting that I was getting more done than I ever have before… it just felt too easy.

    That being said, stressful things happen. It’s part of life. But I find that most of the time relaxing helps me find the solution. In modern work it’s rare that it’s a matter of life and death, so doesn’t it make sense to have the clearest head possible? Taking stress out of your life makes it easier to have the perspective necessary to accomplish the big things you want to do in life. Often stress is a choice.

    Maybe we could make a list of people who have accomplished incredible work on what seems like a lackadaisical schedule? If I remember correctly some of the artists in Daily Rituals:How Artists Work are surprisingly low impact.

  • Tim deFuri

    I agree, strongly.

    The real problem with the idea that stress has to accompany hard work is that often creative solutions come from being relaxed.

    I find that when I’m stressed my world gets smaller and I am less able to find inventive answers to my problems.

    I’ve recently switched from a high stress job to setting my own routine. I spend a lot of time thinking about my next steps and much less time churning on small tasks.

    It’s strange, but I feel like when I was stressed 24/7 it affected my memory and made me accomplish less. Ironically the thing that stresses me about my output now is that I don’t feel strung out all the time. I literally had to start writing down all I accomplished in the day to begin accepting that I was getting more done than I ever have before… it just felt too easy.

    That being said, stressful things happen. It’s part of life. But I find that most of the time relaxing helps me find the solution. In modern work it’s rare that it’s a matter of life and death, so doesn’t it make sense to have the clearest head possible? Taking stress out of your life makes it easier to have the perspective necessary to accomplish the big things you want to do in life. Often stress is a choice.

    Maybe we could make a list of people who have accomplished incredible work on what seems like a lackadaisical schedule? If I remember correctly some of the artists in Daily Rituals:How Artists Work are surprisingly low impact.

  • Kyle Fitzgibbons

    Here is a lengthy response to this article.

    http://ibdpeconomics.blogspot.sg/2015/09/a-response-to-how-much-stress-do-you.html

    I’ve read your blog for a long time and generally agree with much of what you say. In this case, I see problems, but appreciate the writing and thinking that you do.

    Cheers,
    Kyle

  • Kyle Fitzgibbons

    Here is a lengthy response to this article.

    http://ibdpeconomics.blogspot….

    I’ve read your blog for a long time and generally agree with much of what you say. In this case, I see problems, but appreciate the writing and thinking that you do.

    Cheers,
    Kyle

  • Ian Alvarado II

    Scott,

    This post hits close to home for me. I have my battles with anxiety and am well aware that much of it is a self-induced experience. Though, we must recognize the external stimuli in this modern/tech era, that creates the experience of stress in most unhealthy ways…

    After reading the first paragraph I immediately recall a recent article (and podcast interview) where Charlie Hoehn (writer, blogger), describes how he overcome his own battles with anxiety. You may find it interesting… http://charliehoehn.com/2013/05/19/how-i-cured-my-anxiety/.

    I think it is important to recognize that there are classifications of stress (distress, eustress, etc.) and to identify additional ways that stress can be good for you, i.e., the load of a barbell used during a bench press and the “stress” it creates on the pectoral muscles…tissues breakdown and then grow back stronger (more fibers). This kind of stress can make you stronger.

    I have these discussions on a regular basis with my girlfriend. She is in grad school and will be pursuing a career as an alternative high school counselor. Stress, anxiety, cognitive behavior, and behavioral change psychology, are the subject of many of our conversations. Perhaps, this is why your article caught my attention.

    I would agree with your hypothesis that we have the power (enough “control”) to redirect the energy that is the experience of anxiety. However, an overactive “state of emergency” in our bodies, which comes from generations of a developed “fight or flight” reactor system in human beings, and though a natural response to external stimuli that our eyes perceive as triggers, is is a most unhealthy and unbalanced way to exist. Overstimulation leads to overreaction and overreaction (in the form of a constant adrenal rush as part of the “fight or flight” response), burns up our bodies in many forms and the ill effects of anxiety manifest in many different forms. Grey hairs on young chin. Believe me, I have many.

    Recognizing the external stimuli in our environment that create anxiety, connecting them as triggers to a series of thoughts that induce an anxiety response, is an early step in the process of controlling anxiety and redirecting the experience of it. This I suppose is the cliche term for “awareness”.

    Unfortunately we live in a day and age when every experience we have as a human being in this “modern”, “tech and info driven world”, is inherently destructive to the natural state or concept of “harmony” (described in much texts of various eastern philosophies), to the way man/woman was intended to exist. Part of the first step is recognizing that we are overstimulated at every moment of the day. We are overstimulated by the digital information on this screen. We are overstimulated by the pace we drive to and from work…and on..and on.

    I know that this is a huge generalization on the ways we are overstimulated in the modern world, but I wanted to keep this post relatively short.

    The power to redirect the energy of anxiety comes in recognizing that external stimuli, when outside of our own choice to be exposed to, induces a natural, innate, response in the brain to release the “Fight or flight” hormones into the bloodstream. These stress response hormones floating in the bloodstream and not be able to react in the form of physical movement such as; fleeing, fighting, etc., destroys the mind, the body, and spirit.

    I hope this makes sense. Consider the following example if you will; a working professionals response to the “Urgent” emails he/she finds in her inbox. The response, a sense of need to address immediately. This is a stressor, an external stimuli that induces the experience of anxiety. So, we attack the email. We solve the problem. And we did it with clicks on a keyboard. A brief moment of fulfillment (and a blood stream pumping some adrenaline), is quickly deprived of us…20 more “urgent” messages still left to attack, with no real release of all the adrenaline in the body…

    I know that I have oversimplified much of these ideas and concepts, but I hope you can follow the connections between the ideas.

    One last closing thought…

    Sit under a tree and listen to the river run, even if just for a few minutes today. This I would greatly recommend. : )

    Thanks for the great writing you share Scott. Much appreciated!

    Respectfully,

    -Ian

  • Ian Alvarado II

    Scott,

    This post hits close to home for me. I have my battles with anxiety and am well aware that much of it is a self-induced experience. Though, we must recognize the external stimuli in this modern/tech era, that creates the experience of stress in most unhealthy ways…

    After reading the first paragraph I immediately recall a recent article (and podcast interview) where Charlie Hoehn (writer, blogger), describes how he overcome his own battles with anxiety. You may find it interesting… http://charliehoehn.com/2013/0….

    I think it is important to recognize that there are classifications of stress (distress, eustress, etc.) and to identify additional ways that stress can be good for you, i.e., the load of a barbell used during a bench press and the “stress” it creates on the pectoral muscles…tissues breakdown and then grow back stronger (more fibers). This kind of stress can make you stronger.

    I have these discussions on a regular basis with my girlfriend. She is in grad school and will be pursuing a career as an alternative high school counselor. Stress, anxiety, cognitive behavior, and behavioral change psychology, are the subject of many of our conversations. Perhaps, this is why your article caught my attention.

    I would agree with your hypothesis that we have the power (enough “control”) to redirect the energy that is the experience of anxiety. However, an overactive “state of emergency” in our bodies, which comes from generations of a developed “fight or flight” reactor system in human beings, and though a natural response to external stimuli that our eyes perceive as triggers, is is a most unhealthy and unbalanced way to exist. Overstimulation leads to overreaction and overreaction (in the form of a constant adrenal rush as part of the “fight or flight” response), burns up our bodies in many forms and the ill effects of anxiety manifest in many different forms. Grey hairs on young chin. Believe me, I have many.

    Recognizing the external stimuli in our environment that create anxiety, connecting them as triggers to a series of thoughts that induce an anxiety response, is an early step in the process of controlling anxiety and redirecting the experience of it. This I suppose is the cliche term for “awareness”.

    Unfortunately we live in a day and age when every experience we have as a human being in this “modern”, “tech and info driven world”, is inherently destructive to the natural state or concept of “harmony” (described in much texts of various eastern philosophies), to the way man/woman was intended to exist. Part of the first step is recognizing that we are overstimulated at every moment of the day. We are overstimulated by the digital information on this screen. We are overstimulated by the pace we drive to and from work…and on..and on.

    I know that this is a huge generalization on the ways we are overstimulated in the modern world, but I wanted to keep this post relatively short.

    The power to redirect the energy of anxiety comes in recognizing that external stimuli, when outside of our own choice to be exposed to, induces a natural, innate, response in the brain to release the “Fight or flight” hormones into the bloodstream. These stress response hormones floating in the bloodstream and not be able to react in the form of physical movement such as; fleeing, fighting, etc., destroys the mind, the body, and spirit.

    I hope this makes sense. Consider the following example if you will; a working professionals response to the “Urgent” emails he/she finds in her inbox. The response, a sense of need to address immediately. This is a stressor, an external stimuli that induces the experience of anxiety. So, we attack the email. We solve the problem. And we did it with clicks on a keyboard. A brief moment of fulfillment (and a blood stream pumping some adrenaline), is quickly deprived of us…20 more “urgent” messages still left to attack, with no real release of all the adrenaline in the body…

    I know that I have oversimplified much of these ideas and concepts, but I hope you can follow the connections between the ideas.

    One last closing thought…

    Sit under a tree and listen to the river run, even if just for a few minutes today. This I would greatly recommend. : )

    Thanks for the great writing you share Scott. Much appreciated!

    Respectfully,

    -Ian

  • Loren Dunlop

    Funnily enough I had a thought along similar lines recently. I had a constant feeling of anxiety although I had something very positive to look forward too. I wonder as adults do we confuse feelings excitement with anzxiety and sub consciously blur the lines there, so often when we are approaching a challenge with exciting implications if met with success, we ‘accidentally’ sometimes slip into an anxiety rut, perhaps without even realising, and assessing.

    Children are very good at getting excited about things, whereas when we age we seem to be more ‘grown up’ about things and maybe getting excited is rarer and rarer, and too often muddled up with anxiety. We forget how to be excited and only stress about things, even things with super high probabilities of being really positive experiences.

    I try to be as self aware as I can remember to be, taking moments now and again to take a deep breath and slow things down. I don;t suffer from cronic stress or anything, don;t think I have too much to worry about – but in saying that, while reading this article and thinking about stress, I feel that I am feeling a little stressed! amazing how our minds work. One thing is certain, stress is a very powerful influence on our physical as well as mental well-being, short to long term, and I don’t think people even realise how much feelings of stress have permeated into their daily lives. I catch myself sometimes even out walking the dog, slightly shallow breathing, anxious feeling. I have nothing to worry about though. My mind has a very bad habit of just drifting to things, sometimes even scenarios that haven’t or won’t be realised, but I play them out in my mind and get anxious. It cannot be good. We’re all too ‘switched on’ I think. I’m going for a free open meditation session in Belfast on saturday, in the ho;e I learn how to carve out more moments of true calm for myself.

    good luck guys

    L

  • Loren Dunlop

    Funnily enough I had a thought along similar lines recently. I had a constant feeling of anxiety although I had something very positive to look forward too. I wonder as adults do we confuse feelings excitement with anzxiety and sub consciously blur the lines there, so often when we are approaching a challenge with exciting implications if met with success, we ‘accidentally’ sometimes slip into an anxiety rut, perhaps without even realising, and assessing.

    Children are very good at getting excited about things, whereas when we age we seem to be more ‘grown up’ about things and maybe getting excited is rarer and rarer, and too often muddled up with anxiety. We forget how to be excited and only stress about things, even things with super high probabilities of being really positive experiences.

    I try to be as self aware as I can remember to be, taking moments now and again to take a deep breath and slow things down. I don;t suffer from cronic stress or anything, don;t think I have too much to worry about – but in saying that, while reading this article and thinking about stress, I feel that I am feeling a little stressed! amazing how our minds work. One thing is certain, stress is a very powerful influence on our physical as well as mental well-being, short to long term, and I don’t think people even realise how much feelings of stress have permeated into their daily lives. I catch myself sometimes even out walking the dog, slightly shallow breathing, anxious feeling. I have nothing to worry about though. My mind has a very bad habit of just drifting to things, sometimes even scenarios that haven’t or won’t be realised, but I play them out in my mind and get anxious. It cannot be good. We’re all too ‘switched on’ I think. I’m going for a free open meditation session in Belfast on saturday, in the ho;e I learn how to carve out more moments of true calm for myself.

    good luck guys

    L

  • Json

    I agree that anxiety is a signal that alerts you to some threat and that one should take action to avoid the threat. In most circumstances this reduces the anxiety but as you said in your example of the alarm clock, it doesn’t always work because we don’t take the right action. In cases where it doesn’t work, it helps to approach the problem from an evolutionary angle to understand why we have anxiety so that we can take the right action to reduce it.

    To sum up years of evolutionary psychology, we experience anxiety (an emotion) for two reasons:

    -we perceive some threat to our body
    -we perceive some threat to our status/reputation among our tribe/community/friends/family

    Both of which can be grouped under a perceived threat to our survival. So using your example of experiencing anxiety before a flight the next day and not being able to sleep, your approach was to remind yourself that you won’t oversleep because you have an alarm clock. I think this is the wrong action because the source of anxiety is a much deeper than the fear of missing the flight. I think it’s something like:

    if I oversleep and miss my flight:
    -I’m going to look foolish to some person
    -I’m not going to able to do x, which will result in me not doing y, which will result in rejection/disapproval

    Whatever reason you have, it will always result in some lowering of your status and/or possible physical threat, which your mind will alert you to via the emotion anxiety.

    The antidote to this is a solution favoured by stoics: examine, in detail, the worst case scenario and detail, exactly, how you’ll overcome it or be OK. By going through this, you’re assuring yourself that you’ll be physically OK and that even if your status/reputation is lowered, you’ll have a way to recover it and still be OK. You must be completely honest in your detailing, trying to BS your way through it won’t reduce the anxiety. If this is done right, you should experience a sense of relief and feel comfortable acting.
    This goes right to the root of the anxiety and diminishes its power.

  • Json

    I agree that anxiety is a signal that alerts you to some threat and that one should take action to avoid the threat. In most circumstances this reduces the anxiety but as you said in your example of the alarm clock, it doesn’t always work because we don’t take the right action. In cases where it doesn’t work, it helps to approach the problem from an evolutionary angle to understand why we have anxiety so that we can take the right action to reduce it.

    To sum up years of evolutionary psychology, we experience anxiety (an emotion) for two reasons:

    -we perceive some threat to our body
    -we perceive some threat to our status/reputation among our tribe/community/friends/family

    Both of which can be grouped under a perceived threat to our survival. So using your example of experiencing anxiety before a flight the next day and not being able to sleep, your approach was to remind yourself that you won’t oversleep because you have an alarm clock. I think this is the wrong action because the source of anxiety is a much deeper than the fear of missing the flight. I think it’s something like:

    if I oversleep and miss my flight:
    -I’m going to look foolish to some person
    -I’m not going to able to do x, which will result in me not doing y, which will result in rejection/disapproval

    Whatever reason you have, it will always result in some lowering of your status and/or possible physical threat, which your mind will alert you to via the emotion anxiety.

    The antidote to this is a solution favoured by stoics: examine, in detail, the worst case scenario and detail, exactly, how you’ll overcome it or be OK. By going through this, you’re assuring yourself that you’ll be physically OK and that even if your status/reputation is lowered, you’ll have a way to recover it and still be OK. You must be completely honest in your detailing, trying to BS your way through it won’t reduce the anxiety. If this is done right, you should experience a sense of relief and feel comfortable acting.
    This goes right to the root of the anxiety and diminishes its power.

  • Scott Young

    You’re correct, I’m using the terms somewhat sloppily. I should have narrowed my usage of terminology to focus on anxiety/fear instead of stress. I’m using them as synonyms here, but of course stress has broader meanings as well.

  • Scott Young

    You’re correct, I’m using the terms somewhat sloppily. I should have narrowed my usage of terminology to focus on anxiety/fear instead of stress. I’m using them as synonyms here, but of course stress has broader meanings as well.

  • Mitchell Smith

    What about the stress and performance graph? (Yerkes-Dodson Law)

  • Mitchell Smith

    What about the stress and performance graph? (Yerkes-Dodson Law)

  • Rolan Dave C. Gulimlim

    Stress can either be positive/healthy (eustress) or negative/unhealthy (distress). Positive stress helps you cope and can make you grow, while negative stress doesn’t help you cope and can be detrimental. The ultimate difference lies in the belief of the individual. Flexible beliefs create positive stress, while absolute beliefs create negative stress. Anxiety and anger are examples of negative stress, since they stem from absolute (perhaps irrational) beliefs and does not help the individual cope rationally. I learned this all from Albert Ellis, the second most influential psychotherapist in history (Carl Rogers is first while Sigmund Freud is third). His book “How to stubbornly refuse to make yourself miserable about anything, yes anything!” is an excellent resource.

  • Rolan Dave C. Gulimlim

    Stress can either be positive/healthy (eustress) or negative/unhealthy (distress). Positive stress helps you cope and can make you grow, while negative stress doesn’t help you cope and can be detrimental. The ultimate difference lies in the belief of the individual. Flexible beliefs create positive stress, while absolute beliefs create negative stress. Anxiety and anger are examples of negative stress, since they stem from absolute (perhaps irrational) beliefs and does not help the individual cope rationally. I learned this all from Albert Ellis, the second most influential psychotherapist in history (Carl Rogers is first while Sigmund Freud is third). His book “How to stubbornly refuse to make yourself miserable about anything, yes anything!” is an excellent resource.

  • Andrew

    Most people suffer from some kind of anxiety or stress regarding their personal and professional lives. But if you stress too much then it would be better to do meditation, it will help you stay calm.

    On the other hand, if you are worrying about your business then, you should consider getting an advanced sales automation software which would take care of all your worries.

  • Andrew

    Most people suffer from some kind of anxiety or stress regarding their personal and professional lives. But if you stress too much then it would be better to do meditation, it will help you stay calm.

    On the other hand, if you are worrying about your business then, you should consider getting an advanced sales automation software which would take care of all your worries.

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