The Executive Stress Myth: Why Everyone’s Missing The Point

This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on

Executive stress has come under scrutiny as of late, most pointedly in a piece by Keith Payne for Scientific American that claims C-level execs are boo-hooing about stress—that sometimes it’s so bad that they have to take a year off to sail around the world.

Ha ha. We get it.

Payne cites the origins of executive stress, dating back to the 1950s, citing several studies, including one in which rhesus monkeys were exposed to electric shocks. While some had no control, those that did (the “executive” monkeys) could learn to prevent those shocks by hitting a lever. Despite the fact that these monkeys had more control, they started dropping dead from stomach ulcers, which seemed to suggest that making big decisions was stressful, i.e., execs have it worse.

(Turns out, the study had a fatal flaw, says Payne: rather than being assigned at random to worker or exec level, monkeys who learned to ward off shocks faster were “promoted” to executive, meaning they were not necessarily better at coping, but had a heightened reaction to stress that proved their downfall. Exactly the type of person you would be hesitant about promoting yourself.)

That may be where the idea of C-level stress was born, but we all know quite well now (and glad to see Payne has joined us): People with fewer resources and less control over their lives suffer from dangerous levels of stress—which is why the lower class, the poor, underprivileged, are more at risk.

But all of this finger pointing and blaming is missing the point. Big time. Because it’s not about Who’s More Stressed—the point is we’re all under stress, and the danger of chronic, unabating stress is not up for debate. Circumstances are a contributing factor, for sure—but if you believe that external circumstances determine how bad you have it, then you’re falling pretty to another, bigger myth about stress: That it happens out there.

Stress doesn’t happen out there. Your internal response to external stimuli, among other factors, is what ratchets up your stress level—and the negative effects you experience. The stress that you, me, and everyone else is feeling is the result of one thing: How you approach the adversity you’re faced with every day.

If the well-off CEO does not handle her chronic stress, which may be fueled by declining morale, decreased profits, and lack of sleep, the effects will be every bit as real as they are for the striving lower-level exec who’s trying to cover bills, child care, mortgage, and the rest, or for the single mother in the Bronx living below the poverty line. It’s not a matter of whose stress is more real. It’s how you handle yours that counts.

There is no benefit to classifying stress in as “their” problem or “our” problem—because it presumes you can’t teach someone to better manage their stress response, and you can.

Andrew Shatte, PhD, meQ’s Chief Science Officer, says, “It’s not the plight that determines your stress response. It’s your ability to get up and see your way through it.” We are wired to search for danger on the horizon, but the survivors are the ones who stay focused, optimistic and believe in their abilities—while taking measures to improve their own resilience.

No one’s denying that C-level execs have more resources than many other people. Stress is certainly not a first-class problem. But it requires the same solution in order to get it under control, no matter who you are.