Is Stress the Latest Status Symbol?
Pop culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s made it seem so simple: A powerful woman wore a power suit and turned the art of elocution into a full-on sprint. There were certain signals ingrained into our collective consciousness that let us know: I’m a bad bitch. But over the decades, as we’ve come to increasingly reject the binary of what a powerful woman is and isn’t, the signifiers have become more subtle. And one of the most ubiquitous things to emerge as the new shorthand for power and importance? A simple phrase: I’m so stressed. When we fling around those words, the underlying message is that we’re kind of a big deal. So many things are making their demands on our time! And let’s just keep it real for a minute: we’ve all succumbed to it; we all say we’re stressed, like, a lot.
Working insane hours. I’m so stressed. Double booking brunch with friends. Who knew brunch could be stressful? Squeezing in a Tinder date. OK, that one is legit stressful. Fighting the good fight for important causes (extra power points if that means sitting on a board). So stressed. Cancelling said brunch dates—because deadlines! Now feeling guilty and stressed. Skimping on sleep. Additional stress! Rolling in late to spin class, booking summer travel plans, fielding constant group texts, prepping to host out-of-town friends. I’m so stressed. Wash, rinse, repeat.
And yet all those wonder women out there running on fumes appear to be killing it (according to their Instagram feed, at least). And we all seem to have made some silent pact not to acknowledge that the constant pressure of the hustle sort of blows. We all want it, but we all know it’s unsustainable. And that’s messed up.
Part of it can be blamed on our good old American culture, says Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Mill Valley, CA who specializes in mindfulness and is the author of The Stress-Proof Brain. When you’re stressed because of work, it’s a sign to others that you must be really important, she says. If you aren’t overwhelmed with presentations and an iCal full of meetings then you must not be in demand. (And just like that, we’re back in high school, where being sought after is the ultimate show of power. Shudder.) There’s no gray area—you’re either being a complete badass or you’re melting into your couch. Society rewards people who are always checking something off a list and getting shit done, Greenberg adds. And that workaholic mindset has spilled into our personal lives, too—we’re constantly spinning between dates, drinks, dinners.
On top of that, there’s a reason we sort of want to be stressed and would gladly beg for another hit—it can feel good in a way that’s strangely intoxicating and addictive. Under certain circumstances, stress can cause our bodies to release a buzzy surge of dopamine, a reward chemical that can leave us feeling euphoric and alive, Greenberg says.
So okay, we get it: Stress is the modern girl’s gateway to power. But hear us out for a second—stress blows. When your body is constantly fueled by cortisol, the stress hormone, it messes with your physical health, mental stamina, and overall wellness. Research links stress with chronic headaches, constant exhaustion, serious heart problems, anxiety, depression, and even “stress skin,” where your face loses its glow and tone. Not a good look, inside or out.
Which isn’t to say that because you’re guilty of overdoing it, you’re suddenly obligated to spend every weekend in your pajamas binge watching Netflix (although if that’s your thing, get after it, girl). It doesn’t necessarily mean you should set up an auto-reply of "Give it to Tom" any time your boss emails you with an extra work assignment. But the next time you feel the need to immediately say yes to something that isn’t truly making you happy, we also shouldn’t be be afraid to say no. Because being in charge of your happiness and well being? That’s the ultimate power play.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you or someone you know is in need of mental health assistance, visit this site or this site for access to resources. The National Suicide Prevention Lifelineis 1-800-273-8255.