It was 7am in the morning and I was pulled over on the side of the road, weeping into my lap, having my third nervous breakdown that week. A guy had just cut me off and I couldn’t deal with it. My partner beside me patted me like you would a whimpering dog.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I’m just… so… tired…” I got out between breaths.
I hadn’t slept properly in months. Two to three hours a night — if that. And light sleep too. Not the heavy, restorative stuff.
The hazards blinked as the cabin fell silent. I could smell BO coming from my armpits. I could feel myself trembling. The weight of the world pushed down on my shoulders.
“I’ve got so much to do today,” I said. “And so much to do tomorrow, and next week, and next month…” I began to twist into anguish once more, like a towel wringing out tears. “I just can’t do it…”
“It will be okay,” my partner said consolingly.
I glanced up at the clock. 7:10. Time was getting away from us.
I hit the wheel in anger. “We better get on with it then,” I said as I pulled back out on to the road.
How had I gotten into such a state? The answer, I believe, is something that could help us all in our stressful modern world.
We’re all familiar with stress. We feel it when we’re running late or trying to find a toilet at Disneyland. It can strike when we’re on a tight deadline at work, writing a last-minute essay at school, or placating a screaming baby at home. But it also occurs in less everyday theatres — like in the midst of a life-threatening accident, in the aftermath of a violent event, and notoriously, during war.
Clinically, stress is a distinct psychophysiological state — the body behaves differently when it’s in stressful situations. Hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released into the bloodstream, constricting your vessels and increasing your blood pressure. Subsequently your heart rate increases, your response to pain dulls, and your brain kicks into fight or flight mode — surveying a scene for danger and risk, and reacting to it in a knee-jerk way, by either running away from it, or challenging it directly. For the most part, stress is a healthy response to urgent situations — an evolutionary adaption to, say, a lion on the Savannah or a man with a knife. And generally, once the danger (or ‘stressor’) is gone, the body’s function returns to normal.
But there’s a second kind of stress — more subtle and subconscious, and far more hazardous to our long-term physical and mental health. It’s called chronic stress.
Like the name suggests, chronic stress is what happens to our bodies and brains when we’re in a physiological state of stress for a prolonged period of time. Like food poisoning or alcohol poisoning, think of it as ‘adrenaline poisoning’ — it’s the cumulative effect of a thousand little semi-stresses everyday, day-in and day-out for months on end; the unfortunate side-effect of a misplaced stress response system in a world not populated with lions on the Savannah, but with work emails at 10pm. And the effects of chronic stress are not pretty. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, chronic stress can cause disruptions to your immune, digestive, cardiovascular, and reproductive systems (source). Sleeplessness and sleep disturbances are also common. You become short-tempered and snappy, more irritable and argumentative, which frays at your interpersonal relationships. What’s more, chronic stress is often the precursor to other mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, which causes more sleep issues and more stress — and so the cycle continues.
Looking back at it, in the car that morning, I was displaying all the telltale signs of chronic stress. But, and this is the weird part, I hadn’t felt stressed for any of the months leading up to it. In fact, I felt on top of the world.
I’ve always been quite bad with productivity. That changed when I left my full-time job and leapt into freelance work. Suddenly I had to manage my own timeline, often multiple clients at once. And so slowly, I stumbled upon a magic formula for productivity that really worked for me (and may for you too).
It started with the iPhone ‘Notes’ app. In it, I’d jot down a to-do list for the day, and put a little ‘x’ next to things as I ticked them off.
Soon, I’d jot down things I had to do a few days in advance, so instead of a day planner, it become a rolling week planner. I pinned it to the top of my Notes.
Over time, I started putting in other, non-work-related things into the list — things like exercising, meditating, running, swimming, and pieces of life admin like doing my tax or ringing a friend. Passion projects made their way in too as I’d write down small, actionable ways to advance them a little bit each day.
The system was working perfectly. I was progressing in my career, taking on bigger and bigger projects, and managing them well. I was in the best physical shape of my life. And I was happy. I’d wake up with a rush of energy, excited to see what the day ahead had in stall. I’d get a kick of endorphins whenever I’d knock something off the list. And whenever I thought of something to do next, I’d write it down in my week planner, knowing it would get done. I was laser-focused.
I continued this way for a year and a half, until, ahead of a particularly full-on work period, I started having trouble sleeping. I’d wake up, ready for the day, but at 2am instead of 6am and unable to go back to sleep. After two weeks of poor sleep, I went to the doctor. She prescribed me Circadin, a prolonged-release melatonin capsule.
It worked for a few nights. But soon, one tablet wasn’t enough for a good night’s sleep. So I upped the dose to two. Then three.
Meanwhile, I started arguing with my partner who had just started a new, and quite stressful, job. She would come home highly-strung and, like anyone would, unload the burdens of her day onto her supportive partner — but rather than being supportive, I’d snap back, pick holes and focus on stupid things to get into arguments. It trickled into work too, where I’d be short-tempered, overly anxious and annoyingly aloof to my colleagues.
My partner very wisely suggested I see a psychologist.
When you start to see a psychologist, often you are given a questionnaire to fill out which asks you how frequently in the past two weeks you felt things like the following — downhearted and blue, heart racing without reason, a lack of concentration, the feeling that you have no future, and so on. Each answer, and the degree to which you agree, generates a score along three axes — Depression, Anxiety and Stress (DAS). Your DAS score serves as a numerical baseline for psychologists to come back to and map progress.
“I’m very glad you came in tonight,” the psychologist said, looking up from my answers. “Your DAS score is off the charts. You are severely stressed, anxious, and moderately depressed. How are you feeling?” he asked inquisitively.
“I don’t feel like I’m stressed. I mean, I’m more irritable than usual… but…” I replied, genuinely bewildered by such a high score.
“Stress has a way of creeping up on us. Tell me, if you were to imagine your body filling up with stress from the bottom of your feet, up to the top of your head, where do you feel your level of stress would be right now?”
I felt a pit in my stomach, so pointed there.
My psychologist explained, “Often when we have such a high baseline of stress, it takes a very small stressful thing on top of that to make us feel overwhelmed. And that makes us irritable and lash out at people.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed I’ve been lashing out at people…”
What followed was a conversation, the first of many weekly conversations, in which I learned a great deal about my stress, anxiety and depression. I learned that everyone has a slightly different stress threshold than everyone else, determined largely by their genetics. That my personal history suggested one particularly prone to the triple act of DAS. I learnt about the distinction between situational and chronic stress. That if a situation is not just sensorily but cognitively overwhelming, it can stress us out and have severe side-effects. I learned how dire, and surprisingly common, my situation was. And I was given ways to keep a handle on it.
One of these ways, paradoxically, was to be found in the iPhone ‘Notes’ app, right next to my week planner. I began a daily mood diary, to jot down how I felt and why I felt like that, slowly identifying my stressors.
Mood diaries work as a way to look at your situation more objectively. They also serve as a handy retrospective, for you to look back at and identify patterns. Simply start with how you’re feeling, be that good or bad, then scour your brain for the potential reasons you are feeling that way. This kind of forced and formalised introspection is an activity of mindfulness, weighing up the contents of your mind, so naturally it pairs well with meditation (though this isn’t necessary). You can either do it with the help of an app, or like I did, free-form in a book or on your phone.
What dawned on me over several weeks of mood diaries, was that my routine was causing me large amounts of stress — and that my daily obsession with my own productivity, was really just a formalised kind of panic. That rush of morning energy I had was actually, more likely, a surge of stress-induced adrenaline. My constantly thinking of things to do and quickly jotting them down, was actually my mind scanning the Savannah and jumping at lions. All this time I was ‘laser-focused’, I was actually secretly stressed.
I didn’t notice it because of how we’re trained to think about stress and success in today’s modern world. We feel good when we tick an item off a to-do list, or clear all our phone notifications, or answer a late night email. We become addicted to productivity, and in the process, mistake our symptoms for signs of success — advancement of ourselves, not the advancement of our addiction. And admitting that we’re stressed makes us feel as though we’re failures.
In her book Overcoming Overwhelm (a great read on this topic), Dr. Samantha Brody explains, “There are likely to be many things that you aren’t yet conscious of or don’t yet understand that are causing you stress — physically, mentally, or emotionally. These are the real drivers of overwhelm, and learning what they are and how to unload them is the path to getting your life back.”
It took me many months of therapy, a self-administered break from all work, and even medicine, to get my life back. The path was not smooth, pockmarked with relapse, advice unheeded, and a situation that got much worse before it got better. And the effects of chronic stress, or ‘adrenaline poisoning’, still rear their head from time to time in the form of sleeping issues.
Thankfully though, I have a much better grasp on it.
My story is not atypical — in a world where the increasing norm is to work at all hours of the day, it poses a question: When you think about it honestly, are you addicted to being productive? Is that healthy? Are you coping? And, if not, what effect is it having on you?
It might be more than you realise.
It’s 9pm as I leave the psychologist’s office. My partner is waiting in the car.
“How do you feel?” she asks.
“Good,” I say proudly. “I feel good.”
We drive off into the night.