How Stress Can Shape a Life Story

spiral shapes

The psychologist Richard O’Connor believes that we tell ourselves stories about our lives to control stress. Stress has a way of becoming a chronic condition. It wears down your body and damages your brain, especially when combined with depression.

Yet stress is a killer we often crave like a drug. We create stories that help us make sense of an unbalanced life.

Stories of Challenge

In my work, I often felt I wasn’t doing much if I weren’t insanely “busy,” meaning stressed out completely. As much as I swore to cut back and lead a more balanced life, I could never do that for long.

Unless I felt the edge of stress, I thought I was drifting and had little motivation. I didn’t think of it as stress. It was the excitement of challenge.

Like a lot of us, the people I considered the heroes of our culture and workplace could handle more stress than anyone. They could take the heat, drive themselves ceaselessly and thrive on the challenge of super-achievement.

Take this story that made the front page of the local paper where I used to live. An attorney was driving to work on a snowy day and saw a car ahead of him slide off the freeway, hit a rock, and crash-land on its side. He stopped, rushed to the scene, pried open a jammed door and pulled out the dazed driver.

Just then another car plowed into them and sent the lawyer flying into a ditch. He got up, brushed off the snow, stayed with everyone until help arrived, then drove to work where he had a great day in a high-stakes case. Wow, what a guy! The super-achiever who jumps into the challenge and feeds on the energy of each wild situation without a moment’s rest.

There’s an important story-line here. It’s the heroic control of stress. It becomes a challenge, a test of strength and endurance. It’s a story that hides the biological damage under praise and success.

Stories of Loss

The rest of us tell humbler stories about living with stress. We try to control it through schedules and medication, lists of priorities and days of relaxation. The tools usually don’t work because the world won’t let up its constant pressure to do more.

Stress is one of the connectors between the social world and our intensely private experience of depression. I’ve read a lot about the effects of broad social and cultural changes on our inner lives, but most of that is far too general to relate to what I feel right now in my little corner of the world.

OK, we’ve lost the old bonds of community and extended family, we’re on our own in a storm of information. We face the confusion of choice, confusion over identity, rootlessness – all that may be true. But it’s the immediacy of stress that helped me make the connection, not with big social changes, but with more immediate crises.

Stress hits us through tension and the fear that we can’t handle the most threatening problems. There isn’t enough money to pay debts. I could lose my job any day. We could lose our home to the bank because we can’t make mortgage payments. I’m sick – or my partner or my children are sick – and the health costs are staggering.

The fear of loss is always there – more and more loss until disaster hits or until we settle into a pattern of living in a diminished way. We’re trapped in a world of pressures that have pushed us down. Trying to get up is a constant struggle.

That’s the way the social dimension has combined with biology and my inner life. The constant stress has deepened depression.

Spiraling Down, Spiraling Up

The story I tell myself in depression is that all these dimensions of my life have proven too much for me. I’m not good enough to handle them. I’ve never been good enough. I’m stressed all the more by memories of failure – threats I’ve run from, challenges I couldn’t meet, self-destructive actions.

The person I am, I’m certain, continues to lose control to the pressures of living.

But when I’m not depressed, everything looks different. I feel I can live the story of victory over challenges. Stress is a stimulant, one I need to stay motivated, to live at the top of my game. I’m even afraid that if I lose the tension and excitement of constantly pushing myself, I’ll start to drift into emptiness again.

There’s always an imbalance, tipping me into a spiral. One spiral takes me deeper into depression until it spins itself out. From the bottom of the whirling storm, I start to spiral upward on the other side.

In both modes, the stress is a powerful force: stress from the world and stress from inside.

Awareness of the Story

These days I feel as close to balance between the spirals of excitement and depression as I’ve ever been. I believe I have a better chance now to sustain this balance because I’ve worked at learning skills to keep me going.

I think we all have the capacity to observe ourselves in action. Usually, I used the ability to detach from experience enough to tell myself the story of how I’m living.

That’s the basic tool. Today it’s known as mindfulness – the ability to see your life as your living it and accept its changing flow without being controlled by it. Then we have to work with that awareness to retell our stories.

I know everyone doesn’t live this way, but does it make sense as one explanation? It rings true for me. How about you?

11 Responses to “How Stress Can Shape a Life Story”

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  1. it rings very true for me too
    i think i need to learn when i can cope and when i can’t. not always right. i pushed myself a little too far last week and ended up int he dumps for the last few days 🙁
    a long process, i suppose?

    Noch Noch

  2. Patty Taylor says:

    Hi John. I really enjoy your blog. I’ve never heard anyone say this before, but this is exactly the way I’ve lived almost my entire life: “In my work, I often felt I wasn’t doing much if I weren’t insanely ‘busy,’ meaning stressed out completely. As much as I swore to cut back and lead a more balanced life, I could never do that for long.”

    At 42, it finally got the best of me and I just couldn’t keep driving myself into major depression anymore. Life was hard enough wihtout me doing things that obviously aggravated my tendency for anxiety and depression. I knew there had to be a better way, and the urgency to find it became intense since I was watching my then-two-year-old have to deal with a mommy who couldn’t be at her best. I became VERY motivated.

    It took help from a very good therapist and a major re-working of my work-life to make what seems like a permanent improvement in my way of dealing with stress. Sometimes my self-esteem still suffers becaues I don’t ever feel like I’m doing “enough,” but for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m managing the stress instead of the stress managing me. My story is published here in my new blog on living with depression: http://www.beyondantidepressants.com/2012/01/i-changed-my-work-and-changed-my-life.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Patty –

      I’ve read your excellent post on changing your worklife, and your solution was very like mine. Ultimately, part-time didn’t work since the depression was making it impossible even to stay in the same profession. I was able to retire and eventually cut all ties with my former work. The lifting of stress was a godsend, and I felt completely renewed. That step enabled me to complete a recovery process I’d been in for years. I’ve written a post about my experience and a couple of more general ones about how to deal with stress on the job, if you’re interested.

      Thanks for your comment – and do keep going with your blog. It will be helpful to a lot of people

      John

  3. Neil | Butterfield says:

    Managing stress can be one of the toughest things to do. It is important to master stress. Learn to use it in a positive way.

    • Nithuigim says:

      “And Jesus was a sailor
      when he walked upon the water
      and he spent a long time watching
      from his lonely wooden tower
      and when he knew for certain
      only drowning men could see him
      he said All men will be sailors then
      until the sea shall free them …”

      Leonard Cohen

      You’re right; it’s good to be positive; managing is good, if and when we can manage it. But “mastering” stress? That’s like the men who say they “conquer” mountains. “The sea of Samsara,” the” Sea of Stress” will never be mastered, conquered or managed. At best you can learn to navigate it with relative confidence, and learn how to hope hard, and pray harder. At least that’s been my experience. Maybe I’m doing it all wrong – but I don’t think so.

      • John Folk-Williams says:

        Hi, Nithuigim –

        Thanks for that beautiful Leonard Cohen lyric. Stress comes from such a deep-rooted reaction to threat that it’s hard, if not impossible, to shut down the fight or flight response. I think, though, we can get more control over the psychological threats that we manufacture and that trigger the stress response. At least, that’s one area I’ve been working on. I agree that mastery as a goal would lead only to frustration – and probably intensify the stress.

        John

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Neil –

      I wouldn’t say I’ve learn how to master stress so much as to rlimit the havoc it plays in my life. My primary breakthrough with stress was more a confession that I couldn’t handle the level I was living with in a high-pressure job. Getting out of that helped me to heal in many ways. Stress reduction techniques are intended to help you manage the impact of stress as you’re dealing with it, mostly through mindfulness, awareness and achieving an inner detachment from it. That’s about as close to mastery as I’ve come.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      John

  4. Nithuigim says:

    Here’s a story. Stress is the sea, the wind, and the waves. I am a small boat (as the prayer goes, “oh Lord, the sea is so great and my boat is so small”). The velocity of the wind and the height of the waves changes, day by day, sometimes minute by minute. Sometimes the days are sunny, the water smooth, and the winds light and constant — but not often. My depression is like a suit of armor I can’t take off and yet the sheets and halyards must be minded and the helm skillfully attended to avoid the constant danger of broaching and capsizing.

    Increased stress translates for me into lessened ability to ride out depression AND increased vulnerability to deal with the storm. As the storm continues, depression and vulnerability increase until they reach continuous terror. Paralysis ensues and if the Sun comes out again it’s a mystery to me how I got there.

    Stress is always there because the world moves and stress is the mental weather as the wind is the physical weather A depressive is a seasick sailor. If you’ve ever had bad enough seasickness you’ll recognized the close, close parallel to depression. You feel like your going to die; you feel like you want to die: and all along you rue the fact that you probably can’t die.

    After decades of depression and therapy, I’ve about given up on having deep insights into the nature of depression. Every now and again I think I have one but it later turns out seeming meaningless. So, again, there’s just me and the sea.

    I don’t know if that matrix can ever change fundamentally. I might become a bit more clever or a bit tougher at being this special kind of sailor, but just a bit. Nothing essential, mind you, just things like — don’t barf into the wind, carry a bucket with you on watch, keep your shoes on in your rack (because if you get out of bed the deck will be covered with God-only-knows-what.

    Maybe it’s different for temporary depression, but for chronic clinical depression it seems like “Men Against the Sea.” And then you remember, the sea is always there – and never loses.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Nithuigim –

      You have a great gift for metaphor and imagery, but there’s always a danger of getting stuck there in a struggle against the sea. I assumed for years (out of the 50 or so I lived with recurring depression) that the condition was a permanent part of my make-up. It might recede into the background for a while but was likely to take over before too long. It was one of the few constants in my life. That made everything understandable – my life made a perverse kind of sense. But it turned out not to be true – finally! I’m lucky to have lived into my sixties and get way beyond depression for whatever number of years I’ve got left.

      You can never tell. Keep trying.

      John

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