Recursive stress: changing the antipattern

Stress isn’t as cute as these dolls, otherwise recursion would be no biggie.

Stress is everywhere, and it is normal. Some of us feel it emotionally and mentally: we lose focus easily, get distracted, forgetful, sometimes irritable. Some of us experience it more physically: stomach/digestion issues, trouble sleeping, strange twitches, headaches, you name it. And of course many of us experience both. It’s all pretty normal for the most part: we lead busy, complex lives; stress is our mind’s way of telling us we have needs too, and we must attend to them.

void stress() { stress(); }

Recursive stress, as I call it, is stress that yields new stress about itself. It is insidious. When I work with other people, or even try to decode my own actions, it comes up time and time again. We all experience some stress in our day-to-day lives, but when we become aware of it and it begins to be its own source of stress, all sorts of bad things happen. Panic attacks, severe physical symptoms, debilitating procrastination, depression, conflict – I’ve seen them all. In my experience there’s at least 3 key steps you can take to help avoid the recursive step of stressing about stress.

Listen To Your Body

It’s not always the right time to deal with stress, I get it. But when you’re feeling those symptoms – the headaches, the digestive issues, the difficulty focusing – this is your “check engine” light. You need to pause for a moment and listen to what your body is trying to say. If you examine closely, you will inevitably find some fundamental need or desire that is under threat, and you can start to use your mind to figure out what that is and make some changes. Conversely, ignoring your stress does not work. Not long term, at least. Ignoring it means the symptoms are likely to return, perhaps worse than before. Trying harder and harder to work around the symptoms makes you less effective at relationships, work, and play – and that only leads to more stress. Take some time to listen, now.

Stop Attacking Yourself

We humans have other ways of accepting ourselves.

When I start to figure out what’s bothering me, there’s often a thought that pops up that goes something like this: “That’s such a little thing – you shouldn’t let that bother you.” Do you think that thought when you start to feel stress? At one level it seems wise. Maybe you’re getting worked up about something that you “know” you don’t need to. But the truth for most of us is that it is very difficult to convince yourself you shouldn’t be stressed like that. In fact, that very thought – that you “shouldn’t” feel a certain way based on the data – becomes just another source of stress. Now you’re not only experiencing stress about the first thing, but you’re stressed about your reaction as well. Instead, realize that even if it’s true, it’s not yet helpful to dismiss your stress. Accept that you, in fact, are feeling stress about that thing. Show some compassion for yourself. Own it. You’re not a weak or bad person for feeling that way. Once you accept it, you’re in a lot better place to take the next step.

Don’t Solve It All

Whew! You’re listing to your body, taking a moment to deal with the thing and not attacking yourself in the process. Now you’re ready to go conquer. But the minute you return to the thing, the stress floods back, sometimes even worse.


Stress tends to impede our ability to problem-solve as effectively as we might otherwise, and we often think we can return to and conquer that thing just like we could if we weren’t feeling stressed. Do yourself a favor: set a new goal — a very specific, probably smaller one, and move your focus on that one thing. If you’re refactoring a whole subsystem and get stuck in the weeds, pull back, pick one piece, and make that the goal. Don’t look at the whole, look at the part, and achieve some real, measurable success there before you even think about the next step. The words I say to myself at times are “that big thing doesn’t matter right now: I’m going to solve this one piece at a time.” You don’t usually need to solve it all at once to make progress, and believing you must often isn’t helpful at all.

These three concepts have helped me repeatedly with my own recursive stress. Finding a quality therapist to coach me through it more specifically was a key part of unwinding the stack I had created, too.

What works for you?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *