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Stress showdowns: Let the most frazzled win!

Millions of Americans are so stressed they don’t have time for, among other things: lunch, vacation, sleep, exercise, time with their family or even sex. One thing they do have plenty of time for? Talking about how stressed they are.
Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC

Millions of Americans are so stressed they don’t have time for, among other things: lunch, vacation, sleep, exercise, time with their family or even sex.

One thing they do have plenty of time for? Talking about how stressed they are.

Sure, we all say we’re after a less-stressed existence. We squeeze in a yoga session every now and then and take whiffs of serenity-scented candles. But the truth is, we’ve got a love-hate relationship with stress. We love to say how much we hate it. 

“It’s chic to be stressed,” says Leslie Reisner, Ph.D., a Los Angeles psychologist and corporate trainer specializing in stress. “Not only do many of us want the stress in our lives, we want more stress than the next guy. It’s the new way of keeping up with the Joneses.”

You know the script. If you mention you worked until 10 p.m., your co-worker ups the ante to 10:30. If you are up to your neck in e-mail, she’s up to her eyeballs. If you are tied in knots, someone else's knots are bigger, tighter, knottier.

The rat race has a new finish line. It’s not who gets there first, but who’s the most hassled along the way.

Tyler Hill, a 30-year-old graphic designer for a Seattle dotcom, recently overheard such a duel in the cafeteria at work. "One guy was telling this other guy that he was about to go on vacation, and how it had been a while since he’d taken one. And the other guy says: ‘Well, I’ve been here four years and I’ve been so incredibly busy I’ve never been able to take a vacation.'"

Stress equals success?
Reisner, who teaches stress junkies to kick the habit, says this increasingly obnoxious behavior has become a U.S. corporate culture phenomenon because “stress has come to equal success.”

“People are now determining their self-worth on how busy they are and how much they have to do,” she says.

Competitive stressing seems to blend two of our favorite pastimes: bragging and complaining.

Perhaps it’s practice for the nursing home, when we’ll sit around and one-up each other’s ailments. Glaucoma and gout? That’s nothing — try shingles and incontinence.

“I’m guilty of it myself,” says James W. Pennebaker, a professor and chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. “If I’ve got a problem and you’ve got one, I want mine to be bigger and to get more attention and sympathy.”

When someone goes on about how he works 14 hours a day and doesn’t see his family and hasn’t had a vacation and doesn’t get any sleep and, by the way, has 2,000 unopened e-mails, what he’s really saying is: I’m a very important and valuable person.

But he’s also doing it in such a way that garners sympathy, Pennebaker says.

Stress is also a handy ready-made excuse for all sorts of bad behaviors, from being grumpy to making a mistake. You are so frazzled you only got four hours of sleep, after all.

Just look to the celebrities. Even Lindsay Lohan blamed a suspicious hospitalization on exhaustion brought about by extreme stress. 

Wearing stress as a badge of honor can also serve as defense mechanism. When you show the world you are totally stressed out you’re sending out a signal: Don’t give me any more stuff to do.

"It's actually a rather efficient social strategy," Pennebaker says.

‘Misery loves company’
For Andrea Leigh, 28, a project manager for an online retailer in Seattle, complaining is a natural way to bond with people at work. “Misery loves company after all.”

That’s why it’s hard not to get sucked into the competitive stress cycle, Leigh says: “If everyone is getting coffee and saying, 'Oh, I haven’t slept in days, I didn’t have time to eat lunch, I’m so busy I haven’t seen my husband in a week,' you don’t want to be the one who’s like, oh, I slept great!”

Sometimes, Leigh admits, she’s even caught herself inadvertently one-upping a friend out of competitive habit.

“A girlfriend who works at Microsoft was saying how she had an international conference call so had to work until the middle of the night, and I responded, 'Oh yeah, me too.' Then in my mind, I was like, that’s not even true! Why did I just say that?”

When Hill first started his job as graphic designer five years ago he found himself joining in the same kind of banter.

“Then I started to realize that you can’t even air your legitimate complaints because it sparks this one-upsmanship. Haven’t taken a vacation this year? Well, don’t bother sharing that because you’re just going to hear: ‘Well, it’s been two years for me.’ I realized you don’t get anything out of it and it wears you down.”

So he made it a point to buck the stressed-out shtick. “For a while when managers would hand something off to me, since I didn’t act all stressed and worked up about it, they’d think I wasn’t taking it seriously,” he says.

Dr. Richard Rahe, a stress researcher and clinical professor of psychology at the University of Washington, doubts that competitive stressers are suffering from stress as much as they let on.

He’s spent much of his career working with veterans, and is currently helping soldiers returning from Iraq.

“If you’ve really had a major stress, like war trauma, you don’t really talk about it. If you do, the reputation is you aren’t all that stressed and need to build up the experience,” he says.

That may be true, say Pennebaker, but the way we talk about stress is changing. Young people are more vocal with their griping in general. And while the word "stress" was first popularized by new-agey concerns, it's now shorthand for talking about all of life's hassles.

"It's beyond my comprehension that my father — or anyone of his generation — would have gone around saying, 'I'm so stressed,'" Pennebaker says.

People brag about whatever their culture values. So, in the '70s, the boast was: 'Oh, I was so messed up, I don't even remember the '60s.' In the '80s, it was more about materialism. You bragged about what you had.

Today, the average worker isn't going to make many friends by bragging about how stoned he got or crowing about his new Porsche. But since society values being busy and having an important job, stress has become the new status symbol.

As with all status symbols, the more insecure you are, the more you tend to flash them about. You're more likely to hear an associate spouting off about stress than a partner, and a young staffer talking about sleep-deprivation than the CEO.

Get out while you can
Reisner warns that the very act of complaining about stress can make your life feel more stressful.

In the long run, she says, most of us would be healthier and happier if we disentangled ourselves from the competitive stress cycle.

Start by practicing not complaining for one week, she says. You may feel a bit lonely at first because you aren’t part of the conversation, but you’ll start to feel strengthened and empowered. “It’s like saying no to cheesecake, you feel better for having done it,” she says.

So, for instance, when someone at work says, "I'm so tense I didn't get any sleep last night," instead of trying to outdo them, say simply: "I sure hope things get better for you."

That doesn’t mean you should bottle it all up inside. “It’s important to be able to vent and share what’s going on in your life, but do it with your spouse or your best friend — people who actually care — not somebody you are trying to impress,” Reisner says.

And next time you are tempted to one-up an overworked, overwhelmed and overly tired co-worker, ask yourself: Is this a contest I really want to win?