Let’s stop romanticising stress

Nobody brags about the panic attack they had the night before

A friend of mine recently showed me an article that appeared a few years ago in the New York Times about our society’s – and more particularly, 21st century American society’s – obsession with being busy. The article talked about the constant need to be busy in order to add worth and purpose to our lives; about the fact that being continuously occupied has become something to brag, rather than complain, about.

The article made me think about stress, a concept which often goes hand in hand with busyness. I began to consider what the phrase “I’m so stressed”  – which has become something customary in our day-to-day vocabulary – has truly come to mean for us.


So why do we so readily announce our stress to the world on a regular basis? The truth is, stress, much like being busy, has become something to boast about. We are increasingly moving away from the perception of stress as an emotional or mental condition, instead regarding it as a symbol of achievement. It becomes our proof for leading a busy life; a life with significance and value. How can our lives possibly be hollow and meaningless if we are “so stressed” as a result of having to juggle a never-ending array of tasks and commitments that keep us constantly occupied?

Stress has been romanticized to the point that it has almost become a perfect state towards which we aspire: if we are not stressed, we feel guilty as we believe ourselves to not be occupied or working hard enough. However, if this stress becomes overwhelming to the point of more serious mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, we become embarrassed and uncomfortable, often finding ourselves unable to discuss these issues. Because in spite of our willingness to publicly broadcast our stress, there continues to be a stigma attached to the topic of mental health in our society. In March earlier this year, the Guardian revealed that one in five university students consider themselves to have a mental health problem, a figure surprisingly high considering how little this issue is discussed. While we openly announce how “stressed out” we are, nobody brags about the panic attack they had the night before, or the fact they have started skipping meals. Stress is seen as a trend; mental health problems are seen as taboo.

This continual strive towards an occupied and demanding life is demonstrated in the way we voluntarily impose pressure upon ourselves. We do not allow ourselves to be idle even when prescribed to do so. Our holidays are used as an opportunity to augment this image of productiveness: we look for volunteer work abroad, internships, holiday jobs, au-pair work… all to learn new skills, enhance those we already have, and ultimately, to improve our employability. And for what? To find a well-paid, successful job, in which we will most likely be stressed. We are caught in the vicious, never-ending cycle of stress-seeking; we have well and truly become stress addicts.

I am not saying that complete idleness and indolence is the way forward. I fully agree that an inactive, lethargic life can lead to a state of apathy where one can feel discouraged and hopeless. However, often, we work and occupy ourselves to the point of being stressed in order to disguise and avoid other difficulties in our lives. After break-ups and bereavement we are told to “keep ourselves busy” – a piece of advice which is evidence of our society’s perception of busyness and pressure as something positive and almost therapeutic. While maintaining a busy schedule can distract and divert us from the pain that such situations can bring, we must realise that a demanding life of self-inflicted stress is not something we should strive for. We too often misinterpret such advice, failing to recognise that keeping ourselves busy does not necessarily imply occupying ourselves with work commitments; sometimes, keeping ourselves busy can simply mean spending time with friends and family, or taking time out of our day to do the things we enjoy.

Above all, we must understand that being busy is not a mode of living, just like stress is not a fashion or part of our image. We must recognise when enough is enough, benefit from the company of those around us, and ultimately, dedicate time to ourselves. And it’s okay if that just means sitting on the couch with a tub of ice-cream watching friends.