Can stress kill you?
Last week I felt like I’d find out the hard way.
On Monday the 14th of March, I handed in the draft of a huge guest post for a major site – huge load off my mind. I’d spent 12 hours on drafting it, so I was quite stressed the entire week and weekend before.
Hitting the send button came with a huge wave of relief.
I felt fantastic for the rest of the day, and went to bed extra early to catch up on some much needed sleep.
But I didn’t sleep well.
That night, I had a nightmare.
Do you know that feeling when you have a terrible cough, but coughing doesn’t help? It just hurts and burns. As if someone dragged a strip of sandpaper down your throat.
In my dream I coughed like that…
…but what I woke up to was worse.
When my alarm hit at 5 AM, I woke up hot, sweaty, coughing and unable to move.
Not sure what was going on, but guessing that I somehow had gotten incredibly sick over night, I decided to keep sleeping, and woke up 4 hours later.
When your health gets streamrolled, something is wrong…
When I arose from my slumber it was clear that the week was done. I was running a fever, kept shaking, could hardly move nor eat and during each 10 feet walk to the toilet I was worried about passing out on the way.
I spent the entire rest of the week (and much of the next one), like this:
I’d sleep for 12 hours over night, wake up, watch a movie, pass out again, maybe eat a little something, eventually watch another movie, and then the cycle repeats.
Queue the fun statistics:
- Watched 7 movies in 6 days (after watching 2 all year before)
- Lost 5 lbs
- Ended my 547-day cold shower streak, as well as my reading, writing, Miracle Morning and a few others, all of which had been going on well over 200 days
- Didn’t coach for more than 1 day in a row for the first time ever
- Ate 1 meal per day on average
- Slept at least 70 hours in 7 days
If that’s not helping you visualize how shitty I felt, just check this official doctor’s report:
How could I have possibly gone from productively working away to that, over night?
No warning signs, no hiccups, no sleepiness the day before.
I got completely steamrolled. Normally, you have a bunch of symptoms, then you get sick. But when you get taken off the playing field like that, it’s a sign that something went wrong.
The wrong kind of stress
Looking back, I think 2 things happened.
- The stress I had was the wrong kind.
- My viral threshold fell so low that the infection just exploded.
One of them is more psychological, the other more biological. Let me explain both of these things.
Most of the stress during the week before came from a big guest post I had agreed to draft and hand in by Monday the 14th.
It was a ton of fun to write, I’d been dying to write for this site, and I loved spending every second of those 12 hours.
Then why the hell was it so stressful?
Because I had to cram my writing for it in between client work, coaching new people and a bunch of random agreements I had gotten myself into before.
It wasn’t the stress from the post itself that got me so worked up, it was the stress from scrambling together 10 minutes here and 15 minutes there.
This was entirely my fault.
When my clients asked me to do more work, I should have said no.
When random people email me and ask for “just 5 minutes to look at their project” I should have said no.
I still feel this incredible need to justify taking the time I need to create what I think will turn out to be something great.
As if something didn’t have a purpose, just because no one else but me assigns any to it.
Even if no one gives a shit about the stuff you want to do, you go and do it anyway. Treat it like it’s a million dollar business.
It’s much better to be stressed from something you incredibly love doing after hours, than feeling like you’re losing a grip on your passion, just to make an extra 50 bucks.
Fun fact: The only thing that kept making money while I was sick in bed was Four Minute Books, the exact thing I was struggling to find time for.
I’ve already started using this newly found power of saying no by backing out of some commitments and there are more to come.
If you’re gonna be stressed, make sure it’s the right kind of stress.
Stress never kills on the way in…
The second, more biological part of this equation, lies in your viral threshold.
It’s a model I think I see in myself (and therefore completely made up), so you might be different. But then again, maybe not.
I think we all have a viral threshold. A limit as to how many viral cells you can have in your body, before things get ugly.
Let’s say it’s quite high under normal circumstances and usually remains the same for any given week, like this:
You also have a certain concentration of viral cells in your body. This is true at any given time. You always carry around several viruses, it’s just a question if and when one of them breaks out.
Usually, not much happens, maybe it fluctuates a bit when you go to a public space with lots of people, but then falls back to normal.
Of course your workload also varies over the span of the week, it’s not the same for all days.
Lastly, your stress level also fluctuates throughout the week, but it usually follows your workload closely.
Looks good right? As long as everything stays within its normal limits, not much happens.
But for me, the weekend before I got sick, two things came together, that, if combined, are quite deadly.
First, I had a big workload spike over the weekend, which I knew would hit its high on Monday, and then subside. Both my workload and stress would take a sharp dive after Monday night.
Here’s my theory: When your stress levels fall a lot quickly, so does your viral threshold.
People often get sick after final exams in college, or when taking a big, game-changing test, like SATs or the bar exam.
I think the stress often “holds people together” internally, keeping their viral threshold at the normal level until the body catches a big break.
So after I handed in that guest post draft, my tolerance for viral cells was down in the dumps.
Technically, that wouldn’t be a problem, as long as the concentration of viral cells in my body stays below the threshold, right?
However, the weekend before, I went to my sister’s high school graduation.
It was a huge event, where all the kids brought their entire families. The place was packed (my sister ran the show, if you ever need to put together a 500+ people event, give me a call).
As with all big events, plenty of disease carriers show up and “spread the love”.
(you know who you are, girl from table 17!)
So for the remainder of the weekend, I had plenty of extra viral cells floating around my bloodstream. In a normal week that might’ve looked like this, no big deal:
But combine this with the lowered viral threshold from the drop in stress and you are in for some serious trouble.
When your body has a chance to finally “let go” a little bit after a big, stressful event, yet at the same time you carry an extra dose of viral cells around, that’s when you get wiped out.
Can stress kill you?
We all deal with stress differently.
Some of us do really well with it. Others not so much.
If you don’t want stress to kill you, there’s one simple solution: Learn to say no.
Instead of trying to run around and make everyone happy all the time, or squeeze the last dollar out of every job opportunity, just say no.
Focus on your own goals, build your own projects, and choose the positive stress of creative work over the negative stress outside forces put on you.
Yes, it might feel like things aren’t going fast enough, but they never do for anyone.
Steady progress over 3 months is much better than 10 weeks at full speed, followed by a 2 week meltdown.
Here are the two major takeaways from this post, so you can avoid such a meltdown, thanks to mine:
- Always prioritize your own work over other people’s requests, because it’s the better kind of stress for your health.
- Stress never kills on the way in, on its way out is when it gets to you, so avoid huge stress spikes.
When’s the last time you got completely taken out by your health? And what did you learn about stress from it? Let me know in the comments.