A while back I had a laugh with a lawyer friend who, like me, slid gradually into retirement, starting about three years ago.
"We are like stressfugees," I said. It seemed to describe how we both felt — like we barely made it out of the howling storm of stress that our work imposed almost continually for decades.
Overstatement? Perhaps. But not by much. Serious stress was steadily there, if not on the surface, under it, like a bot worm larvae chewing at our flesh.
My work was usually enjoyable. But not the unceasing rapid-fire deadlines, the juggling of far too many balls, and the unpredictability of the volume. Those were anxiety inducing. In my case, big jobs would suddenly be at the door like Godzilla, with other jobs in process and still others in the queue. As a freelancer, I was pathologically averse to saying no. I'd rather have Godzilla at the door than the wolf. So I failed to balance the load.
My friend and I both look back now and wonder how we did it. In hindsight, we can see how much the stress had distorted our lives, our emotions, and, undoubtedly, our bodies. In the midst of it, I had an inkling of the pressures that were pushing me around, but it's only now, free from those demands, that I see the extent of the warping. And it's a little frightening.
There's a curve. I'm thinking of it as the Money/Time/Risk Curve. It slopes upward as a career develops. Money and risk increase while time depletes. We have less time to do what we want. We also have less time left on Earth. You either ride the curve upward for as long as you can or decide to reverse it by retiring or cutting back drastically on work, thus lowering the money and risk (and work-related thrills) while gaining in unfettered time.
The Faustian Bargain
The MTR Curve curve pivots on a Faustian bargain. (Wikipedia: "A situation in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve power and success for a delimited term.")
The bargain is with ourselves. We are being distorted by stress yet we enjoy the money and satisfactions of the stressful work. So we make a bargain, betting that we can outlast the effects of the stress.
Emotionally, we can usually recover from prolonged stress (PTSD being far more of a struggle, of course). These days, the calmness of my post-career state is something I never knew in my working life. Calmness allows for immersion. Being able to immerse in life — whatever I'm doing — without undue external pressure, is such a privilege in a busy, driven world that I still find it hard to believe. I'm aware it can be taken. Maybe that's why I appreciate it so much. To surrender it voluntarily at this point isn't likely.
Relationships also improve with the departure of stress, because we have more time to devote to them, and greater inclination. We are more relaxed when relating — with everyone from our spouses and children to the irritating knob sitting in front of us at the cinema checking Facebook mid-film. So, should we choose to de-stress, we can reverse the ongoing risk of subterranean grumpiness and superficial social connections.
Physically, recovery is a bigger question. And this is where the Faustian bargain is really made.
Stress of the kind I'm talking about has measurable physical consequences. We trade money and exhilaration for the slow erosion of vital systems. The hope is that the bargain is cancelled before the systems falter.
The Toxic Cocktail We Make for Ourselves
Academics study this stuff. And they name it. The "Allostatic Model of the Stress Process" is an unnerving three-tiered progression suffered by the chronically stressed worker. It begins with fear, tension, and anxiety that trigger self-induced mega-doses of adrenaline, cortisol, epinephrine, and interluken-6 (the corrosive fight-flight chemicals), resulting in headaches, sleep disturbances, and fatigue. It progresses to immune system difficulties, increased resting blood pressure, and the dreaded metabolic syndrome (increases in glucose, insulin resistance, cholesterol, and triglycerides). The eventual effects can include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, clinical depression, and the vague-but-lethal "all-cause mortality."
Peter Attia, a renowned M.D. and longevity researcher who I listen to on his podcast called Drive, recently just said it: "Stress can amplify and accelerate the diseases of aging... You get older faster."
So prolonged stress is indeed a bargain with the Devil. And the Reaper.
My unscientific personal experience with chronic work stress leads me to conclude that it also clouds the vision, dims the memory, depresses empathy, shortens patience and the time we give to non-work living (the really good stuff), lengthens the list of excuses of why work should take precedence over almost everything else, and generally keeps the motor of existence at high rev. We have to keep revving to keep the stress from gaining on us, which causes more stress.
We also wear our stress. American presidents seem to age at double or triple speed while in office (the exception being he who cares more about himself than the country). We all know what acute stress looks like on ourselves and others. We get haggard, clenched, and etched with our worry and anxiety. Keep it up long enough and the etching seems to get baked into into place. This is the outward manifestation of burnout.
Rockefeller Laughed at Stress (and It Took All His Hair)
It's true that our abilities to withstand stress vary a lot. I remember reading that John D. Rockefeller, the American oil magnate, endured so much stress while building his empire that all his hair fell out, including his eyebrows. Yet he lived to be 98, at a time when the average lifespan was half that and medicine was much less able to extend life, even for a Rockefeller.
Some people just don't get stressed out.
And some jobs are just happy places. You might, for example, work as a horticulturalist at the estate of a kindly aristocrat who pays generously and expresses her gratitude frequently. Or you might be an art restorer who every day is saving the cultural heritage of the world.
But a survey published by the American Psychological Association in 2012 found that as many as 70% of Americans report suffering from job stress.
So we have to know ourselves. We have to know what stress we are under and what our stress load could be doing to our bodies — with what regularity we are likely producing cortisol (it takes two seconds to enter the brain from the adrenal glands), how much our blood pressure is elevated when we are stressed, and how likely it is that the endothelial lining of our vascular system is being progressively abraded like the inside of a well-used tool bag.
I know it's a lot to think about. But worth it.
My Three Reasons for Breaking the Bargain
When I decided to retire three years ago, I can reduce my decision to three reasons, with stress uppermost:
1. I was handling stress with less and less resilience (i.e. poorly). I weighed about 25 pounds too much. My face was often red, like an agitated tomato. Reaching for a beer, or two, was my shortcut to relaxation at the end of an intense work day. It was easy for me to get upset. I sat in my desk chair for most of the day, on most days. My blood pressure was fine — when I was asleep.
2. I knew there was an entire emotional/psychological landscape out there beyond my reach as a driven person. It was begging to be explored. I got to the point where I wanted to explore more than sit at the desk. Not taking in more of life would have been like going on a once-in-a-lifetime sightseeing cruise and spending it reading a computer manual in my cabin.
3. Time had become more precious. It flies by all too fast (or we fly through it) when we are intensely occupied with dozens of imploring details. It's one thing to be absorbed in something you love. It's another to be kidnapped by something you merely do, even if you like doing it. I needed to slow down time down for fear of having too little left for all of the other experiences yet to be experienced. And friends had died — not many, but enough that death had made itself known repeatedly. Time runs out on its own schedule. David Baerwald's do-or-die lyrics from the song "Good Times" always provides a sharp reminder for me:
Life is short
And death is long
And the drive toward self destruction
Is so very very strong
All of the stresses eventually merged for me into one hot insistent ball. Deadline stress and the stress of long hours merged with the stress of feeling like time was running out. I worried (more stress) that a mere nub of a man would one day stagger out from behind the desk, flush with cash but a decade too late to fully taste the fruits of freedom.
Horace apparently wrote: “They change their sky, not their soul, who rush across the sea.”
So I terminated the Faustian bargain. The deal had soured. The money and exhilaration were no longer worth what they cost in time and risk. I had more important things to do. I didn't know exactly what things, but I knew that they were important.
Yes, I had enough money. Some do not. But I also know people who long ago had enough money yet they continue with the bargain. They might be able to handle it. They might be able to relegate the rest of their existence to bits of leftover time after work. I could not. Nor could my friend.
Now, three years into this more relaxed way of life, my excess weight is gone and my face is back to a healthier color. Beer, for the first time in my adult life, seems like an impediment rather than a solution. I feel remarkably less clenched. I think that's the sense: unclenching. The inner clamps have loosened. Who knows, maybe my endothelial lining is on the mend.
I see it in my lawyer friend too. He has relaxed progressively by re-sorting his priorities and retelling his story about work, meaning, and life. His thirst is no longer for jobs that might come his way but for free time to do what he wants. His Faustian bargain has been cancelled.
We got out in time.
One last caution: I only seemed to fully understand the distortions of my stress after the strictures had loosened. I could only gauge it with any accuracy by looking back at it. Which means that it hides from us. It also means that we are unwitting accomplices in our own decline.
What about you? Stressed or unstressed? Leighton or Rockefeller? Happy or putting up with a grind? How much stress is worth living with? I don't mean the kind we have to take, or the kind that's good for us. I mean the chronic kind we volunteer for, or continue to endure because we haven't figured a way out, or even known we are in. Where are you on the calculus curve of Money/Time/Risk? Where will you draw the line? When will you join us stressfugees?
Our name sounds desperate. We are the reverse.