Self-inflicted Stress — How I Learned Not to Force Anything


For some people, life is boring when all goes well.

Photo by sharon wright on Unsplash

A lot of stress is self-inflicted stress. That is, we can avoid it if we choose to. But we choose not to. The reason is that our bodies “need” it. Often people don’t want to reduce stress because they use it as compensation for their nutritional deficiencies.

According to Dr. James L. Wilson, a leading specialist in nutritional balancing science, people who are constantly tired often use stress as a stimulant. Over time, they become addicted to stress and instinctively choose things, people, and situations where they can relive the level of stress they are used to.


Why people “need” stress as a stimulant

It sounds strange, but it is a well-established fact that people who grew up in abusive homes end up recreating the same degree of abuse in their adult relationships as they saw in their childhood.

They find partners who stress them out. They find jobs where they carry the brunt of the workload for pennies. They find friends who “need” them. They find people they can rescue.

They are ready to sacrifice themselves on every altar and feel bored when life goes well. Life should be tumultuous to be interesting. They need drama to feel good.


There is a scientific explanation for that

When the body experiences daily stress for an extended period of time, it loses some of the essential nutrients and minerals — like zinc that gets flushed out almost immediately through urine when we get stressed.

When the body is deficient in essential nutrients, its energy level decreases. In time, we develop cravings for things that can get us going despite fatigue — coffee, energy drinks, sugar, and stress.

Putting some stress on the body gives a temporary boost to adrenal hormones — primarily cortisol. Cortisol raises blood sugar, which, in turn, gives us some energy. We feel we can keep going.


Getting cortisol through the back door

There was a time in my life when I used jogging to wake up. It helped. I would feel energized and alert for about 2 hours after 30 minutes of light exercise. And then… a sudden drop of energy.

The thing is, I was tired, but instead of sleeping more, I would stimulate myself by exercise. Exercise is good, but not as a substitute for rest.

There was a time when I used carbs and coffee to get me going. I craved white bread and sweets — still do. I would snack every hour not to get sluggish in the middle of the day. It helped for a while… until it stopped.

The funny part is that when you are tired, the idea of getting some sleep is the last thing that comes to mind. My gut reaction was to grab some “easy energy” foods or whip myself into action by doing something stressful.

It backfired. Stress is accumulative. The body keeps the score. I burned myself out.


How I disobeyed the “heavenly vision”

I remember getting a weird dream once. It came right before waking up. I heard a distinct voice telling me in Russian (my first language): “This is God’s command for you — sleep more!” It rang in my mind for quite a while because it rhymed.

I immediately knew that the voice was spot on — I needed more sleep. But, unlike the Apostle Paul, I didn’t obey the “heavenly vision.”


There is a world of difference between nourishment and stimulation

Eventually, I hit the bottom. Slowly I realized that there was a vital difference between nourishing and stimulating the body. Stimulation is like whipping a tired horse that won’t go. Your body is completely worn out but you drive it with sugar, caffeine, alcohol, or stress.

Stimulation is when you force yourself to do things despite fatigue… and pay the price of utter exhaustion. Gradually, I learned the not-so-obvious difference between forcing myself into action and doing things as a result of having enough energy.


Nourishment is about giving the body what it needs so it can accumulate energy. It’s never about forcing or pushing anything. When you have enough energy, you don’t need to push yourself. Things flow naturally.

Nourishment is about giving yourself enough rest, nutrition, and self-care so you have a surplus of energy. When the body and mind start getting nourished, stimulating foods and activities lose their appeal.

There is no need to whip myself into anything. When I’ve had enough rest, work comes easy. It flows. I don’t watch the clock. I am lost in what I am doing.


Learning not to force anything

I love the Daoist parable about the cook, told by Chuang Tzu:

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. As every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

Wen-hui marveled at his fine skill and asked how he was doing it. The cook replied:

“What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill…When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself… And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes…I guide the knife through the big openings and follow things as they are.”

Whenever the cook came to a complicated place, he just told himself to watch out and be careful, and he moved the knife with great subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing came apart like a clod of earth.

The cook learned not to force anything but to “follow things as they are.” When I feel I am forcing myself, I know I don’t care about the Way.

When I push myself, I create self-inflicted stress — I don’t go by the spirit. When I whip myself into action by food, sugar, or stress, I know I am making my life miserable. I need to let go, slow down, sleep more, eat better, and then — flop! the whole thing suddenly starts working.

11 things that help me nourish myself

I still have a long way to go, but I have made the following agreements with myself:

  1. When I feel tired, I don’t push myself to keep going. Instead, I take some rest.
  2. I don’t start working until I feel I have enough energy.
  3. When I go to bed, I consciously allow myself to sleep in.
  4. I only write when I feel I have something to say.
  5. I don’t care about stats, claps, or comments; I just enjoy writing and reading.
  6. I feed my mind with good writing (There are so many great writers on Medium. I am also into audiobooks).
  7. I don’t use exercise — jogging or biking — to get energized. I exercise only when I feel rested.
  8. I eat slowly, chewing well and savoring every bite.
  9. I never eat on the go.
  10. I know my tendency to overplan, so if I have 5 things on my list, I cut it down to 2. (I will still end up doing 3).
  11. When I find myself in a hurry, I consciously slow down by giving up what I think I am going after.

When I am well-nourished, my body thanks me by giving me the energy I need to enjoy life. I can smile, love, and create. As Dr. Wilson said:

“I have never seen a depressed person who wasn’t also low on energy. When you have enough energy, you simply can’t be depressed.”