I want to talk about something that many of us quietly and often secretly face, and is much more common than we even realize. It is something that I encounter quite often in conversations with many of my highly successful clients, yet no-one on the outside would know it was there. It is something that can impact our entire lives and our day-to-day functioning but we may be too proud to talk about and address it until it becomes so debilitating that we are forced to.
I’m talking about chronic job stress and anxiety.
Anxiety that is a result of stress is a normal part of the human condition. Our bodies are wired to detect and respond to danger—releasing stress hormones to allow us to flee from predators quickly or confront a hazardous situation.
In our fast-paced, high-pressured jobs, the anxiety producing stressors we face are not these dire life or death situations. However, the perceived consequences of failure on-the-job to high-achievers can create the same chronic fight-or-flight responses in our bodies. It puts our bodies in the same stress hormone flooded state of constant perceived danger as if we were facing a fierce predator attack.
When our bodies remain in this state over a long period of time, we can experience very real physical symptoms, and ultimately, severe health consequences.
I have a very real example of my own to illustrate this stark reality.
About a decade ago, I had quite the wake-up call about my own chronic stress response. Out of the blue, for no apparent reason, I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night gasping for breath. I was having trouble taking regular breaths and felt as if I was suffocating. It continued every few minutes, and didn’t let up. A trip to the emergency room and dozens of nail-biting tests later led me to the doctor’s diagnosis.
“It’s anxiety,” she explained matter-of-factly.
“Anxiety?” I was dumbfounded.
I didn’t feel worried or anxious. I didn’t cognitively recognize any stress. This stress-response state had become so “normal” to me that I didn’t even recognize that it was chronically flooding my body. Apparently, my body was wiser and more astute and attuned than my mind was.
She went on to ask me about any chronic stress I was experiencing and told me that I could either take anxiety medication, get another job that was less stressful, take a vacation to rest, or start practicing more “relaxing” habits that promoted what she called “self-care”.
The experience scared me enough and lingered long enough to lead me to some deeper soul-searching about the habits and patterns that I had adapted as “normal” for me over the years. As a self-proclaimed high-achiever, I strove to be the “best” at whatever I was doing. I had my sights set on climbing the corporate ladder and felt validated and rewarded solving hard problems and succeeding at jumping through higher and higher hoops. I spent much time on things that I personally didn’t find much fulfillment in, but that pleased the hierarchy I worked in and led to even greater validation of how good I was and how much more I could achieve. The problem was that the dissonance between what was most important to me and what I was spending time doing on a daily basis was growing wider and wider.
So, I had to uncover–what was the source or root of my stress and anxiety?
As I peeled back the layers and reflected deeply, I came to some stark conclusions. I was feeling overwhelmed by years of day-to-day tasks that didn’t feel meaningful, innovative, creative, and impactful to me, but were merely in service of moving me towards a higher promotion, more money, and the achievement of an even higher status title. I remember telling my dad once that my goal was to be Vice-President or President of something no later than age 45. While that was certainly a noble goal consistent with my high-achieving drive, it didn’t resonate with me on a deeper, internal level. The deepest parts of myself, not soiled by conventional thinking, outward symbols of achievement and success, and status consciousness, yearned for something else. Something more and something different. Something more in alignment with who I was at the inner core—rather than who I was trying to be in the outer world.
I had to come face-to face with some deeper questions.
What was most important to me?
Which voices in my head about what success looked like were really my own, and which ones were programmed there by convention, duty, and cultural norms?
Chronic stress, or a constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels. The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body. This long-term ongoing stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke. It can also cause muscle tension that lead to chronic headaches, neck and back pain, and compromise our immune systems.
We all know these things—but convince ourselves that it “isn’t that bad”—or don’t even realize the severity until we hit a crisis point. So the purpose of this post is not to tell you that you need to relax, take a vacation, or check into anxiety medications to manage your overwhelm and chronic job stress wreaking havoc on your physical health. It is instead to remind you of this one simple, seemingly obvious, yet so profound fact.
Your outer and inner worlds must be in alignment. If they aren’t—you are not in integrity with your deepest self. Something will always be off. Only you know what that means.
Ask yourself these questions:
Whose voices are setting the agenda for your definition of success?
What material and status-oriented symbols of success are you chasing and why?
At the end of the day, what is most important to you?
Are the choices you are making with your time and energy nourishing what is most important?
If you are out of alignment, what tough choices and changes do you need to make?
Anxiety is a symptom of stress. Stressors will always be around us and many stressful circumstances we will experience are beyond our control. However, the choices we make to ensure inner alignment and integrity to what is most important to us are up to us. And that internal alignment and self-care goes a long way to remove the optional stressors that we willingly allow to invade our physical and mental well-being.