Stress is a Good Thing
The human stress reaction is a normal part of human physiology and it is a terrific biological adaptation. It helps us deal with intense or dangerous circumstances by dumping a ton of (awesome!) drugs into our bloodstream. Our eyes dilate, our digestive systems pause, our hearts pump around more blood to enable the muscles to either run or fight, time seems to slow down, and our minds hyperfocus.
This is an incredible system we humans have and it has served us well in the past– you don’t want to be all hakuna matata when a saber-toothed tiger is stalking your ass.
The thing about saber-toothed tigers and ash-slides, however, is that after a little while they go away and it’s safe to be chilled out again. The stress reaction is adapted to occasional, short-lived intense or dangerous situations. There is unfortunately nothing occasional about having your email inbox full of shitty emails all the time and a to-do list that only grows, particularly if you carry both of those things in your pocket on your smartphone and look at them obsessively. To your body’s stress reaction system, it is sort of like having a saber-toothed tiger padding along next to you all day, every day, that you poke with a stick every five minutes.
Above 26,000 feet of elevation, the human body becomes unable to adapt to the low partial pressure of oxygen in the air. In mountaineering, this elevation is called the Death Zone. In the Death Zone there is a clock ticking down to when vital organs start going offline and you die. You have to descend to a safe elevation to turn the Death clock off.
Similarly, at a certain volume of sustained stress, a clock starts ticking.* In most people, feedback mechanisms exist that will essentially force them to a safe “elevation”, or volume of work, before they die. Some people push themselves through these feedback mechanisms and actually die (called Karoshi in Japan, it is also sometimes referred to as Sudden Executive Death Syndrome, or SEDS).
For most of us, we simply run into our body’s natural feedback mechanisms that forces us to back out of the unsustainable work/stress volume. We get sick and stay at home in bed for three days. Maybe our body refuses to wake up at the alarm and we catch 10 hours of sleep one night. Or we snap, scream at our coworkers and throw our monitor through the window, get fired, and the work volume drops to zero. One way or another, we return to a safer level of stress.
A lot of people tend to short cycle into the Death Zone. Short cycling is when a control system is out of tune and the system “bounces” between two levels. Think of an overpowered heating system in your house. You wake up in the morning and it is cold, so you turn the heater on. It roars to life and warms the entire house up to 90*F in three minutes, then shuts off (because it’s now too hot). The house isn’t very well insulated, however, so all the heat quickly seeps out and the house cools down within 5 minutes. The heater bangs on again, then off. It repeats forever.
Similarly, people tend to have some looming deadline and let their volume of work increase into the SEDS Death Zone. After a short amount of time they realize that they are yelling at their spouse for no reason, losing (or gaining) unhealthy weight, and twitching when they sleep. Their quality of work also starts dropping off as they start forgetting things, making mistakes, and catch themselves staring at spreadsheets without actually doing anything for longer stretches of time. For a while they try to increase the work volume even more to make up for the lack of productivity, which makes things worse. Finally they back off the work, go into the mountains for a weekend, and chill out. Life gets better, their bodies and minds heal a little, and their quality of work improves.
Then some deadline comes up and they start to ramp up again, just a little. Just for this one thing, this one week, it’s a rare thing, they gotta do it. No big deal.
Years later, they have permanent health problems (probably heart-related) and can’t recall what it was they used to do for fun, or what they dreamed about when they were young.
*To clarify, the ticking clock of stress death is an analogy only, not a documented medical fact. Karoshi and “SEDS” are, to my knowledge, not well understood phenomenon at this time.