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By Thomas Baekdal - June 2013

Let's Talk About Stress for a Moment

In the past five years, more and more people are suffering from stress. And because of all the changes in the world of media, I know a lot of people within this industry who are well into the danger zone. It's either because the company they are working for isn't doing so well financially (which puts their job at risk), or worse when their very existence is in jeopardy (for instance when we hear about news algorithms that can create newspapers automatically).

It's the same with brands. Many brands are based on being the middlemen, or worse depends on middlemen to sell their average products to average people. And if you happen to be a print graphic designer, the new world of social doesn't need a staff of graphic designers to create elaborate full page ads. And when you look at the trends, the future of your existence might look sketchy.

All of this results in massive levels of stress. And while the medical society don't fully understand it yet, we are learning so many interesting things about it.

For instance, today we know that stress happens as a result of many things. We used to think it was just external factors like pressure from your boss. Or internal ones like not matching your own ambitions. But we are now also realizing that, as people, we have different stress level build into to our very DNA. And it's not that some people are more prone to stress that others. People simply react to stress in different ways, and we have different individual levels for different things.

For instance, we learn that introvertism and extrovertism is not just a state of mind. There are physical differences in our bodies that partly determines if we are one or the other. And, introverts become stressed when they forced into extrovert situations, while extroverts become stressed when forced to be introverts.

More important is the cure for stress... or rather the lack thereof. Many people believe that stress is something you need to cure. But what we are learning today is that stress is not a disease.

Think of it like this. If you have been working for 36 hours in a row, you would be pretty tired. That's a perfectly natural signal for your body to send. And as a result, you go to bed and get a good long sleep.

Being tired after a long day of work is not a disease. You don't cure being tired by taking pills, or willing yourself to stay up longer because that's your ambition. You go to bed, because you know that keeping that balance is good for you.

Stress is exactly the same thing. It's a signal that your body sends, telling you that your are putting too much strain on your resources. The difference is that stress is often the result of an overtaxation of your synapsis in your brain, rather than pressure on the muscles in your body (although often it's actually caused by both).

You don't cure stress, because, like sleep, there is no cure for it (at least not a healthy one). You can take pills that can keep you awake for 48 hours. Just as you can take pills that force your body to ignore your stress. But that's not a solution. In fact, you are probably just making things worse for yourself.

Another way to think of stress is with a glass of water. Go into your kitchen and get a glass of water, then hold it up in your hand.

You can do this just fine, and you can even smile while you do it. It just a glass a water.

But, after five minutes, this glass starts feel heavier and heavier, and your body starts to tell you to put it down. Your body is feeling the stress if the weight of the water.

And that's the key to understanding stress. Stress is not the result of the level of activity. It's the result of the sustained mass of energy of what you do.

Now imagine that your boss told you that if you put the glass down, you would lose your job. What would happen?

Well, strangely enough, now it becomes even harder to hold up that glass of water, and you will fail faster. Why? Simply because you are expending energy not just on holding up the glass of water, but also in worrying about the future.

As a result, the sustained mass of energy has doubled, and you fail faster.

And it's not just mentally. When you are forcing your body to use more energy than it can normally sustain, your body starts to inject chemicals into your bloodstream (adrenaline and cortisol). These chemicals allow you to use up more energy than you have, at the expense of the long term health of your body.

Your body can sustain this for a short period of time without damage. But after a longer period of time, your survival instinct kicks in, telling you to return to normal energy levels. If you don't, you brain interprets this unbalance as 'stress'.

It's that simple. There is nothing mysterious about stress. It's a very simple chemical reaction to using up more energy than your body has available.

You might say, "But that second part is just 'thinking', which can't possibly use up that much energy?"

But it can. Think back to the last time you were working on a big project, either creating a project plan, writing a report about your product strategy, or just spending a lot of time working on a complicated story.

After three or four hours, you feel drained. You feel physically tired. Why? Because your brain is using up a ton of energy in firing its synapsis.

Back in 2000, Daniel Drubach wrote in "The Brain Explained" that under normal day-to-day operations, our brain spend 20% of all the energy in your body. Meaning that people who think a lot at work (as we all do in the world of media) actually use up a lot of energy just in thinking.

And if, on top of that, you have to worry about your job, your life, how to support your family, and your own ambitions, you very quickly reach the point where the energy used is unsustainable over longer periods of time - i.e. you feel stressed.

That's what stress is. It's exhaustion of sustained energy. And the keyword here is *sustained*.

Everyone can run up the stairs, but you can't keep doing it all day. Everyone can think about a problem, but you can't keep up worrying about your future 24/7. It's not the level energy that you spend that is the problem. It's for how long you try to sustain it that causes stress.

This leads us back to what I started with. If you think stress is a (mental) disease and something you have to cure, you are going to end up in a really bad place.

Stress is not something you cure because stress is not the problem. Stress is merely a signal that your brain sends you when it feels that you energy levels have reached an unsustainable level.

You can't cure that.

If you want to get rid of stress you have to get rid of the cause of stress itself. Or in other words, you have to expend less energy, and focus the remaining energy into something more meaningful.

Over time you can potentially increase your overall energy levels, and, as a result be, less prone to stress in the first place. But to do that you need to focus on putting your body into a state of balance.

Eating well, sleeping well, and being generally healthy is a good first step to that.

I know", you say, "that's why I should just exercise more!

NO! Don't do that. That's not the right thing to do.

Remember, stress is the result of using too much energy. Exercising uses even more energy ... so can you see where this is going?

If you are stressed out, exercising is really bad for you. If you are already over the top, forcing your body to go even further is not the solution. Don't, ever, exercise when you are stressed. Exercise when you are NOT stressed.

I know many people who say that, after a stressful day, they love to go to the gym to unwind. And yes, for a short period of time, you distract your brain from all the things it is worrying about, and the exercise makes you feel better physically.

But from a point of stress you actually make it worse. So over time, you end up feeling more and more stressed, until the day when you can't 'fix it' by going to the gym.

It's important to note that exercise is generally very healthy (obviously), but it's not the cure for stress. Exercise can help you *before* you find yourself in a state of stress. But it will damage you if you do it *in* a state of stress.

The point is to look at the different stages of stress. Take a look at the graph below.

We can all agree that being relaxed or just normally busy is good for you (especially if you also feel motivated in what you do). That's what keeps you active.

The problem is once we start to move into the overworked and mildly stressed stages. This is when you reach the point like with the glass of water. We can feel overworked for a short period of time, but since we are actually spending more energy than what we can sustain, we have to limit our exposure to short bursts of energy rather than prolonged periods of work.

The fascinating thing is that we are learning that ultra-short energy bursts can be good for us. For instance, in exercise circles people are now talking about HIT, or High-Intensity-Training. It's when you exercise really hard in very short bursts of time.


We learn that this type of exercise is more beneficial for our general state of health than, for instance, spending 30 minutes running on a treadmill.

The same goes for stress. Ultra-short exposure to stress can be good for you, but the keyword is 'ultra-short'.

We are not talking about that months of stress is good for you, or even weeks or days. We are talking about an hour, at the most. Followed by the rest of the day, where you are in a non-stressed situation.

So if you feeling stressed out at work (long term exposure), and your boss tells you that he just read an article that 'stress can be good for you', tell him to read the real study instead of some clueless blog post on a business site.

Remember, it's not the level of stress that is the problem, it's the mass of it. Occasional exposure in the ultra-short term is fine. It might even make you faster. However, long-term exposure (which is most people are suggering from) is really bad for you. And if you induce yourself to short-term hyper-stress while you are suffering from long term stress, you start to cause serious harm to your body.

The problem with long term stress, especially if you have convinced yourself it's a mental disease, and if you trying to will yourself to ignore it, is that it will eventually take over your body and your health starts to deteriorate.

And the fascinating thing is that the human body is extremely intelligent. For instance, if you burn your hand while cooking, the pain receptors tell you that it hurts, but at the same time your brain learns not to do that again.

Your brain physically alters its perception of reality to protect you in the future. And again, you can endure excruciating pain in the ultra-short term, but not in the long term.

Stress works the same way. If you don't do anything about your stress, you body starts to become damaged. That sends a signal to your brain that what you are doing is dangerous, and you brain rewrites itself to stop you from doing it again in the future.

But if you keep on doing it, your brain makes that feeling stronger. In essence, it rewrites itself to tell you that you should be afraid of stress.

This is what we call 'Anxiety Induced Stress'. The problem today is that many in the medical society think of this as a mental illness, and give people medication to suppress it. But it's not a mental condition at all.

Let me give you an example: Are you afraid of putting your hand in boiling hot oil on a pan? Yes, of course you are. Because when you were a kid, your hand got burned, so you learned to be afraid of it.

Is that a mental illness? No, of course not. Putting your hand into burning hot oil is dangerous, so you should be afraid of it.

Okay, so exposing yourself to conditions that cause you long term stress, is that dangerous for you? Yes, it is. So, should you be afraid of it?

Yes, of course you should.

Getting to the point where you are afraid of stress is not a mental illness, nor is it a disease. It's simply a completely natural reaction in your body. Your body is being damaged by stress, so it tries to make you stop by making you afraid of that damage.

It's really that simple.

But, if you still don't do anything about your situation, your anxiety induced stress elevates into a regular phobia.

Just like some people are afraid of heights, have claustrophobia, or have a fear of spiders, you can have stress-o-phobia. In other words, you are afraid of situations or environments that you know to cause stress.

Is that a mental illness? No, not really. It's an irrational condition, but not a mental one.

Think of people who are afraid of heights. The reason why they are afraid is that, at some point in their past, something happened that caused them to be afraid of high places. They might have been hurt when playing in a tree, when suddenly a branch broke, and they fell down and hurt themselves. They might have seen one of their friends fall from somewhere, or maybe it was induced by a scary movie on TV.

We don't know.

But we do know that this fear is very real, and that it is caused because by your brain reacting to a real danger by making you feel afraid of it (which is a perfectly natural response).

As we grew older, this fear turned into a phobia. Instead challenging it, we kept enforcing it in our brains. What people forget is that it was never about the height to begin with. What they fear is the impact with the ground if they fall.

As an adult we know this, so this very real fear turns into an irrational condition. You are afraid of something that isn't dangerous in itself.

It's the same with stress. Stress is dangerous, but remember that stress itself is just a signal that your body sends to your brain that you are using up too much energy. What you are actually afraid of is using up so much energy that it damages your body. Once you know this, you also know that if you keep yourself within your limits, then there is nothing to be afraid of.

Of course, with all kinds of fear. You can't just 'not be afraid'. That's not how it works.

Fear is a physical condition, just like cutting your finger is a physical condition. When you are afraid of something, it is simply because synapses in your brain has been arranged in such a way that this experience is linked with the emotion of fear.

If you want to stop having anxiety induced stress, you have to first realign these synapses that make you afraid. You have to train your brain to reorganize itself ... physically. As in real physical elements inside your brain being placed in a different way.

And that takes a long time.

When people are afraid of heights, the first thing you do is to help them understand the rationale behind the fear. You have to understand that it's not actually because of the heights that you are afraid, but rather the part about hitting the ground if you fall.

Understanding that helps a lot, but it's not enough. Your brain's synapses will still make your afraid because that's how the physical connections are.

You then have to condition your brain, so that it learns that high places are not dangerous if you are just careful. You do that by giving people a safe environment (a place where falling wouldn't hurt you), and then you give people a step ladder.

You tell them to walk up the steps, and If they start to feel afraid they should take one step down again. And slowly over time, their brain learns that there is nothing dangerous about it, causing their brain to rewrite the relevant synapsis, and away goes their fear.

After a longer time doing these exercises, they will finally find themselves at ease, and they can visit the Eiffel Tower in Paris and just have a great time.

The same is true for anxiety induced stress. First, you need to understand that stress is merely a signal your body sends you when you are using up too much energy. You learn that it is not damaging to you in itself, unless you are doing over longer periods of time.

Then you put yourself into a safe environment. I.e. an environment where you are not expending too much energy. What that environment is depends on whom you are as a person. If you are an introvert, that place is probably somewhere where you can be alone. If you are an extrovert, it's probably with friends.

The important thing is to be true to yourself.

But this is where it gets tricky and what most people do wrong. If you are afraid of heights, you don't cure that by falling and hurting yourself. You cure that by going higher and higher, in a way that makes you feel safe, without falling.

Same with anxiety induced stress. You don't cure fear of stress by gradually making you more and more stressed until you can't take it no more. That would be stupid.

You fix it by going back to the basics. The point is not to find your limit. The point is to find the point of balance. The point where you feel that the energy that you spend is at an optimal level.

Think of it like sleep. If you are feeling tired, the point is not to test yourself to stay awake longer and longer. The point is to figure out what is the optimal level of sleep for you, at what times, and for how long.

The same with anxiety induced stress. It's not about challenging yourself to your maximum stress level. It's about challenging yourself to find more and more places where you are in balance.

None of this is easy. In fact, it's seriously hard.

But remember, stress is not a disease. It's not something you cure so that you can go back to the way it was. Stress is merely a signal telling your body that you are using too much energy, for too long.

Stress is a terrible thing to live with. If you are stressed about external factors, like your boss making unreasonable demands on you while the company you work for seems to be heading over the cliff, you probably need to find a new job.

If your stress is internal, as in being frustrated about the future, or because of failure to meet your own ambitions, you probably need to find someone to talk to about it. Someone who can help you see things differently (and someone who understands that stress is not a disease and should just be cured with medication).

Find your balance! Not just in how you sleep, how you exercise, or how you eat. Stress is about finding the balance of how you live. It's about how you think, and how you focus on what you want to do.

And remember, the future is a wonderful place.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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