Thursday, August 2, 2012

Simplifying Stress

Stress. Just about everyone experiences it at some level. Some stress impacts us positively (like adrenaline fueling us to get through a difficult activity) while other stress affects us negatively. Stress doesn't just have a mental impact - it has emotional and physiological effects as well. Ever notice how you feel physically worse on the days that you have a stressful task to accomplish, and better once it's completed?

I can't even pretend to know how to wipe out stress, and to be honest, it's not something I think we should eliminate completely. Stress, even when it's the "bad" kind, can be a helpful indicator. If we're really feeling uncomfortable or anxious about a situation, perhaps it's a sign that we need to make some changes. I truly feel that stress plays a role in our "gut instinct" and intuition. This is completely my own thought, I'm not basing this on scientific evidence, but it makes sense (at least to me). If your gut or intuition tells you that something's "wrong", perhaps it's because it's causing us stress, even if it's in our subconscious and we can't pinpoint it at the time.

Still, who wants to have more stress when you could have less? I took a look at a few of the things that seem to cause me the most stress, and realized that if I simplified them, I'd probably feel a lot better. Here's what I came up with.

1. Be open, and be yourself. Having to keep things from people, be cautious, or greatly sensor what you say (beyond what seems appropriate - i.e. not cursing at your boss) causes stress. Basically, it's forcing you to bottle up, to remember "who you have to be" around different people.

2. Limit your task time. I talked about this in my last blog a bit. I often feel overwhelmed when I have 10 different tasks facing me and I don't know where to start or how long each will take. So write down your tasks and assign each one a time limit. Obviously, the exception is an emergency, but only a true emergency. "I need to immediately answer that email from the friend who only emails me once every two months" is not an emergency unless your friend is in a serious crisis. It's easier to approach a task that has a definitive end in sight.

3. Realize what you can and can't control. What you can control: your actions and reactions. What you can't: everything else. I'm not a fatalist, so I'm definitely not saying "everything happens for a reason", but when you realize what you can't control, it's a lot easier. If you need a sunny day for an outdoor event and the forecast says T-storms, the only thing you can do is have a backup plan. You can't control if it's going to storm or not, no matter how much you worry, so why waste the energy on it when you could be doing something helpful - i.e. creating a backup plan. This, I'll admit, is the hardest for me to learn and I still struggle with it, especially when it comes to the actions/thoughts of others. Wouldn't it be nice to make them act in the way that you want? But it doesn't work that way and the more you try to control it, the more stressful it gets.

4. What's a want and what's a need? A need is something you can't live without or (and this is my addition) something that would drastically alter your life if you lost it. For instance, someone may be able to live without a roof over their head, but realistically, I'd categorize this as a need. A want, is anything extra. I'm not saying wants aren't important - some are incredibly important. Still, they're not essential. You don't need that particular relationship that just broke up or that dream job you didn't get. You'll survive with out it. You might want it very badly, but six months from now, that may change. You might be in a happier relationship or a more fulfilling job. That's the difference really. Wants can change, needs really don't.

5.  Sometimes life takes you the scenic route. At 24, I worked for a corporate fitness company, was newly married, owned a house in the suburbs, and thought my life was set. It was just as I thought it'd go. College, job, married, house. At 27 that changed (details not needed here, feel free to ask me personally). At almost 33, I live by myself - well, with my dog - in an apartment in the city, own my own company, and am really still figuring out where I want to be with the rest of my life. Whether you believe in fate, destiny, blue prints, or that you make your own way, I think we can all agree that life throws us curve balls. When you accept this, you stop worry about "the way it's supposed to be" according to your own plan, and start seeing opportunities with "the way it is right now".

6. It's ok to slip up. Just realize when it happens. Nobody's perfect and trying to be adds to the stress. To me, a born perfectionist, this is the most important concept. Things may be going smoothly and then something knocks you back. It's almost inevitable. So recognize it, get back up, and keep on trucking. Try to learn from the experience - why did you take a step backwards and how can you prevent it in the future? The more you've worked on simplifying your stress, the quicker you'll recover. A good measuring stick is the ability to say "that's ok" when something goes awry - and mean it! When this doesn't cause you undue stress, that's when you know you've got it.

I understand that these tactics for "simplifying stress" aren't, as the title might indicate, simple. By simplifying, I mean working to understand stress, and how to handle it. Stress can be a bit of a monster, to be honest. Even when we've gotten the concepts down, they can take a long time to fully adapt. They say it takes six weeks to create a habit. In this case, it may be more like six months, a year, or more. In the end though, it will be worth it.

 I'd love to hear any additional techniques you may have. I'm not a mental health professional, so these are simply things I've learned and used (and am still working on). Additional ideas are always more than welcome. 

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