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When Your Stress Response Is to Do Even More

·426 words·2 mins
Mental Health

“I’m drowning, Page,” he says. “I really am.”

“You always have a lot going on,” I say.

“I do,” he replies. “But I think I’ve broken some kind of personal record.” He leads me through the stress he’s been through over the past few weeks. Busy at baseline, he’s right. This is unprecedented.

I state the obvious. “It sounds like you could use a break.”

“I would if I could,” he says. “But I can’t.”

“Why not?” I ask.

“Because I’m too stressed out,” he says.

I laugh. “That’s why you need a break.”

“I know it sounds kind of backwards,” he says, “but that’s the way I deal with stress. I do even more. It helps me not focus on any one thing, not to get super freaked out by it. I get too busy to really reflect on what I’m doing.”

“But now you’re overloaded,” I observe.

“Funny, isn’t it?” he says. “I feel really stuck. I have all these things I’ve committed to. Stuff that I said I’d do. I can’t just back out of it. But it’s gotten to the point where I can’t function. My stress response has started to stress me out.”

I nod. I get what he’s saying. But even as he says that all of these commitments are binding, that there’s no way out, I can’t help but see at least half of these “commitments” aren’t firm. They’re frankly optional — outside of himself. Some of them don’t involve anyone else — they’re literally commitments he made to himself. All he has to do is let himself off the hook. Easier said than done, maybe. But far from impossible.

I point these out. He concedes that I have a point. We discuss some others that involve other people but still don’t seem all that dire and include people I know are very reasonable and flexible. “Maybe you could talk to them about it,” I suggest.

“And what would I say?” he replies.

“I dunno,” I say. “What you said to me?”

He groans. Tells me I have a point. “The problem,” he says, “is that if I’m not busy, am I just going to get stressed again?”

I nod. “It’s rough, having your stress response be to do even more.”

“Part of me wonders if I’ll always be doing this — overloading myself until I can’t cope and then paring back and getting stressed again and loading myself back up.”

“Well,” I say, “it helps to have people in your life who understand.”

He smiles. “It does indeed.”


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