Let me start by sharing some very interesting facts I dug up the other day. 78% of Americans feel stressed at least one day in a typical week — and 15% of them are stressed every day. Women are more stressed than men, while Gen Xers (ages 41 to 55) are the most stressed generation.
Yikes! Who’s been looking in my windows?
Having spent quite a bit of time in Italy, I decided to do a little digging in their neighborhood. Some 16% of Italians between 45 and 54 say they feel stressed every day (13% of the total – 11.7% of men and 14.5% of women).
It made me think of this excerpt from Too Busy to Be Happy. After suffering from a severe case of burnout, I made the choice to take a leave of absence and spend a summer in Rome. One fateful conversation with a fairly bilingual Italian gentleman truly changed the way I view stress and changed my life for the better.
ITALIANS DON’T UNDERSTAND STRESS
Just to be clear, it wasn’t just the time away from my old life that let me recalibrate. The Italian culture is something different entirely. They don’t spend their days rushing from task to task. One night, early in the trip, a couple of Italian men asked me and my friend if we wanted to go out to dinner with them at their family restaurant. Their English was pretty good, and their accents were adorable. We agreed to have dinner with them—how could we not?
It was a picture-perfect night in Rome.
The summer evening was warm with clear skies, and we were sitting on the patio of a beautiful little family-owned restaurant, wine flowing, with amazing food and entertaining company. As the night went on and the stars came out, one of the Italian men asked me what brought me to Italy.
I told him, “I’ve been so stressed out. I have a very stressful job working extremely crazy hours. It turned into this health issue where I couldn’t breathe, and my doctor says this health issue is due to stress.”
I could tell by the way he was looking at me that he was checking out of my story a bit. He wasn’t sure what to think. He leaned over to his buddy, and they chatted in Italian for a little second, while he kept looking back at me.
Finally, he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand this word… stress.”
Now, I don’t know whether there’s really no word for stress in the Italian language or if he was just charming me, but he was clearly struggling to understand my story.
Either way, all of a sudden, I had chills up my arms as a huge a-ha moment hit me: I’d been using the word “stress” as a blanket statement to describe everything that was happening in my life and to explain who I was. In a way, using this word like this kept me from genuinely taking a close look and ownership for what was going on.
In North American society, we use stress as a convenient tag to describe so many things.
How many people in your life have health problems that are simply labelled “stress-related?” We just tag it and move on.
Can’t sleep at night, can’t breathe? It’s just stress. If the doctor asks if you’re under a lot of stress, you say, “Well, of course.” Aren’t we all?
And my favorite, when friends and family hear your woes, they say, “You shouldn’t stress so much.”
That was a pivotal moment for me. I started to wonder: What if I took that word out of my vocabulary? What if I were no longer able to use stress as an identifier for myself?
I realized that taking the word stress out of my vocabulary would force me to look much deeper at what actually went into that concept. I made a conscious decision that night to stop using the word stress to describe myself, an ailment, or how I was feeling.
I would have to be clear—from now on, I would have to articulate how I was feeling, such as I’m struggling to make a decision, I fear I’m being judged, or I fear that people won’t be happy.
If stress is simply a term to describe the difference between what you feel you have on your plate versus what you think you can actually handle, then let’s start talking about closing that gap rather than labelling ourselves by it.