Imagine a heavy barbell you've managed to bench-press up off your chest. Your arms are extended, but the weight remains at arm's length, exerting pressure. Now that you've been holding it up for a while, it's starting to quiver, you're beginning to sweat, and there's no one around to spot you. It's that hopeless feeling you may think of as stress: that you're running out of strength and energy, and eventually the weight is going to crush you.
Been there? There now?
As a clinical psychologist at the UCLA school of medicine for the past two decades, I've treated hundreds of men who feel the weight of jobs, families, and financial responsibilities bearing down on them. And I've helped most of them relieve the pressure by convincing them of one thing: Stress doesn't exist.
That's right. You heard me correctly. Stress will one day take its place in medical history as a disease we couldn't cure because it didn't exist. The idea of stress was first floated by Dr. Hans Selye in 1936. (Rather strange that no one noticed this "disease" before then.) Since its "discovery," we have cured polio and made progress with almost every cancer, yet by all accounts, stress remains in epidemic proportions. Those who suffer from it usually report one or more of the following symptoms: rapid heart rate, neck tension, lower-back pain, dry mouth, headache, loss of interest in sex, overeating, stomach distress, frequent urination, diarrhea, crying, insomnia, fatigue, sweating, and rapid breathing.
But these are not symptoms of that phantom disease, stress. Rather, they are symptoms of an emotion that's far more primitive. An emotion that originates in a pea-size part of the brain called the amygdala. An emotion that causes our hearts to beat faster, our muscles to tense, our mouths to dry, and our digestive systems to shut down (is this sounding familiar?) as we prepare to either fight or flee. It is the age-old emotion of fear.
When highly successful men describe the challenges of life, they seldom use the word "stress." Instead they speak like this:
"When you are running an institution, you are always scared at first. You are afraid you'll break it. People don't think about leaders this way, but it's true. Everyone who is running something goes home at night and wrestles with the same fear. Am I going to be the one who blows this place up?" --Jack Welch, former CEO, General Electric
". . . being scared to death was a condition of life in submarine warfare in the South Pacific. Being afraid is okay, if you are afraid with dignity. To a greater or lesser extent, fear is a part of the challenge." --Pat Riley, NBA coach
"Going on stage is part catharsis for me, but it is always trying to work out my own fears." --Robin Williams, comedian/actor
React Like a 3-Year-Old
Why do these successful guys use the word "fear" rather than "stress" when describing the same emotional responses we all share? Being scared is the language of children, but they're not afraid to use it. This isn't immaturity or weakness; it's honesty.
Children never say they're "anxious about the bogeyman" or "stressed about thunder." Rather, they recognize they can't control the world, and they acknowledge the resulting anxiety for what it is: fear. To learn how to handle fear better, they engage it by watching scary movies or dressing as monsters on Halloween. Rather than push the emotion out of their minds as adults often do, they learn to understand and, ultimately, handle it without being enslaved by the thing that scares them.
Successful men realize that the bigger the challenge, the more fear shows up. Like children, they accept fear as the price of being alive. Other men see fear as a disease or a sign of failure that's to be avoided at all costs. They don't think about it, talk about it, or even admit to having it. As a result, they end up depressed, angry, or fatigued, or become abusers of food, alcohol, or other people. Even worse, they may avoid pursuing their dreams just to avoid the essential emotion--fear--that they've labeled an enemy and are misinterpreting as stress.
In order to escape the symptoms of fear, you must admit to being scared. The more you desire in life, the more fear arises as the body's way of preparing itself for action. It's not a sign of weakness, but a signal of success and a call for courage. Assume that whenever you're upset or unhappy, there is fear underneath. There are only two basic fears: One is that you're not worthwhile or good enough to get the job, the woman, whatever; and the other is that you're going to lose control, such as in health or financial concerns. I'd wager that these fears underlie what many people think of as stress.
Turn Off the Alarm
But there's another facet to this. The fight-or-flight alarm system we all carry was designed to sound, create a response, and then shut down. When a deer is scared, it runs. When a lion is frightened, it attacks. But when a man is afraid, he obsesses about it and complains that he's stressed. He leaves his alarm system on, clanging. And the consequences can be deadly.
The healthy human response is, again, to do what children do. Reach to others for support. Men who do so live longer, have lower cholesterol, are more likely to endure crises without becoming ill, are more effective leaders, and have a greater chance of finding (and keeping) romance. Successful men have friends they can lean on in time of need.
Do you see the logic? The symptoms you're feeling are normal, healthful signals from a body faced with a life challenge (positive or negative). Our masculine culture values stoicism and independence, but what your body really craves is to draw strength from others.
So the next time you're feeling stressed, do two things: Identify your fear, and find people who can help you deal with it. You need emotional spotters, my friend.
Doing these two simple things will allow you to safely lower that quivering barbell and then push it back up many more times. You'll gain strength against the only enemy worth fighting: your fear.