[Paleopsych] NYT: Cracking Under the Pressure? It's Just the Opposite, for Some
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Fri Sep 10 14:24:18 UTC 2004
NYT: Cracking Under the Pressure? It's Just the Opposite, for Some
September 10, 2004
By ANAHAD O'CONNOR
For Michael Jones, an architect at a top-tier firm in New
York, juggling multiple projects and running on four hours
of sleep is business as usual. Mr. Jones has adjusted, he
says, to a rapid pace and the constant pressure that leads
his colleagues to "blow up" from time to time.
A design project can drag on for more than a year, often
requiring six-day workweeks and painstaking effort. At the
moment, he said, he is working on four.
But for Mr. Jones, the stress is worth it, if only because
every now and then he can gaze at the Manhattan skyline and
spot a product of his labor: the soaring profile of the
Chatham apartment building on East 65th Street, one of many
structures he has helped design in his 14 years at Robert
A. M. Stern Architects.
"If I didn't feel like I was part of something important, I
wouldn't be able to do this," he said.
Mr. Jones belongs to a rare breed of worker that
psychologists have struggled to understand for decades, not
for the sheer amount of stress they grapple with day to
day, but for the way they flourish under it. They are a
familiar but puzzling force in the workplace, perpetually
functioning in overdrive to meet a punishing schedule or a
To colleagues, these men and women may seem simply like
workaholics. But psychologists who study them call them
resilient, or hardy, and say they share certain backgrounds
and qualities that enable them to thrive under enormous
"People who are high in hardiness enjoy ongoing changes and
difficulties," said Dr. Salvatore R. Maddi, a professor of
psychology at the University of California, Irvine, and the
author of a forthcoming book, "Resilience at Work." "They
find themselves more involved in their work when it gets
tougher and more complicated. They tend to think of stress
as a normal part of life, rather than as something that's
Chronic stress has been linked to an array of illnesses,
including heart disease and depression. But people who cope
successfully, studies have found, punch in at work with
normal levels of stress hormones that climb during the day
and drop sharply at night. Their coworkers who complain of
being too stressed have consistently higher levels of
hormones that rarely dip very far, trapping them in a
constant state of anxiety.
At the same time, resilient people seem to avoid
stress-related health and psychological problems, even as
colleagues are falling to pieces, say researchers who have
studied strenuous work environments.
"Some of it is genetic, some of it is how you were raised,
and some it is just your personality," Dr. Bruce McEwen,
director of the neuroendocrinology laboratory at
Rockefeller University, said.
People who thrive under pressure do not necessarily seek
out particular professions, researchers say. But whether
they are on the trading floor or the campaign trail, they
all appear to have had early experiences in difficult
environments that taught them how to regulate their stress
levels. They can sense when they are reaching their
breaking point, and they know when to take a walk or turn
off the ringer.
In some cases, these people subject themselves to stresses
of their own making, driven by an unconscious urge to
conquer pressures that dogged them as children or young
adults, said Steven Kuchuck, a psychotherapist in New York
who treats many patients who seek out demanding jobs and
"There's this strong desire to go back to similar sources
of stress that they grew up with in an effort to master
it," Mr. Kuchuck said. "Some people will say 'No, I don't
like a lot of stress,' but they find themselves in one
stressful job after another, so there must be something
that's pulling them."
Mr. Kuchuck has also seen the opposite: people who crave a
frenzied career because they feel their childhoods were not
stimulating at all.
But regardless of what propels people to push themselves,
what allows them to prosper, psychologists say, is a strong
commitment to their career, a feeling of being in control,
and a tendency to view stress as a challenge rather than as
People's attitudes toward their jobs and the degree to
which they feel they make a difference by showing up each
day have long been considered powerful indicators of how
well they will do. Being just another cog in a machine with
no say over what happens is almost guaranteed to cause
burnout. But even in the most grueling work environment,
people can cope if they feel they have some control.
Studies of professional musicians show that people in
orchestras are often less satisfied and more stressed than
those in small chamber groups because they lack autonomy,
according to Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology
and neurology at Stanford and the author of "Why Zebras
Don't Get Ulcers." Orchestra musicians are at the mercy of
their maestro's every whim. For years, they had no power
even to take regular bathroom breaks.
"The people who are under someone's thumb, who are
low-ranking and don't have any decision-making,'' Dr.
McEwen said, "these are the people who always experience
People who exhibit hardiness are reluctant to cede control.
They are also less likely to feel victimized by their
bosses or by unpredictable life circumstances. When there
is a crisis at work, they can tough it out because they
accept a harsh workload or the occasional pink slip as an
unsavory but inevitable part of life, psychologists say.
"They know there'll be different challenges, some you can't
even anticipate, yet they train their minds to say these
things are expected," said Dr. Robert Brooks, a clinical
psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the author of
"The Power of Resilience."
Anticipating troubled waters can decrease vulnerability to
stress-induced diseases. In the early 1980's, Dr. Maddi of
U.C. Irvine followed hundreds of employees at Illinois Bell
when its parent company, AT&T, was facing federal
deregulation. More than 10,000 people eventually lost their
"There was suicide, depression, anxiety disorders,
divorces, heart attacks, strokes - all the things that
could be attributed to massive stress," Dr. Maddi said.
But while about two-thirds of the workers in Dr. Maddi's
sample unraveled, the other third thrived. They survived
the incident with their health intact and hung onto their
jobs or moved to another company where they quickly climbed
up the ranks.
When the researchers went back and reviewed their first set
of interviews, they found that many of the people who made
it through unscathed had stressful family backgrounds -
constant moving, their parents getting divorced - and were
more likely to describe change as inevitable.
"Some of the people who cracked had initially taken a job
with Bell rather than I.B.M. because they believed it was
safe and didn't want any disruption," Dr. Maddi said.
Stress is unavoidable, so bracing for it every now and then
is the best way to cope. But people who are on constant
alert may be suffering from an anxiety disorder,
Those who collapse under the pressures of the workplace are
prone to envision every worst-case scenario, while
resilient people think of how a greater workload, for
example, might lead to a promotion. In studies, researchers
have found that perhaps the only time pessimists thrive is
when they become lawyers.
"If you're drawing up a contract, the ability to see every
foreseeable danger is something that goes along with
pessimism, but it's also what makes a good lawyer," Dr.
Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the
University of Pennsylvania, said. "The problem is, not only
are they good at seeing that the roof might collapse on
you, they're also good at seeing that their mate might be
having an affair, that they're never going to make
But one way to overcome cynicism and exhaustion, said Dr.
Andy Morgan, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale,
is with a sense of personal accomplishment.
An architect who toils six days a week, regularly burning
the midnight oil, like Mr. Jones, can be happy if a glimpse
of the Manhattan skyline illustrates the value of his
"When you feel that you're accomplishing something, it's
akin to a sense of control," Dr. Morgan said. "When people
start feeling that what they're doing is not meaningful,
then they take more sick days, begin looking for another
job, and complain of health problems."
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