Good stress

Images for 'stressed'
I googled ‘stressed’

Among the barrage of wellness inspiration articles, fitness porn instagram posts, motivational posters, glossy cookbooks, advice at the gym and from medical and complimentary medicine practitioners, is a message that we need to purge stress from our lives, to gain the clear headed enlightenment of a yogi or Buddhist monk. Only then will we be truly well. These messages are often illustrated by thin, young, usually white women–the same women who are in ads and articles as perfect mothers, as fitness inspirations (fitspo, it’s a real thing and there’s images at the bottom of this blog post, it’s the worst), women who laugh with salad, who get to wear nice clothes. (Or it’s worth an article in Teen Vogue if they aren’t.)

I googled ‘destressed’

I have been on research leave, full time and part time, for 3 months. I’ve moved from a high paced, high politics environment with enormous responsibilities to days where my responsibilities are to myself and perhaps my family. I eat well. I’ve halved my coffee intake. I go to yoga. Our house is beautiful and well tended. I get enough sleep. I’m not chronically stressed. I regularly reach inbox zero. I have dropped a dress size and can get back into more of my nice clothes. I’ve also written a full (shitty) first draft of all my sections of the book on academic writing trouble; written 4 commissioned poems to be set to music; transferred a College’s academic program administration online; given guest lectures and a Thesis Boot Camp; and got a new job.

I am therefore ready to tell you that the promise of no stress leaves us incapable of the highest human functioning, and excludes us from roles with significant responsibility and power. 

Popular images of meditation draw on idealised or cartoonish monks and yogis, imagined as completely removed from the pursuit of wealth and power. They are used as models of aspiration for women in the demographic most likely to be able to afford to not work, or work part time, and still be healthy and unstressed. (Last time I was working part time, I was poor and I have to tell you it was stressful as anything when you need to worry about being able to pay for coffees if you met up with a potential client. This time I had sufficient savings and well paid side gigs that I’ve hardly noticed financially. This is a privilege.)


While you want to be well–eating, sleeping, exercising, reflecting and relaxing–it’s very likely that you personally, reader, don’t want that to be the sum total of what you do with your life.

You are reading this blog. You want to complete your research higher degree, or you are competing as an academic, or you are writing a book. You chose a job that involves evenings and weekends and extensive travel. You could have chosen something else (and most people, remember, do. RHD candidates make up only about 10% of any year’s graduations from even the most research focused Australian universities.) You have chosen, over and over again, to give many years of your life to one of the most demanding, challenging and competitive kinds of intellectual and professional endeavours. And you know the pleasures and rewards of those intellectual challenges.

You want stress, just not chronic stress. 

Chronic stress is terrible for you–the kind of stress that is part of our biosphere when we have mental health issues, an anxiety disorder, are poor, in chronic pain, have experienced prolonged trauma, work in a toxic environment, are being bullied or harassed where we live.

But there is another kind of stress and it’s excellent for you. Just like you want to push your muscles to the nearside edge of exhaustion and pain in order to make fitness gains (don’t go over the edge and injure yourself, but really work the muscle), so we should be pushing our brains to the nearside edge of high stress to make intellectual gains. Short term pulses of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol help us run faster, but also think more clearly. Students actually do perform extraordinarily well in exams: remembering things, synthesising information, creating new connections. Actors produce heightened performances when it’s not a rehearsal (especially if they don’t get complacent–the anxiety of a terrible dress rehearsal frequently ensures an excellent first night). That third cup of coffee does really sharpen my thinking.

‘eustress’ (positive stress)

I love the zing of having to learn and master a new skill, and the sense of accomplishment that brings. I love the stretch my mind has to do when I encounter a difficult new concept (to the nearside of exhaustion and brain-pain). I love the fizz of other super-smart people bouncing around ideas and solutions and alternative ways we could do things better, and the challenge to keep up with them.

Much of the modern university isn’t about that stuff, of course. It’s also about grant funding and research assessments and  casualised workforces and constant restructures and eternal postdocs and admin and emails. That’s all true. And it’s true that chronic stress is terrible and sometimes it’s the university setting that imposes that stress.

But it’s also true that acute stresses–short, intense periods of stress–are great for productivity and creativity. Writing sprints in the pomodoro method, public speaking at conferences, deadlines, Thesis Boot Camp, that moment of insight followed by frenzied typing as it all COHERES, those are examples of good stress.

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 4.41.36 pm.png
‘climb a mountain’

I often use the metaphor of the PhD mountain. If you’ve ever climbed a mountain you know about the aching calves and sore feet, the exhausted grind of plodding upwards through boring but steep terrain, the moments of panic as the small stones of the scree start to move under your hiking boots. But you’ll also know you can’t have the achievement of getting to the top of the mountain without it. (When my friend Peta uses this metaphor, she means Mt Kilimanjaro, when I use it I mean hiking in Hong Kong. Your mountains may vary.)

I’m now going to sketch another portrait of mindfulness drawn from pop culture inspiration. This person is not young, or female. He doesn’t have a lot of flowing hair. He wears the same boring clothes every day for years. He has actually rigorously trained in Buddhist meditation, spending many years studying and learning. And yet, he is one of the most driven, micro-managing, successful businessmen on the planet. Yes, wellness inspiration doesn’t really work when you create Steve Jobs.
(I’m not really suggesting you should become Jobs either, who was apparently terrible to work with–but as I worked through Google Image searches for this post, I couldn’t help being struck by the gender and power differences in the images. ‘Eustress’ is about graphs and muscles and powerful men. ‘Meditation’ is about thin women by the ocean. ‘Fitspo’ is about headless women in underwear. ‘Steve Jobs’ is a head only, who thinks and talks. That was something I wanted to unpack as I talked about this stuff.)

I don’t want to have to live in a wellness centre, where it was my full time job to be well every day. I’d find that boring. I’d rather be out in the world, working and thinking and helping people and writing and creating and throwing parties and strategising and shaping policy and giving lectures and leading teams and wrestling with code and rhythm and sound. That’s why I do the jobs I do.

I did need a wellness retreat for a bit, taking a step back from the stressful job I was doing, going to appointments, cooking ahead, making time to catch up with friends and students. It’s been great. But this is not the place I long to be–this is a period of rebooting and refreshment to enable me to go back into the challenging world of higher education full time. 

Apart from the moral of this story being ‘down with the patriarchy’, it should also be:

Don’t feel guilty or less than because sometimes you feel stressed, embrace the burn of good stress to get you to new heights.
And use all those wellbeing strategies to look after yourself and recover afterwards. Also, self care is warfare for the intersectionally oppressed who have chronic stress imposed on them from multiple directions. You do whatever you find helpful to get you through.’

What are your strategies for harnessing good stress? How do you keep the right balance of intensity and rest?

For help with good stress writing habits, check out your local Shut Up and Write, or get in touch with my Thesis Boot Camp colleagues for a program at your university (Dr Liam Connell for Australia, Dr Peta Freestone for the UK.) 


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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