Stress is a mystical and medical thing. I often chalk my own pains, poor performance, or lack of sleep to stress, and my clients will do the same. And we are probably right. Stress can cause all kinds of crazy problems that affect us physically, mentally, and emotionally. And while we know this (and it seems like there's a new article out on the dangers of stress every week), we still stress. I think it's partly cultural--we live in a society where individual accomplishment and work is one of the strongest determinants of success. We take on more and more without ever emptying the inbox or feeling like we've done enough. There's always more.
We know stress is a problem. I don't think I need to expand on that. And I also don't think it's really helpful to write another post about meditating or drinking more tea and visualizing a blue sky (although that can't hurt). But stress is a serious enough issue that, if you don't actively address it, it is guaranteed to create pain, unhappiness, or a general sense of dissatisfaction. What do you do?
First, I should just say that I am an extremely stressed person, so it doesn't make sense for me to pretend to be an expert on something I struggle with on a minute to minute basis. But here's the one thing that I do that, when I follow through on it, actually brings some calm.
The first thing I do is acknowledge what stress is. In my opinion, stress is my way of feeling like I'm dealing with an issue I currently have little or no control over. If I am stressed about meeting a new client, for example, I will spin circles in my head going over possible scenarios and trying to come up with the best programming to impress but not overwhelm them. Or if I am stressed about a work dynamic, I try and think of the right thing to say to diffuse the situation. And while some of this planning MIGHT help, if I'm totally honest with myself, it actually does very little other than make me feel miserable longer. But I like to stress because it makes me feel like I'm actively addressing the problems that pop up. It's interesting because, when you are sad, you can't wait to stop being sad. You will watch funny movies, go on walks, eat sugar, or just try anything to stop feeling sad. But when you are stressed, you can stay there forever. I think it's because it's my way of feeling productive--if I am stressing, I'm "addressing issues." But it doesn't do much for my quality of life.
So I start by acknowledging that I'm trying to control something outside of my control, which is a fairly pointless activity. Then, after I've reminded myself how silly stress is, I take 3 minutes and write down all the things that I'm stressing about--will my sister like her new job, why does my knee hurt, why isn't that person responding to me, etc. After I've written those things down, I assess to see if there's any ACTION I can take to create some peace in these areas. I can call my sister, I can ice my knee, I can eat a sandwich (you can't really make people text you back, sorry). Sometimes I can't think of anything, so I just leave it on the list and move on, reminding myself that thinking about it obsessively isn't going to make it better.
Stress doesn't have to be a fog over your whole life. And sometimes stress is nice in that it reminds you what is important to you. Before I became a trainer, I was constantly stressed about fitting in my workouts around my work. That stress made me realize that I was probably in the wrong field and I should work in fitness. But it's not sustainable. Making an effort to break it down and let it go will feel like blowing the smoke out of your eyes and change the way you move through the world.