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Stress = Mess

Updated: Mar 7, 2022

Luan I. Mixed media on paper. Discovery Bay, Dec 2021.

I feel like stress is a word that we tend to overuse these days as a ubiquitous label for negative emotion. I’ll hear someone say, “I’ve been under a lot of stress lately,” or “I’m feeling so stressed out.”

And I’ll get that they mean there is some kind of negative emotion going on, but there is an intentional vagueness to the term that has made it socially acceptable and even desirable. If it’s a close friend, of course I’ll want to listen and learn more. But for more casual acquaintances, talking about being stressed can confer a sense of sharing without getting into any messy details.

Default mode credit to Jason Leung

The problem comes when we get into the habit of wanting to avoid stress even when we are talking to ourselves. I find that when I use a nebulous label to describe something negative and messy, I unintentionally give it a kind of power that feels a little scary or tough to crack. Think “addiction” or “politics”.

Whether or not you think you know how to manage stress, your mind and body actually already have the default mode dialed in. Some of us reach for food or a drink, or we smoke. Some exercise to feel better, watch Netflix, scroll social media, work more, or shop. Whatever you are doing to relax for a moment or to “take the edge off”. We all have our vices.

But wait, isn’t it good to relax and take the edge off? Absolutely. And even the term “vice” implies judgment, so a better term would be “coping tool”. The issue is not so much the tool but rather, do you like the result created when using that tool?

For example, you may be totally okay with having a couple glasses of wine in the evening with dinner. Or maybe you love chocolate and don’t like the sugar or weight gain that comes with it.

Social norms can get very judgy about what are and are not acceptable tools for managing stress. But the truth is that we get to decide for ourselves. There are an infinite number of ways that we cope with stress, and we all get to choose what works best for ourselves.

Re-imagining stress

Of course it’s easier to avoid stress or negative emotions using coping tools than it is to actually deal with the stressful situation. But what if we were to think of stress as being a mess that needs to be cleaned up?

Sometimes we can prevent messes, and sometimes they just happen anyway. Especially if you have kids, pets, family, and stuff. And sometimes (usually) you may even have helped to create the mess. Not that it’s all your fault, but our default mode for handling stress is generally avoidance or procrastination or both, and they tend to make mess and stress worse.

Just imagine if your dog threw up on the carpet and it didn’t get cleaned up right away. As much as we want, that yuck and smell aren’t going to go away by themselves. So we want to clean it up, right?

Now imagine if your dog keeps barking and your neighbors are always complaining. Maybe you feel annoyed, anxious or guilty. Can you see how stress is kind of like a mess in an emotional way? Most of us are better at ignoring or avoiding emotional messes than a pool of sickness on the carpet, but those feelings do generate stress.

Unpacking stress credit to Sixteen Miles Out

So I am practicing catching myself when I think or say, “I’m so stressed out.” Instead, I try saying, “Ugh - what a mess!” It more or less conveys the same degree of distress, but somehow feels less helpless.

Accepting that life is messy means that nothing has gone wrong. I’m just having yet another human experience. And making that simple shift in language helps me to take back a measure of the power that the label “stress” has created.

It’s not like I like dealing with messiness, and I may still choose to stall or even live with the mess (even if that means the mess grows). But I know that at any point I get to decide to tackle the clean up, when I’m good and ready.


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