Habitual Stress: Overwinding/Fractalnoia in Everyday Life

Habitual Stress: Overwinding/Fractalnoia in Everyday Life

Image by earmoncurry via Flickr

Today I want to explore habitual stress. Habitual stress is ever-present fear that your life is balanced on knife-edge. That every year, every month, every day, you need to keep track of more stuff. That at any point you could lose control and it would mean disaster of some kind, whether professional or personal. That without total vigilance, everything in your life will go completely and permanently to hell. (That “permanently” is important.) I’ll give examples of what I mean shortly. First, however, I want to introduce the two ideas that I think result in habitual stress: “Overwinding” and “Fractalnoia”.

Both of these terms were defined by Douglas Rushkoff in his book “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now”. I became aware of them from an interview-opinion post on Wired. Rushkoff defines overwinding as

trying to squish huge timescales into much smaller ones, like attempting to experience the catharsis of a well-crafted, five-act play in the random flash of a reality show [or] packing a year’s worth of retail sales expectations into a single Black Friday event…”
Fractalnoia, on the other hand, he defines as
making sense of our world entirely in the present tense, by drawing connections between things – sometimes inappropriately…”
So, in a sense, overwinding describes the modern attempt to do more stuff in less time. Fractalnoia, then, is the attempt to understand events while suffering from overwinding — the struggle to understand cause and effect when temporal relationships no long exist.

How This Leads to Habitual Stress

If Rushkoff is right, then the only possible result is habitual stress. We’re continually hearing that we must be faster, better, and smarter. We’re not just hearing this from work (“do more with less”), but from friends, family, and even ourselves. Not only that, but it has to be done now. I’ve written about why the focus on grades is bad, but it’s completely understandable. Students and teachers stew in the socially reinforced message of  “GOOD GRADES NOW OR YOU’LL NEVER GET A JOB.” The same happens with health issues: “LOSE WEIGHT AND GET HEALTHY NOW OR YOU’LL DIE.” I could go on and on giving similar examples. The thing they have in common is the idea that it must be done NOW, or everything will be bad FOREVER. Not only does mean that your future is irrevocably set by your failures now, it also suggests that the past has no bearing on your current circumstances. Together these lead to a complete loss of perspective. Neither historical context nor the possibility for future repair exist anymore.

Habitual stress, then, is the feeling of riding a passenger train that seems to be out of control. The scenery flashes by faster and faster, and the wheels squeal loudly with strain as they struggle to stay on the tracks. Is there an emergency brake? We don’t know. Even if there is we are afraid of what will happen if we pull it. We want a break.  Even a little one would be enough — just a moment to step off the train, to stretch our legs and take a few breaths, maybe even get a leisurely bite to eat. But we know the train won’t slow down, not for us. If we try to get off anyway, we’ll be crushed under the wheels. And G-- help us if we get fall — or get thrown off — because we just weren’t strong enough to hang on.

Is the growing propensity for doomsday scenarios all that surprising, then? Zombie apocalypse, the 2012 Mayan prophecy, Christian “Rapture” predictions, even the idea of the Singularity — these ideas are, in effect, wishes that the train would simply crash, as we fear it will. Some event will give us what we really want: a reason to get off the train. It’s a bleak but comforting image of a simpler time. After all, we never imagine ourselves as one of the ones who is injured or killed by whatever fiery wreck stops the ride. (Christians predicting the Rapture are never among those left behind, for example, and discussions of the zombie apocalypse are always from the survivor’s point of view.) Rushkoff terms this Apocalypto — “the intolerance for presentism [that] leads us to fantasize a grand finale….”

The Alternative to Habitual Stress

So how do we break this cycle? I think a  few things need to happen to be able to stop and breathe occasionally. First, break the spell of overwinding. Not everything needs to be done RIGHT NOW. Identify the things that will occur in the future, and let them go. They’ll come back soon enough. Along the same lines, forgive yourself for whatever mistakes you make now. Even if something goes horribly and terribly wrong, you can and will bounce back.

Second, recognize the role your past plays in your current circumstances. By this I don’t mean “Man, you goofed off a lot. Look how much you suck now!” I mean instead look at how far you’ve come. You’ve accomplished a lot to get where you are now. Don’t underestimate what you’ve done, and don’t underestimate how much others have been willing to help you get to where you are now. Properly honoring the past — both yours and your ancestors — can give perspective on how much potential your future holds. Finally, with these ideas in mind, be willing to let go. If you need a break from the train, take it. Get the rest you need and deserve. Things aren’t likely to go wrong; if they do, you can fix them; and if you need help you will probably get it.

Accomplishing these three things is much easier said than done. The direction of society seems to be towards further loss of perspective, so much of this will be swimming against the current. But is it worth it to get rid of habitual stress? I think so, but what do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

This week is a continuation of a “series”; the first post is Why Higher Education Will Continue To Suck, and the second is Being a Storyteller in the Age of Narrative Collapse. I think there may be one more before I’m done.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you so much for this. Picturing the train that you either subconsciously sabotage into crashing in order to get off of it makes me really want to work on more sane, healthy ways to occasionally get off the train in ways of my own choosing! Thank you …


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