Imagine if we removed the word “stress” from our vocabulary

March 17th, 2021
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Last month we hosted 17 worldwide dinners on the topic of STRESS & BURNOUT. From Zurich to Belize, Singapore to Rome women gathered to share and listen to each other’s stories.

Across our (virtual) tables, we realized that this little word encompasses so many powerful and often challenging feelings like pain and anxiety. Yet, culturally we are bypassing those emotions when we lump them all under the word “stress.” No wonder so many of us have a hard time managing it — how can we address it when the name itself yields to so many explanations?

The last year brought a lot of uncertainty, disconnection and fear into our lives. It’s time that we create a new narrative about what stress really means so we can find more nourishing and regenerative ways to relate to it — both individually and as a society.

Here are our key takeaways…

What is stress anyway?

Stress has become such a “buzz” word, but what does it really mean? Many of us talk about feeling “stressed” yet there are often a lot of deep emotions that lie under our stress: from panic to anxiety, fear to worry. These emotions live on a spectrum, but when we say we are “stressed”, we avoid looking at what’s really underneath.

For many of us it can feel easier and perhaps safer to talk about “stress”– it’s a vague word that’s often associated with “busyness” and “power.” This is how “productive” people feel!

But what if instead of saying “I’m stressed”, we said “I’m feeling anxious” or “I’m afraid”? Imagine removing the word stress from our vocabulary… How would we express the way we feel? How would we talk about it as a society? It’s harder to avoid dealing with anxiety or fear once we name it.

On an individual level, this may require that we embrace more courage and vulnerability. On a collective level, this requires that we interrogate our obsession with productivity and achievement and at the same time destigmatize the conversation about mental health.

Stressors vs Stress

“Stress” are the feelings that arise from the external “stressors.” We identified 3 key “stressor” areas:

  1. Childhood experiences — Some of us grew up in unsafe countries, where we feared from an early age that we could be robbed or kidnaped. Some of us grew up in homes where we experienced abuse and neglect. Some of us grew up in societies that discriminated against us. We carry these “ingrained stressors” in our bodies and nervous systems. Exploring and processing our past with the support from experts, can help us heal ourselves.

  2. Little, daily stressors — Being stuck in traffic when running late for school drop off, trying to finish all the things on the “to do list”, saying “yes” to too many things… These stressors can bring worry, anxiety or resentment. Daily grounding practices can help us cope with these stressors.

  3. Major, life disruptive stressors — Sickness, divorce or separation, moving countries… These stressors are powerful and can bring a lot of intense emotions all at once. How can we embrace an internal process of transformation so we can meet our new reality with more openness?

Women Stressors

Across all of our dinners, there were multiple stories about the specific stressors that women experience, their severity is influenced by our intersections–age, race, sexual orientation, body shape, culture we live in, etc.

  • Relationship to body: Gaining or losing too much weight, aging, etc. can generate a lot of ongoing “stress” (worry, embarrassment, guilt). While the beauty narratives are being challenged, culturally we still value and celebrate certain kinds of beauty.

  • Hormones: Women often don’t pay attention to their hormones until they have to I.e: we have issues with our reproductive health, burnout or adrenal fatigue. Cortisol, known as the “stress hormone” affects women differently than men, and plays a big part in our ever fluctuating hormonal health.

  • Emotional labor: The often invisible work that many women are expected to do — at home and at work. We are often the caretakers and organizers. This can be fueled by expectations and perfectionism, leading to resentment and burnout.

  • Motherhood Journey: Trying to get pregnant and not getting pregnant, not wanting to have children yet feeling pressured to have them, miscarriages, abortions, breastfeeding, etc. For single mothers this is particularly challenging. How can we create systems that support the whole journey?

  • Safety and Security: We are hyper vigilant, constantly looking behind our backs when traveling alone or walking by ourselves at night.

  • Women at work: From pregnancy (when to share the news, how to hide morning sickness) to motherhood (how to balance both roles) to leadership (how to be taken seriously in a boardroom full of men), etc.

  • Women + Finances: Particularly for women who have children and feel we have taken a step back in our career. This is also a huge stressor for single mothers and those of us with less economic advantages.

Systemic Burnout: A culture of Productivity

As we spoke across different cultures and countries, it was clear that much of our “stress” is directly impacted by our external environments. Ranging from health services to education institutions, these systems often contribute to our overwhelm as opposed to alleviating it, and are largely influenced by the political, quick-win and financially motivated climates we live in.

We feel this as individuals working in organizations. We often feel like we can’t keep up and feel empty and misaligned when the vision and values we are striving for often don’t fit with our own. Covid has compounded these feelings. We spoke about being on a never ending hamster wheel that was fueling someone else’s dreams, and how a financial and identity crisis from losing income, has given way to both the fear and freedom of doing things differently.

Is it possible to challenge the status quo and “embrace our own rhythm” as opposed to trying to play catch up with the high and often unrealistic expectations from the “hustling capitalist mindset” that surrounds us?

Across our dinners, many of us acknowledged and questioned the big part our conditioning; Why do I spend so much longer making my presentation “perfect” for my male colleagues? Why do I feel the need, as the only woman in the meeting, to make tea and take notes? Why do I always say “yes” when I mean “no”?

For a long time “burnout” has felt like a problem for the individual; we’ve been made to feel like our coping mechanisms aren’t strong enough, or we need to do more training in resilience, and create stronger personal boundaries. But really? How realistic are boundaries right now? A quote that generated a lot of conversation in one dinner was that

Adding ‘self-care’ to an already burdened workload isn’t a panacea for burnout. In some cases, it may in fact be a recipe for a higher mental load” (NYTimes)

Similarly, some of us talked about practicing self-care in a way that defeats the purpose; Skimping on sleep to do yoga, to not impact the schedules of those around us; Meditating to aid focus for our busy day ahead; Adding expensive powders to our smoothies everyday because we don’t have time for proper lunch-breaks. Memo to the world — we are missing the point.

Antidote: How can we create a healthier relationship to stress?

What we are feeling (distress) on a day to day basis in our lives and workplaces is in-fact a normal reaction to challenging situations. There is relief in removing this dangerous “blame” on the individual, and recognizing that problems are often systemic and won’t disappear unless structural issues are addressed. Complex and long haul- we know.

In the meantime, here are some things that can help:

  • Naming it — Connect with, and create vocabulary for what you are really feeling, where are you feeling it? Naming and localizing these real feelings can dissolve the power the word ‘stress’ has over us.

  • Define what self-care is to you in the context of stress and burnout. What are your non-negotiable needs? Create your own self-care toolkit when you are feeling up to it (that will help when you are not in a good space).

  • Give yourself permission to reclaim your energy and time. Starting small with things that already exist — Rituals around bedtime or getting up for example.

  • Play! Whatever is realistic in the spaces you have. Laughter and humor, charades, lego, painting, creating, dancing in kitchens.

  • Love! Be inspired by Sonya Renee Taylor’s Radical Self Love approach to dismantling oppressive systems — “whatever it is that we create in place of these systems, and when we change ourselves, that that foundation has to be built on love. And that if it isn’t built on love, we’ll only end up replicating the systems that we already have”

  • Look to nature more… Feet in mud, sand, shores. Breathing in trees. Grounding.

  • Breathing. More deeply, more often. Properly.

NUANCES

Women and Recession

There’s an overall sadness that so many women have had to leave the workforce (over 3 mill in the US!) And that Covid-19 has shone a light on parental burnout and unequal systems.

Men and stress

We hosted one co-ed dinner and one thing that came up was the notion of “one-upmanship”; a silent competition that exists amongst men which pressures them to constantly prove they are better or know better, instead of surrendering to their limitations.

EXPERIMENT

  • Try to stop saying the word “stress”. What other words would you use to describe how you are feeling? What are all the different emotions that lie underneath your stress?

  • Reflect… At what pace do you want to move in life? At what pace can you honor your internal rhythms instead of trying to match the pace created by culture?

  • Learn from different cultures — For example: Fika (“a coffee and cake break”) is a Swedish ritual that represents a state of mind, an attitude towards prioritizing time with friends, family and colleagues; And Pura Vida (“pure or simple life”) a Costa Rican cultural mindset that represents a “relaxed” and “positive” attitude towards life.

Written by Alana in Lisbon, Veronica in Miami, Julie in Rome and Roxanne in Edinburgh, with contributions from Dinner Confidential hosts Vanina and Mariasu in Buenos Aires, Uditi in Stockholm, Alessandra in Zurich, Esther in Caracas, Marie-Laure in Paris, Alexandra in Amsterdam, Rosalind in Antigua, Laura in Perth, and Veronica in Belize.

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