On Short Bursts of Impossible Stress and Depression Caused by Nothing
Note: This is a shorter article about being stressed out. It might stress you out; if you don’t want that, you might avoid it.
I haven’t written in a few weeks and wanted to get something out before I forgot how keyboards work, and this isn’t a normal-format article. I think there’s some value in writing pieces that describe the process of working through difficulties - at least I’ve found them helpful in the past.
This is an attempt at that, but I’m not sure how much sense it would make to the average person outside of that context. Enjoy, if you can!
I know people who are, somehow, at least OK at what they do. More impossibly, they know they are OK at it in an internalized/believed sense that informs how they feel about their day-to-day lives.
Can you imagine that? They aren’t even lying; their emotional reflexes are called on, and this knowledge of at-least-marginally-sufficient competence sweeps in and either calms or prevents worries. When they irrationally worry they are going to lose a job or a friend, they compare reality to dark fantasy and reality wins. When the worry isn’t irrational, they go “OK, so what can I do about this?” and get to work on solutions.
This is a real thing people do! I’ve seen them do it. And as bizarre as that is, imagine this: There are people living their lives from an even more extreme positive location of the feeling-good vs. reality spectrum. You know how the last guy could use reality to calm himself down and feel good? This new guy can use untrue assumptions of reality to feel good. He gets fired during recessions and goes “welp, you know how that goes; I’ll fall up.” and then takes a week off to play Skyrim before he starts to half-heartedly put in job applications.
He’s not lying! Not only is he not lying about the reality (you’ve met that guy, and in all the situations he doesn’t reek of pot and half of the situations where he does he’s got more money than you) but he’s also telling the truth about the subjective experience; he’s about good times with friends and chill vibes. He hasn’t worried about anything since a 1992 European backpacking accident in which a bear bit off his arm, he stuck it back on himself instead of seeking medical attention so he wouldn’t miss his evening Straussberg beer crawl and it healed fine anyway.
I have been brutally and causelessly stressed for about 2 months now.
You have to keep going to bed at the same time. That’s the first and most important rule.
The reason this is important is because you don’t want to go back to work. Whether or not work is bad, your mind thinks it’s bad when you are stressed out. This means you start viewing the time from when you wake up until you go to work as very, very long; every moment is a moment where Slack might click at you out of freaking nowhere to make your pulse rate spike in all the wrong ways. Since Slack steadfastly refuses to make a five-minute death-click ease-in periods, this means every workday ends up feeling several workdays long.
It also makes all the time that isn’t work feel incredibly short. Every second has the same kinetic feel and flavor as a (finish simile). Time is running out, but you can fix that: you just create more time.
You can kinda do this by just not doing anything; big blocks of uninterrupted sloth feel longer than going somewhere and doing something enjoyable, which burns up huge chunks of time and whips you back towards the workweek like a slung rock at a Gittite forehead. The big problem here is that you can potentially hurt people doing this; the friends you might have done things with, your family, your dog. So you go to the other place you can borrow time from: Sleep.
The nice thing about borrowing time from sleep - the thing that makes it work for a while - is that late-night hours are so damn calm. The entire family is asleep; the TV is off. Nobody is going to knock on your door to sell you solar panels. The chances that anyone is going to need you to put your shoes on have never been lower.
So you can easily - and will easily, if you don’t know the first rule of stress - stay up until you have just slightly over six hours to sleep before you have to get up for work. The reason it’s not eight is that eight is normal - you aren’t stealing time. The reason it’s not seven is because you can get by on seven; it’s not really that costly, and doesn’t end up coming close to the limits of what you’d do to get that extra time.
It’s only when it starts carving into your well-being (in my experience, right around six hours a night or less over an extended period of time) in a way you’ll actually feel in your nerves tomorrow that you really contemplate how much you want to spend on the exchange. You get up the next morning on six hours and twenty-three minutes of sleep, and everything is subtly worse.
Perceptive readers will note that this is beginning to sound a lot like a vicious cycle. And it is; the usual term I use for it in my mental dictionary of things to watch out for is “the death spiral”. The spiral is a frog-boiling of sorts; it’s gradual, and every day is just a little worse than the last.
It’s entirely possible to not notice you are in it at all, until one day a friend relays that he thought you were mad at another friend because your hands were shaking with rage, and you get all the way through telling him not to worry because your hands always shake if you don’t stop them from doing that and maybe an entire extra day before you remember that, oh yeah, that’s not normal either.
So that’s the first rule, the big one: you have to go to bed at the same time.
There’s a principle I sometimes apply to my thinking that I call “the faked moon landing principle, and it goes a little something like this:
Imagine that you are in charge of 1960’s NASA, and you just got out of a meeting where it was very carefully explained to you how important it is that we beat the Soviets to the moon. A moon landing would mean a lot; it would demonstrate our technical superiority to an enemy, but it would also be a massive morale boost for the entire country. No single moment, they say, could possibly mean as much as a human-worn boot leaving a print on lunar soil.
As you leave that meeting, an engineer walks up and explains to you just as carefully that a moon landing is impossible at 1960s tech levels. It can’t be done, by you or the Soviets. You could still have all those massively important morale boosts and enemy-shamings, but doing so would require lying - you’d have to fake a moon landing.
For the record, I think we very likely landed on the moon. But my belief in that is completely unaffected by the part where the US government told us we did, or where there was a video of us doing it. I’d expect those in any possible version of this scenario; their existence does nothing to tell me which scenario I’m in.1
Now imagine that you haven’t been doing so great at work. You can tell that people are slowly maneuvering towards seriously considering firing you. You can tell that even if standards of success are attainable (you aren’t sure they are) you sure as shit aren’t going to hit them. You are headed, my friend, for a firing. Is it the good kind? Probably not. This smells to you a lot like the “nobody comes back from this shameful expulsion” type of firing that leaves you, eventually, alone in a ditch somewhere.
Now, is any of that perception true? Probably not! You are probably doing fine, and this is just the crazy pointless residual stress talking. But the faked moon landing principle applies; you would think you were about to get fired in both scenario A. where you really are doing poorly and courting a red card and scenario B. in which everything is fine except your fainting-couch-ready mental fortitude.
In both cases you’d think all this was happening; the stress would make you think all the signs were real. So the signs aren’t really evidence that you are doing shitty at work, but they also aren’t evidence against it; you are left with one certainty, which is that your brain won’t grant you the comfort of knowing if you are doing well.
Remember what I said about short-changing sleep? It’s a cycle. You take away from sleep which makes you more stressed which makes you take away from sleep. Stress and work have similar pitfalls; you get stressed, so it’s harder to do things. You do things worse or miss things, which makes you more stressed.
Eventually, you get to a condition I’ve seen several people fired for, which HR usually terms something like “work avoidance”. Sometimes this is just a lazy guy2 not wanting to do his job, but sometimes it’s a person who has rendered themselves incapable of facing the mountain of bad feelings their work tasks have become. They have faked the moon landing so hard, in effect, that it has become real.3
This is the part where we stop for a second and I caution you not to entirely believe me. Here’s why:
I’m a pretty OK writer, and if there’s a specific genre I’m known for, it’s something like “effective, sympathy-garnering whining”. I’m pretty good at it! This means that whatever sympathy you are feeling here is partially amplified by my ability to make you feel it, rather than my actual situation. I’m cheating.
This is something I’m doing to myself (unless I’m not; see the next section). I’m not actually being chased by wolves; I’ve just convinced myself I am. Should you still feel bad because people like me feel bad? Maybe. But not as bad as if they felt bad for reasons external to themselves, probably.
This is also something I’m doing to other people. If I manage to talk myself out of a job, you know who gets the worst of it? People who aren’t me but rely on me. Family. Friends. Internet people, even. I’m fundamentally reducing the amount of service I have to spread around for what’s essentially no reason (probably).
My life is much, much better than it used to be, especially in ways you’d typically associate with stress.
Another reason I didn’t even want to put on the list (because it’s so silly) is that I might not even be that stressed. There’s a sort of “how do others perceive the color blue” element to trying to figure out how your emotional experience stacks up against others. It’s entirely possible I’m living a low-stress, low-worries life and I’m just such a nancy about it that I end up whining anyway. Imagine me believing all that stuff above, and it just isn’t so and I have it pretty easy.
I dumped various parts of this on various people in my life over the last couple of weeks. Various people came back with different thoughts on it. Really close real-life friends I think find it justifiably awkward to talk about - there’s nothing they can do, and there’s nothing visible to them that could be causing it.
Some of my internet friends brought up what they thought of as justified stressors - job stuff and life stuff I had shared. And they aren’t wrong, because there is stuff. But I’m comparing it against what life was like three years ago, when the power wouldn’t stay on and health insurance wasn’t a thing, and it just doesn’t make sense that this would feel as bad as that. And most of the time it doesn’t, but every once in a while it does and I have no real way to fix it except to turtle up and wait it out.
Acquaintances at a lunch suggested the effect is probably real, but it might be related to conditioning. If I spent a long time with actual stresses, they guessed, it might be something like a person who lives by railroad tracks and gets accustomed to the sound - they can’t exist anymore without it. Their body expects it.
I have no idea whether that’s bullshit or not.
The reason I care about this isn’t so much that I’m looking for solutions for myself (if there are any, they are probably drugs that I’ve mostly decided against taking). It’s because it changes how I think about people a bit. I’ve known actually-lazy people, who have never worked and will never work and have never wanted to work. I’m not in the nothing-is-anyone’s-fault camp of morality; I think people make choices sometimes.
But I’ve also known people who seem to be good for about a year at a job at best - they do fine up to that point and then it falls apart for them. I’ve more often than not dumped these guys into the lazy bucket with the verifiably intentionally idle. Now I’m wondering how many of them just had enough built-up historic tension that they weren’t good for much anymore; that they weren’t able to do as much as they’d like while waiting for the other shoe to drop.
A long time ago I wrote something under my real name that got printed that mentioned that my dream was to be doing well before my kids were old enough to understand what it meant that I wasn’t. Now I worry from the other end - that I don’t have what it takes in terms of nervous system freshness to hold up my end of anything productive in the long term.
And I want to look for more sympathy in myself for other people who have current stress of the scars from it where I’ve failed to before.
Note that the faked moon landing principle is a toy model of how I think about things. There may very well be and probably are things that differ between the faked/not faked scenarios that we can check on. I think there’s some kind of mirror on the moon you can bounce a laser off, even.
But think of it like this: Say you hear that UCSF has put out a new paper on the long-term effects of spanking. Say you don’t have an opinion on spanking and don’t know much about it from an evidence standpoint. You can still be nearly 100% that the study is going to be anti-spanking - you’d expect the same outcome regardless of the drivers.
Almost all people I’ve seen fired for this have been men. No idea why.