Maintaining Optimum Stress Level

stress free zone

Credit: flickr / thornypup

At Ignite Waterloo a guy gave a talk about “Why All My Ex-Girlfriends Are Crazy”. Of course, I was dying to know why.

The reason? They were women who having achieved at university and then started their career had got to a point in their lives where they no longer had the same level of stress professionally, so were creating it in other areas of their lives. Really, what the talk was about was that we all have a level of stress that we like to operate at and we seek out new stress if we are at a level that is too low.

This resonated with me, to the point that when I went to the chiropractor the following week and they asked what my stress level was I said,

High. And that’s how I like it.

Cue two people looking at me in absolute horror!

However, it’s completely true! Knowing this, I can be more aware of where I am creating stress and try and do so productively – i.e create stress in ways that does not negatively affect others (e.g. not by arguing with my significant other, but by taking on some new challenge instead).

Because of this search for stress, I’m always looking for the next challenge, the next thing. When things seem too good (by which I mean, quiet, post-achievement) I worry that everything will come crashing down. Maybe that’s why I focus on what’s next, rather than what is.

Sacha wrote a lovely post after our conversation last week about feeling like you’re living in a Greek tragedy – that things are too good and everything is going to fall apart. She is an inspiration because she thinks that things can just get awesomer and awesomer. She’s is a genuinely happy person.

I am not. At the moment I am – optimistic, productive, energized – about what I’m doing.

I wouldn’t describe myself as happy. I have happy moments, but I don’t know if I want to be happy in general. In fact, I worry that would kill my drive. Recently I wrote about how I’d prioritized an interesting over a happy life, and I still do. I think I fear an awesome life, because I worry that I would become complacent. Content. I’d stop jittering from task to task, inspiration to inspiration, and just be.

Oh the horror.

I realize that this may sound ridiculous. But I regularly have conversations with people where they say, “Cate, you do so much” and I look at them in blank bewilderment because compared to what I want to be achieving, what I think I should be doing. What I do barely registers. Because I’m always pushing forward to the next new exciting thing, the next challenge I rarely stop and take stock of what I’ve actually done.

So I fear being happy because I fear being in this moment rather than chasing the next moment.

Yes, OK, bizarre – but it seems to be what works for me.

Optimistic. Productive. Energized. Sounds about optimal.

See also: Sacha’s perspective on whether you can be driven and happy

6 Thoughts

  1. krusk says:

    I'm always shocked at how similar we are when I read your blog!

    I can totally relate. I love to be stressed, actually more accurately I'd say I NEED to be stressed. That's how I get more done and pretty much how I gain a real sense of accomplishment… it's like an illness but actually I love it.

    My biggest challenge has been losing that thing to work towards. I mean being in school is always about working towards something, and then when you're out in the workforce with a few years behind you, it's like “K…. Now what?!”

    And my head is all over the place. One day I'm like “I'll go back to school!” and even when that crosses my mind it's always for something completely different than what I do, i.e. economics, or computer science… even though I do actually love what I do now. I feel a little lost without an answer to: “What's next?” Time to drum up some new goals I suppose.

  2. kittenthebad says:

    Yes! You get it! :-)

    I totally think you should go back to school for compsci. But if not, I'm thinking about a half marathon. Complete insanity since I CANNOT run but… what do you reckon?

  3. […] admitted that I seek out a high level of stress, it’s timely that I have, once again, gone way past the level of stress that I like to […]

  4. Sacha Chua says:

    If you're under stress, but it's the good kind of stress of stretching and growth and playing outside your comfort zone, and you're dealing with it in a healthy way, then you're fine – and there's a happiness in that too, the happiness of stretching and making it.

    Unhealthy stress would be more like: ackpth!overwhelmed!implode

    Think of it like the thrill of competition or challenge. There's a big difference between stepping up to a challenge and feeling yourself rise to the occasion, versus knowing life is going to wallop you hard. 😉

    That said: Many people think they need stress to be productive, but don't actually. Probably got it from cramming sessions in college, without the contrary experience that if you do actually take the time to plan things out and work on things at a sustainable pace, you not only enjoy more but you also do better work.

    Sustainable stress. That's it. Not too much. =)

    Also, particularly for software development: overtime can be harmful. At some point, you hit negative productivity: you put in more bugs than you take out. Get good at listening to yourself so you know when you're reaching that point. Development requires creativity, and it's hard to be creative or to solve problems when you're cranky. 😉 Find a sustainable pace, or get good at accelerating and resting.

    Possibly interesting reads: http://www.caffeinatedcoder.com/the-case-agains… , http://www.basilv.com/psd/blog/2006/overtime-co… , and various blog posts / research papers I won't dig up at the moment =)

  5. douglasgresham says:

    Work-wise, I view stress like I view alcohol – http://xkcd.com/323/ – of course the one influences the other, it's a delicate balance :)

  6. Anonymous says:

    Dig, you’re dreadful! Great comic though :-)

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