Tapping into the meaning behind your stress can help you work through it.
Q: The last two years have been extremely stressful for me, with all the upheaval of the pandemic. Like many, I’ve been parenting, working from home, going back to the office, dealing with sick co-workers and friends, and managing all the fear and uncertainty that’s come with COVID. And I can’t live with this level of stress anymore. The only thing that feels in my control is my job. I’d like to do something less stressful, but is that even possible? Is there such a thing as a nonstressful job?
A: Being human is never easy. Being human during a global pandemic while parenting, working, and absorbing the existential dread created by our current social and political climate is really, really not easy. In fact, it’s almost impossible.
It’s possible that your goal of feeling less stress may not be realistic. Instead, a more effective goal might be to reframe your perspective on stress to make it feel less burdensome.
Stress has a bad reputation. We are told it reduces our productivity and, over time at high levels, can even kill us, so we understandably try to eliminate all stress from our lives. But here’s the thing: If we want to make a positive difference—or even merely exist as humans—we are going to experience some stress. And that can be a positive sign.
Think about what brings purpose and meaning to your life. For most people, their list includes some combination of meaningful work, interactions with family and community, and contributions to the world. Now think for a minute about the biggest sources of stress in your life. For most people, the answers overlap significantly with the first list: jobs, family, children, community needs.
This is what Kelly McGonigal calls the stress paradox: We only stress about things we care about. Research shows that stress is a byproduct of any life that has meaning and purpose: a large U.S.-based survey found that people with very meaningful lives worry more and experience more stress than people with less meaningful lives.
So congratulations! Your stress level means you have a meaningful life!
But it’s still uncomfortable, so now what?
Just acknowledging the fact that your stress shows that you care can shift your relationship with stress. It can open up motivation because we know that meaningful things are supposed to be a lot of work. Instead of seeming debilitating, stress can signal a positive challenge—“This matters to me, and I care enough to get it right.” Research shows that this stress-as-challenge mindset mitigates many of the negative consequences of a more traditional stress-as-threat mindset.
So, you could change jobs, but keep in mind that the opposite of a stressful job isn’t always a relaxing one; it’s more likely to be a boring, meaningless, or mind-numbing one. Instead of looking for a “less-stressful” job, you might consider looking for a more meaningful one or focus more on the meaning and purpose in the job you have. How does your work help others? It doesn’t have to be in a cancer-curing way, but how do your efforts make life a little easier or more pleasant for others? How does your work help you live your values, either directly or because it supports other things you value (like food and shelter for your family)?
Once you’re clear on what is meaningful to you about your work (even if it’s small or something others wouldn’t understand!), remind yourself of that meaning anytime you start to feel stressed.