One of the most interesting aspects of stress is how we as a society interpret stress. After reading through the scientific community’s models of stress, it struck me how logical and practical it all sounded. Each part of stress fits neatly into its little box, with explanations for the hormonal changes in our bodies, and how our body is constantly attempting to bring us back to homeostasis with these internal changes.
However, when you’re a graduate student, or any professional really -perhaps aside from a stress researcher- no one is thinking about stress this way. Instead, we all seem to have a tiny devil that sits on our shoulder yelling at us that we don’t have time to relax because we have seven deadlines, thirteen errands, and a laundry basket filled with dirty clothes that all need to be addressed and completed by Friday. Having lived my entire life in the Northeast, all of these tasks are just that- life. The hustle and bustle are part of what comes with the territory of creating a successful life, and one that builds what my parents liked to call ‘character’. In most circles that I’ve been a part of, being stressed is actually a positive thing. It indicates that I’m working hard, and staying focused on the tasks at hand. I have been thanked for sending an email response within five minutes when I was strung out on coffee and had been awake for 20 hours, but have been criticized for not responding for 24 hours when I took a long weekend vacation (when I was getting my full 8-10 hours of sleep, thank you very much). A supervisor once told me, “You’re smiling too much, you must need more work.” And this is where things get confusing. Being chipper at work might mean that I have enough time to think about other things in life aside from work and that I don’t have my game face on. What if I was a grouch at work? Well, that would be no good either. My stress and emotions are often not allowed to match as a matter of how society sees them fitting together, and given the context of what it means to be a professional.
Then, there is the other side of the coin. It seems that the self-care movement and the idea of work-life balance is everywhere. The idea is that yes, you have to put on a face for work for the sake of professionalism, but then on your own time, you should do the things that make you happy. It sounds easy, right? Just find the things that make you happy and do them- until you consider additional responsibilities. You should exercise too even if you don’t think that makes you happy. You should probably make sure that you make time to clean your home too, and definitely make sure that you’re cooking at home or else you’re not healthy. You should probably volunteer too, to make sure you’re a good person and then maybe pick up a hobby, so you’re interesting. Of course, these are all societal expectations and no one needs to do all of these things, but there are a significant amount of responsibilities that will cut into the ‘life’ portion of the work-life balance equation. Most weekdays, you’ll probably run out of time in the day to find time to do something that helps you to be free of negative stress unless you strictly plan for it or, more unrealistically, don’t experience stress at your job.
Experienced stress unfortunately does not fit into the nice little boxes that scientific explanations of stress do. Experienced stress feels abstract and often out of our own grasp. It’s hard to know when your body is rising to help you meet a challenge, and when it’s holding you back from an opportunity that would be best for you. With our perceptions and negativity toward stress as a society, thinking of stress in a more concrete way might actually make the topic more tangible and help us to understand it has a positive side too.