I’ve spent most of my life under a lot of stress. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that stress management is a pretty big deal. In short, stress can literally kill you.
In this article, I describe my theory about the underlying root cause of stress from modern day life, and suggest a way to combat it.
Over the years, I’ve followed the work of Dr. Oz Mehmet. Dr. Oz is best known for being a TV personality regularly featured on the Oprah show. In particular, I found his early work on aging fascinating. He and his colleague Dr. Roizen analyze a variety of factors that accelerate aging.
They came up with two definitions of age. There’s your biological age (defined as today’s date minus your birthday) and then there’s your “real age.” Your real age is your biological age adjusted for lifestyle factors.
I don’t remember the exact numbers, but if you smoked, your real age = your biological age + 4 years. So a 60-year-old smoker has a “real age” of 64 years old.
As I was reading through the chart showing the various adjustments factors, I noticed that most negative lifestyle traits — lack of exercise, smoking, lack of sleep, eating poorly, drinking alcohol excessively — would cause you to artificially age by 2 to 4 years for each risk factor.
In scanning that chart, there was one massive outlier. There was one risk factor that would cause one to age not just 2 years, 4 years, 6 years or even 10 years. This one risk factor could cause you to age up to 17 years!
This factor was by far the single biggest contributor to artificial aging. The second biggest risk factor would only age you by 5 years.
What was the single biggest cause of artificial aging?
In particular, chronic stress — the kind that never seems to go away — will pretty much kill you faster than smoking, doing drugs, going on alcohol binges, not eating your vegetables combined.
That got my attention several years ago.
Before I share my working theory on the root cause of stress, let me explain some concepts regarding how stress is characterized. Yes, if you think I’m going to segment stress… you are right!
There are two kinds of segmentation patterns for stress.
The first is acute vs. chronic. Acute stress is when you have a sudden and very temporary stressor. An example would be if you were physically chased by a lion. Your fight or flight instinctive responses would kick in, you would experience enormous stress and you would either put up the fight of your life or run like hell. (Personally I’d be doing the latter!)
Chronic stress is the kind that’s much more common in modern life. It is the kind of stress that’s continuous in nature. My theory of stress is related to this chronic kind of stress where there really is no life-threatening stressor, but we feel like there is anyway.
The other segmentation pattern for stress is physical vs. non-physical stress. If you have a major injury in your leg, and it hurts like crazy, that’s a physical stress. The non-physical kind of stress is again stress caused by your interpretation of modern day life — grades, job interviews, layoffs, paying the mortgage, etc.
If you create a 2 x 2 matrix (draw a box with 4 squares) with “acute” and “chronic” labeled across the top, and non-physical and physical labeled on the Y axis, the upper right quadrant represents non-physical chronic stress.
It’s this non-physical chronic stress that impacts virtually everyone I know and it also happens to be the kind of modern life stress that the human body was not designed to handle.
Run from a lion that wants to eat you for dinner? No problem, your body can recover from that. Need to bounce back from an inured leg? No problem, your body can handle that.
Need to check email and text messages every five minutes 18 hours a day, multi-task, hit back-to-back deadlines? Keep this up and your body begins to crumble.
To understand how to combat this kind of stress, it helps to understand why this stress exists.
Here’s my theory.
Modern day, chronic, non-physical stress has two interrelated root causes. The first is that most people do not fully appreciate that their bodies and minds have limits. You can exceed your limit some of the time and get away with it, but you can’t exceed those limits continuously without consequence.
While this is hopefully somewhat obvious and common sense, I’ve firmly come to believe that common sense is not always common practice. If you intellectually agree with this statement but then in practice completely ignore it, then you don’t “really” agree with it (enough to take action).
Next is the second root cause of stress. Why do otherwise intelligent, accomplished people who logically understand they have limits in practice completely ignore this fact?
Why do those who were nominated to become Partners at McKinsey become depressed if they don’t make it?
Why do high school students in some cultures who apply to an Ivy League school but don’t get in end up committing suicide?
(When I lived in Silicon Valley, the local high school across from the Stanford campus had 9 suicide attempts in a single year, of which 3 or 4 were successful. The kids were all throwing themselves in front of the commuter train and getting run over. What was the school’s solution? To post a security guard at the train station to deter kids from jumping in front of the train. If ever there were an example of managing symptoms vs. root causes to a problem, that would be it.)
Why do we do crazy things, work crazy hours, and more or less kill ourselves to pursue some notion of success in our modern day lives?
Why do we ignore limits to the human body and mind, even when we know those limits are real?
What compels such extreme behaviors in many of us?
Here’s my theory to the root cause of the root cause of stress.
The reason we ignore our limits is because of…
It’s my working hypothesis that all modern day, non-physical, chronic stress is rooted in FEAR.
Fear’s an interesting word because to state the obvious… well… it’s a feeling.
I remember at McKinsey pretty much nobody, myself included, would ever admit to being afraid. Yet, everyone would readily admit to being under stress.
After many years, I’ve concluded it’s the same damn thing.
If you want to see management consultants under stress, look at them during the 6 months leading up to when they’re being considered for partner for the final time. They either get promoted to partner or they get fired. Those people are seriously stressed out.
Because they’re afraid they won’t make partner.
Why do students stress out about final exams?
Because they’re afraid they won’t do well.
Why is someone nervous when asking someone else out on a date?
Because they’re afraid the other person might say “no.”
Why are people stressed out when there are rumors the company is doing layoffs?
Because they’re afraid of losing their jobs.
Why are aspiring consultants freaked out by the case interview?
Because they’re afraid they won’t pass the interview and won’t get a job offer.
Why do people stress out about taking the GMAT?
Because they’re afraid if their score isn’t high enough, they won’t get into the school of their choice and won’t get the job they want.
Why do people stress out when they can’t answer all their emails?
Because they’re afraid of what other people will think, say or do if they don’t get a prompt reply to their email.
Why do people get stressed out about giving a speech or presentation?
Because they don’t want to humiliate themselves in front of others.
While I can’t say with certainty that all non-physical, chronic stress comes from fear, I suspect most of it does.
This mental model of stress resonates with me. I keep trying to disprove it, but have difficulty doing so.
As I’ve been playing around with ways to reduce stress in my own life, I’ve found the following to be helpful:
STOP being afraid.
If you’re taking a test and you aren’t afraid of getting a bad score, there would be no reason to be stressed.
When I brush my teeth, I feel no stress because I’m not worried of a bad outcome. I haven’t gotten a cavity in 15 years. If I did, it’s not a big deal. Therefore I have no stress about brushing my teeth whatsoever.
You know what?
I also don’t have any stress about breathing. I’m not worried about what other people will think if I somehow breath incorrectly. I have no fear about it, and therefore have no stress about it either.
The key to eliminating this kind of stress is to eliminate the FEAR underlying the stress.
If there is no fear, there is no stress… period.
Now you’re probably thinking, “Well, that’s easier said than done.”
Before I share a step-by-step procedure for how to do this, let me introduce the concepts of control and letting go.
There’s a Christian prayer that I like a lot that speaks to this. If you’re not religious or not Christian, skip the first word of the prayer and read the rest. It has some profound wisdom in it, regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs.
It’s known as the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
I’ve found the prayer to be both profoundly insightful and concise.
In short, if something is not in your control and you can do absolutely nothing to impact something, accept it, and let it go.
If you can do things to impact the outcome you desire, focus on doing those things, then let go of the rest.
If you’re up for election to partner at McKinsey, all you can do is do good work. After that is done, you don’t control the election. You don’t control how the other partners vote. After you’ve fully done your part, accept that the rest of the process is out of your control.
This concept of letting things go when you can’t impact them is key to the step-by-step solution I’m about to propose.
The other big concept to introduce is the idea about developing a specific contingency plan for your worst-case scenario.
I credit my friend and colleague Rob Berkley (www.VisionDay.com) for teaching me this wonderful tool.
Here’s the process:
When you’re afraid that some worst-case scenario might happen, assume that it will happen and ask yourself, “What will I do then?”
In most situations, people are so stressed out that they ask the question rhetorically, as in, “OMG… what will I do then?”.
I’m suggesting you ask the question and force yourself to answer. So if the worst case scenario happens, specifically what will you do about it?
If you don’t make partner, get a good GMAT score, pass the interview, get the promotion, or avoid the layoffs, specifically what will you do next?
Force yourself to answer the questions, to come up with a specific step-by-step plan.
In most cases, our imagination runs wild at the mere mention of the worst case scenario. But quite often, if we calm down enough to actually mentally accept the worst case scenario as a possibility, we can think of an action plan that really isn’t the end of the world.
For example, if you don’t get a good GMAT score, you could decide that you will simply take it again. Sure it’s not ideal, but it’s hardly the end of the world.
If you don’t make partner at McKinsey, you could call one of the 20 headhunters who’ve been chasing you the past 5 years, get a job as VP of Strategy at a Fortune 500 company, and be a top executive at a public company. Sure, it’s not what you wanted as your first choice, but it’s hardly poverty.
If you get laid off, you could live off savings, start cutting expenses, move in with your folks if you have to, apply for others jobs. Sure, it may not be ideal, but it’s not a total catastrophe either.
So now let’s put these two tools together into a step-by-step procedure.
When you are feeling stressed out about a specific situation, here’s what to do:
1) IDENTIFY – the specific fear you have that’s underlying the stress.
2) DEFINE – the worst case scenario.
3) DEVELOP – a specific, step-by-step contingency plan for the worst case scenario.
4) ACCEPT – the worst case scenario and your contingency plan as a possibility. Get comfortable with both (so if it should happen, you won’t feel emotionally blindsided).
5) DETERMINE – what is within your control that can impact the outcome you want.
6) DO – the things that are within your control to do.
7) LET GO – of everything else because it is not within your control (especially true if the final outcome you want is dependent on a 3rd party).
By using this process you will accomplish a few things:
You’ll take action to achieve the outcome you want.
You will pro-actively plan a response to your worst case scenario in advance. This helps to alleviate your fear of the worst case scenario because quite often an open-ended worst case scenario is much more fear-inducing than a worst case scenario where you have a concrete action plan already in place.
A concrete plan has a sense of bounded certainty about it. You know what to expect and can assess it logically. An open-ended worst case scenario can’t be evaluated logically.
As a result, it can only be evaluated emotionally and imaginatively. And let me tell you, any stressed out, freaked out, scared imagination can easily run wild.
Letting go of the rest (the things you cannot control) is important because all of that emotionally-driven fear and stress has no outlet. If you could actually do something to impact the outcome, you could apply that energy productively into taking action. But when your actions have zero correlation to the outcome, taking action is pointless.
Worrying about the outcome is logically equally pointless — but admittedly, this is (at least for me it was) very hard to stop. It takes a lot of practice and self reminders to let go of the things you can’t control.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say you are hoping for good weather tomorrow but it’s unclear if the weather will be sunny or rainy. The best you can do is pack an umbrella and some sunblock in your day bag for tomorrow, then ignore the rest. If it rains, use the umbrella. If it’s sunny, use the sunblock.
In either case, don’t waste any life energy “worrying” about the weather. You did your part by doing what was in your control (being prepared for all scenarios).
Now take solace in the fact that there is nothing left for you to do. Let go of the rest.
Whatever happens, happens.
The same applies for case interviews. It’s pointless to stress out about whether or not you will pass the case interview. The final decision is NOT in your control. Take all that fear-motivated energy worrying about whether or not you will pass, and instead put that energy into something you can control… namely learn from those who went before you and PRACTICE A LOT.
If you do that, you will have maximized your chances of passing the case. Whether you actually do or don’t pass the case isn’t in your control. Once you do your part, let go of the rest.
Whatever happens, happens.
I’ve found this approach to dealing with stress extremely helpful in my life. When there is no fear, there is no stress.
Let me tell you a life without fear (or at least with a lot less fear) is a truly wonderful life.
So next time you are feeling stressed out, ask yourself these questions:
1) Can I do anything about what I’m stressed out about? If so, do it.
2) Is what I am stressed out about out of my control? If so, what’s the worst that could happen? What’s my concrete contingency plan? Learn to accept the potential outcome and the contingency plan.
3) If I’ve already done everything within my control and I’ve already developed my worst case scenario contingency plan, then everything else is out of my control. Let it go. Just let it go.
Notice that in the 3 questions above, there is no room for fear.
Without fear, there is no stress. It’s not a bad way to live.