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the battle of semantics: pressure vs stress

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On a flight to HK last month, I read the August issue of Marie Claire. In one section, they asked celebrities how they faced “stress”, or “pressure”. And it struck me that in Chinese, the term for “stress” can actually mean either “pressure” or “stress” when translated into English. Indeed, many of us use “stress” and “pressure” interchangeably to mean the same thing. I beg to differ – and it might only be a matter of semantics, yet it was this thin line between definitions that got me trapped in my own head.

Reading the celebrities’ response, I particularly resonate with Zhang Ziyi, who said that “everything I have good or bad, comes from stress/pressure”. And perhaps like many others in this world, I thrive under pressure. Tom Cruise remarked “I already don’t have time to accomplish everything I want to do, how do I even have time to think about stress/pressure?”. Neither did I have the time to reflect about the stress/pressure I was under, because I was too busy with everything else.

I might have broken down a few months ago, but I still enjoy a bit of pressure. When there is no time pressure, no pressure to deliver, I become lazy, lax, and unmotivated. The fact that I have to reach a goal or destination creates excitement in anticipation to actually getting to that point. I am quite competitive in personality. I am not sure if it’s innate—‘they’ all say Aries, especially a Rooster Aries, is particularly competitive, always wanting to be the leader and be heard—or whether its from nurture, through a competitive education system where everything seemed to be achievement-based; and if you do not achieve, you are left on the wayside. So from a very young age, perhaps compounded with my nature, I have been conditioned to compete and to achieve. This “pressure” from achieving, accomplishing, bettering my peers, bettering myself inducted the electricity in my body and brain. I was very driven as a person. I loved the pressure. I even create pressure for myself to stretch my limits.

However, whilst pressure could be healthy, and drives a person with good intentions, stress is the extreme of pressure, which is detrimental to the body and the mind.

If pressure was neutral or maybe even positive in some cases, stress is definitely negative.

Stress occurs when we feel that the situation, or maybe ourselves, are out of our control. Our capabilities are not adequate to deal with the immense pressure before us, hence creating stress.

It doesn’t sound very reassuring to know that the situation we have to face is beyond our capabilities to control. We’d like to think we are superhuman – at least competitive people like me. We are proud; we do not like to admit defeat and that we cannot perform the task in front of us. We become frustrated and angry. Some become desperate and give up. Others labour discreetly until we find a way to master it. Of course, this in a way stretches our limits and enlarges our comfort zone – but that is the pressure. The stress is when this pressure becomes overwhelming and we still refuse to give up. Many a times, we do not even know whether we are stressed or not, and we convince ourselves that it’s pressure and we will succeed sooner or later. After all, what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger, right?

Not always right. Stress didn’t kill me (well, nearly, albeit self-induced), and it has indirectly made me stronger and more cognisant of my abilities today. Yet it did bring me down drastically.

So how to tell the difference between “pressure” and “stress”?

This relies heavily on our self-awareness. We need to know where our present capabilities are framed. Then we should estimate how far we can stretch them by reasonable means – perhaps it is possible to study an hour more to acquire the concepts, or work an hour more to finish that proposal, practice my golf swings a few more times for a hour…. Once beyond that “hour of stretch”, so should I call it, stress starts to dominate. If we insist on plunging into hour 2, 3, 4… we are stressing ourselves out. Stress has come into play. And it is not healthy, because it can creep up and accumulate unknowingly in disguise.

Apart from self-awareness, we also need to come to terms with “quitting”. Many years ago I read an article in the Financial Times by a columnist. I have since then forgotten her name but one thing she wrote was very profound and to this day I can remember her assertion: “Quitting is not a sign of weakness, sometimes it is more productive to quit and give up than to keep persisting in futility.” Back then I wondered: but this is against the very virtues that education, school, and religion teaches us! We were brought up with the morals to continue trying and persevering, and to never give up. So many anecdotes of people who succeeded with determination, and Chinese fables of an old man who dug away the whole mountain bit by bit to create a direct road between his house and town…

In the article, the columnist did explain this seeming contradiction. And I agree with her: whereby when we were under 25 years old, it’s ok to keep failing and standing back up and try again. It builds character. We tried to make our “weaknesses” less weak by trying to overcome them. Yet as we mature, instead of wasting time to deal with our weaknesses, it is far more productive to simply accept them in our character, and then focus on our strengths and maximize that potential. In other words, we need to know when to “quit”. Similarly, we need to know when to stop pressuring ourselves lest it becomes stress.

It’s a fine line, and perhaps wobbly at times. But it must be drawn. Stress should not even appear in our lives in the first place. And if this stands true, then there is no need to manage or cope with stress at all. Without stress, so many illnesses in this world – physical or mental – would probably disappear without this major culprit.

Its an ideal world. But why not?

2 Responses

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  2. […] really is no point in pushing yourself into perfection for everything, for it creates unnecessary stress. I am not aiming to be a chef as those contestants on the Masterchef show, at least not just yet. […]

about Noch Noch

Enoch Li, (pen name: Noch Noch) is born and raised in Hong Kong and Australia. She has also studied / worked / lived in the US, France, UK, Japan, The Netherlands, China, and has travelled to more than 40 countries. She loves travelling and her curiosity in foreign cultures and languages has led her to enjoy her life as an international executive in the banking & finance industry. However, she was forced to take time off work in 2010 due to her illnesses and after spending time in recovery, cooking, practising Chinese calligraphy, reading and writing – in short, learning to take care of herself and letting out the residual work stress, she has transitioned into a Play Consultant for corporates interested in creative change management and employee well-being using the psychology of playfulness.