Healthy stress

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Uncategorized

I wanted to kick the printer.


The printer always just works. Why was it offline on the one afternoon when I really needed it? I was leaving the house in 15 minutes to give a talk in Bellevue, and I needed to print my slides.

I could feel my heart beating faster, and a rush of intense irritation. I wanted to take a hammer to the printer.

“Of course the printer decides not to work today, right now, when I really need it,” I thought angrily to myself. I blamed my husband. I blamed the universe.

I turned it off and on; I clicked the “print” button repeatedly; I opened the printer icon in my systems tray.


My talk that evening was about the tangle of stress, confidence and imposter syndrome — frequent themes that my coaching clients bring to my office. The notes version of my slides had the cues I needed to talk (seemingly) extemporaneously and confidently for an hour.

I really needed the printer to work. I really needed those slides.

One of my slides, trapped in the ether, offers a definition of stress:  Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake.

I borrowed that definition from Dr. Kelly McDonigal’s “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It,” an immensely useful  book that reframes stress as a resource to draw on, a source of strength and motivation, rather than a harmful emotional reaction left over from our caveman days. (See my column “How to transform stress into something pretty great.”)

“This definition is big enough to hold both the frustration over traffic and the grief over a loss,” McDonigal writes. “It includes your thoughts, emotions and physical reactions when you’re feeling stressed, as well as how you choose to cope with situations you’d describe as stressful.

“This definition also highlights an important truth about stress: Stress and meaning are inextricably linked,” she continues. “You don’t stress out about things you don’t care about, and you can’t create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress.”

In that moment with the printer, flooded with adrenaline and desperation, I was feeling quite stressed.

You don’t stress out about things you don’t care about. I thought about what was at stake: I care about the topic. I care about how I present myself. I want to communicate clearly.

I wanted to be useful to the women who had come to hear me talk.

As I thought about what I actually cared about — what holds meaning for me — the panic and frustration receded.  The situation felt back in control. I wasn’t the victim of a capricious universe or a neglectful IT husband, I just really, really cared about clearly communicating my presentation.

In the ensuing mental calm, it occurred to me that I should reboot my computer.

Fifteen minutes later, I was driving east to Bellevue, my printed notes tucked securely in my bag. My husband was happy I hadn’t killed the printer.

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.