The Ultimate Stress Busting Post
I know when I issued my e-book on stress and called it ‘Stress is for Suckers’ some people thought I was taking stress lightly. Well let me tell you, nothing could be further from the truth. I have been there, done that, got the t-shirt when it comes to my old friend stress.
We all have stress in our lives and it is neither possible nor useful to try and eradicate it. In fact the stress itself is not even the problem no matter how much you feel you are under.
The real problem is never allowing your body to recover.
Like the Ultimate Goal Setting Post, this baby is a long one at almost 5,000 words, but stick with me because there’s some cool stuff…..honest!
Stress Is A Myth
Would you be surprised if I said that stress as we tend to use the term only exists in our own minds? In fact I’ll go even further and say there is no such thing as stress per se.
Controversial stuff huh, especially taking into account I have just told you we cannot avoid stress?
Think of any event that currently stresses you out and ask yourself if there is any one person in the world who could deal with the situation and not be stressed about it?
If the answer is yes, then by definition it’s not the event that’s stressful, but the interpretation that you place upon it. Stress is contextual.
If I shoved a red hot poker up your rear end you would experience pain. There’s no need for you to think “Hmm, there seems to be a a molten hot rod up my ass, I’m sure that should hurt” before you start shrieking hysterically and rolling around on the floor clutching your now smoking orifice and swearing to wreak revenge.
It will all happen quite naturally.
That’s what we call cause and effect. One event causes another to happen without any further intervention or interpretation from yourself.
Stress isn’t like that though. With stress there is something between cause and effect and that is the interpretation that you place on the events you experience.
Without the interpretation of what the situation or event means to you, you have no stress.
If your boss tells you he intends to fire you at the end of the week if you do not immediately improve your performance you may very well get stressed about it.
But what if you stopped to grab a lottery ticket on the way home and won a cool $10m. Would you still be stressed about being made unemployed at the end of the week or would you take great pleasure in resigning beforehand?
My guess is that it would be the latter situation. So what is the difference, you’ve still lost your job?
It’s would be obvious to say “That’s easy Tim, I have more money in the second instance and I could lose my house and every thing I have worked for in the first. Now give me a Life Coaching Diploma baldy”
However, that presupposes cause and effect and we now know stress isn’t created through cause and effect. So what else could be happening?
Stress Is In Your Mind
In the first situation, once your boss delivered his bombshell certain processes kicked into action inside your brain. You started to make pictures inside your head and to talk to yourself.
That’s perfectly normal and we all do it, so don’t worry, you’re not a complete loon just yet.
However, the pictures you make and the conversations you have are what dictates how you feel.
If you start to imagine yourself having an argument with your spouse, struggling to pay your bills, being out of work for months and eventually ending up living under a cardboard box, you’re going to feel terrible, as well as very stressed.
You will almost certainly accompany those images with an internal dialogue that reiterates how desperate and dour things look. The voice may even mock, berate or attack you, although its doing it with the best intentions!
It is the voice and the pictures that will cause the anxiety, never the event itself.
Note: The pictures and soundtrack are created at an alarmingly fast rate and a lot of the time at an unconscious level. In other words, the guy making the pictures whilst jabbering away to himself doesn’t even know what he is doing and may initially even deny it is going on.
On the other hand, if you see yourself bouncing back wiser and more determined and finally starting that business of your own. And then achieving a blissful existence with the full support of a loving family willing you on, you will feel brilliant.
In conjunction with those great pictures there will be an equally supportive and encouraging soundtrack that serves to intensify those feelings.
By changing your sound track and the movie you are viewing inside your head, you will change the feelings you are experiencing, it really is that simple.
Stress Is Fear
People get stressed by work, stressed by the kids, stressed by their boss, stressed by their spouse and stressed by reading about stress. It’s pandemic and seemingly becoming more and more acceptable as a part of modern living.
Ask yourself the two following questions:
Have you felt stressed at some point over the last couple of weeks?
Have you felt scared or frightened at some point over the last couple of weeks?
Whenever I am speaking to a group and ask that question, almost every hand goes up to say yes to the first question, but few people say yes to the second.
Leaving aside eustress, there isn’t an example that I know of (and please tell me if you think I’m wrong in the comments field) of where you can’t substitute fear for the word stress.
“I’m stressed by work” really could translate into “I’m fearful of losing my job, and not being able to provide for myself and/or my family”.
“I’m stressed about having to make a speech” in all likelihood means “I’m scared I’ll mess up and people will laugh at me”.
Even something as innocuous as “I’m stressed by the next door neighbor playing loud music”, probably means something like “I’m petrified that I wont sleep well and then I’ll be irritable at work and go on an axe-wielding rampage and butcher half the accounting department….again.”
Next time you’re ready to announce to the world you’re stressed senseless, try replacing the phrase with “I’m scared shitless” and see how that changes your experience.
See if living in a permanent state of fear is as acceptable to you as feeling stressed all the time. If it isn’t, then maybe it’s about time to do something about it rather than buying into the belief chronic stress is something that you have to learn to live with.
Stress Is Feeling Out Of Control
Unfortunately stress is a catchall term that we use to describe any number of different conditions. I have already given it several different labels in this post with probably more to come as I think of them. But, whatever the condition is, it nearly always incorporates a sense of lack of control.
Think of all the things that stress you out on a regular basis.
How many do you know what the outcome will be without any doubt? How many have you got complete control over? The answers will probably be none and none.
Take work as an example. Whether you work for yourself or somebody else, you are always going to be at the beck and call of others. There is no business that operates in isolation. Somebody has to pay you, hire you, buy from you or donate to you.
Therefore, by definition there will be times when you are stressed over money and it will never be 100% within your control. If it was, you’d not be stressed.
Imagine being in a taxi on vacation winding down a mountain pass when the cars brakes fail. You have a 10 second window of opportunity that I am giving you for the sake of this exercise.
You have two choices, you can either hold on tight and hope things work out for the best with your trusty cab driver at the wheel. Or you can swap places with the driver and take control of the car in the best way you can. Which do you want to do?
Amazingly, most people (me included) would prefer to take over the controls. Yet it makes zero sense from a logical perspective.
The driver knows the road better than you, he knows the car better than you and he is likely to be a better driver than you seeing as he does it for a living. So why would you want to give up those advantages?
The reason is because you at least feel like you have control if you are driving. Yes, you’re probably going to die, but at least you are dying on your terms and going over the hairpin bend of your choice.
Immediately you take control of the vehicle instead of focusing on what could happen as the passenger, you are focusing on making something good happen as the driver. It completely shifts your focus.
Amazingly enough, if we could drop some fancy pants medical equipment on you and measure your heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels, you would probably be a lot less stressed than the rather surprised taxi driver you just threw into the back of the car.
If you are prepared to accept, that you are the perpetrator of your own stress, not your boss, nor your partner, nor the Government, illegal immigrants or even the server that just put your meatballs into your lap, then you can take steps to lighten the load you place upon yourself.
Stress Is Playing The Victim
As well as putting you in a situation where you control things, even if it is only how you view the situation, you stop yourself slipping into a victim mindset.
The simple fact of the matter is you are not a victim. I do not mean you have never been a victim, I just mean that it is not part of your identity.
Think of all of the great people you admire. How many do you think saw themselves as victims?
Somewhere right around zero would be my guess, because thinking of yourself a victim is one of the most disempowering things you can do and it does exactly what we just spoke about and that is remove control.
Stress Is A Killer
As I said earlier, stress is not in and of itself a problem. The problems arise when your body can’t shut off the stress response or turns it on inappropriately. On isolated occasions that’s not really a big deal, but over time, if it carries on unabated it can start to have a serious negative impact on your health.
When I say negative impact, I’m not just talking about the occasional sleepless night here or there either. Stress is believed to kill tens of millions of people worldwide every year both directly and indirectly. That is why it’s important to understand what your options are.
The most common method for millions of people is to visit the doctor and treat the symptoms with medication. There is a time and a place for this approach and it can be very valuable in many circumstances.
However, I believe (as a layman) that medication needs to be used in conjunction with other methods and not in isolation. That way the stress doesn’t simply return when the patient comes off the drugs because none of the underlying causes were discovered and dealt with.
The second method and the one I am interested in here is to implement a change of lifestyle.
There are obvious ways that most people know about to reduce stress. Reduce work load, exercise more, don’t smoke, don’t drink excessive amounts of alcohol or caffeine and take time out to re-charge your batteries.
Unfortunately, on the whole, Corporate America does not really want to help you alleviate your stress. It tends to be fairly myopic in its outlook thinking the more hours you work and deadlines you have in front of you, the more productive you will be.
That to me is a bit like thinking the guy that just won the Olympic gold medal for the marathon would be a shoe-in for the 400m because he is so well warmed up.
When I first started coaching in the UK I used to get a larger percentage of clients calling me for help with stress. When I moved to the US this number decreased dramatically.
At first I couldn’t put my finger on it. Was this a Utopian State I had moved to bereft of stress? It certainly didn’t appear that way when I looked around me.
Then over time the truth started to dawn on me. It wasn’t that stress was absent, far from it. It was that people had the belief it was a justifiable and integral part of life. A big salary equals high stress and that is just the way of the world.
I have had clients that haven’t taken a vacation in five years and look aghast at me when I say I take about five weeks per year. I have had others that were working eight, ninety and even a hundred hours per week and wondering why they were feeling so bad.
Set An Example
I have heard every excuse under the sun to justify such behavior with the most common one being a variation on “I just want to provide for my family”
How useful are you to your family hooked up to morphine, unable to eat on your own whilst ringing up huge medical bills?
When I ask people in such circumstances if they would like their kids to do what they are doing and be feeling so stressed all the time when they grow up, they usually look at me like its me that is crazy.
Almost always the answer comes back, “No, of course not” Well don’t teach them then, because that is exactly what you are doing.
Kids learn from those closest to them, usually the parents or guardians. Stressed parents tend to turn out stressed kids, so set the kind of example you want your kids to set their kids.
Let’s take a look at some ways you can, reduce your stress levels, build up your ability to deal with stress when it does arrive and then recover after.
The simple fact is, exercise IS stress. It may very well be viewed as good stress (eustress) as opposed to bad stress (distress), but it is stress nevertheless.
What makes it so brilliant, is that it keeps you in control because you can end the session whenever you want. Not only that, but it offers a built in recovery period after.
Nobody exercises for 6 months without stopping for recovery, whereas some people are stressed for months and even years on end without ever fully recovering until they hit the hospital bed and not always then..
The way to improve muscle capability it to work out regularly and recover adequately in between. If you want to improve memory or cognitive function similarly, you need to practice with brain teasers and mental agility programs on a regular basis.
Stress is the same. You improve your ability to deal with stress by stressing yourself and then recovering sufficiently.
This is what exercising is doing.
You are putting your heart (a muscle by the way) under stress and then allowing it to return to normal so next time it can take a bit more.
The other upside with exercise is the great feeling you get when your body starts flooding your body with endorphins.
Note: Using exercise to build yup your resistance to stress is only helpful if you stress your heart. You have to push yourself close to your maximum heart rate for short periods of time and then give yourself time to recover.
If you are in any doubt get yourself a personal trainer, just don’t jump on a treadmill and run till you die. That would be silly.
If you are stressed out or worried sick about something I can almost guarantee that your breathing and heart rate will be increased.
Too many people breathe shallowly, rapidly and from the upper chest area rather than from the diaphragm.
Check your breathing now. Where is it coming from? If it is your chest then slow it down and move it down.
You should be breathing from your diaphragm unless you are in the middle of a Pilates exercise class whilst reading this. If that is the case put this e-book down immediately and concentrate on what you’re doing.
Slow abdominal breathing immediately starts to reduce stress levels. If you have had years of breathing high up in your chest it will feel weird, but so did naked mud wrestling to start with, so stick with it and it will soon become normal.
Next time you get that horrible feeling of being stressed out take a few deep, slow diaphragmatic breaths and a metaphorical step back. Realize that you are in control of your self and what you think, if nothing much else in life.
Do I really need to explain this one? It’s pretty much impossible to feel stressed if you are belly laughing. Anxious people tend to lose the ability to see the funny side of laugh. Don’t be one of them.
Laughter has been proven to reduce stress, aid recovery from illness (read up on Norman Cousins) and even improve out ability to withstand pain.
Like exercise, the body releases endorphins when we are laughing and these serve to make us feel better. Even if we fake a smile, we still receive some of the benefit because the connections between smiling and feeling good are hard wired in at a physical level.
If you’re feeling stressed senseless don’t settle down for a quiet night in with your tax returns, a Leonard Cohen CD and a bottle of cheap brandy.
Watch some comedy, read a funny book or trawl YouTube for amusing videos of squirrels juggling whilst riding skateboards.
Just do anything to shift your state and get you feeling good about life again. As far as I’m aware it’s the only one you have, so enjoy it.
Note: As well as laughing more I would recommend venting from time to time in an appropriate manner. Storing hostility and aggression takes a terrible toll on the body and its ability to function smoothly.
I’m not talking about the Ahh noise you make when your doctor asks you to stick your tongue out because you have a nasty rash in your throat.
This is the Ahh we make when we let out a huge sigh on contentment. Do it five or six few times either out loud if you don’t mind getting strange looks from work colleges, or internally if you’d prefer to retain a modicum of dignity.
This action sends a signal to the unconscious that all is well in your world and you’ll immediately feel better. It may sound ridiculous, but it works, so what are you waiting for?
Buy A Rocking Chair
Ok now I know this one sounds insane, even for me. Why do you think a baby can often be consoled and will stop crying when it is rocked. I suppose it is a nice sensation gently rocking back and forth, but there is more to it than that.
There are sensory pathways that run from your inner ear to the areas of the brain that dampen the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the carnage. Utilizing a gentle rocking sensation will ease stress.
Note: Do not decide to test this theory in an important meeting with your boss, after placing your thumb in your mouth.
Slow Down & Be In The Moment
If you remove sports from the mix there are few things in life that cannot benefit from being done more slowly and consciously. There include eating a pleasant meal, taking a walk, driving the car and one other thing that jumps to mind.
Society tends to make us believe that we always need to be somewhere else, that we need to get whatever it is we are doing done as quickly as possible and then move on. We don’t.
Try sitting down to eat lunch for a few days without worrying that you need to be doing other stuff. Try slowing down on the Interstate and see if you actually get to your destination any slower.
Research has shown that driving aggressively in traffic seldom makes much of a difference except to your frazzled state of mind and gas consumption.
Even if you do save 30 seconds on your journey time, what are you going to do with them? You had them all-along, just in a different place.
Is your day really planned to the second? Have you ever been fired for being 40 seconds late? Have you ever missed a plane by 22 seconds? Have you ever had somebody divorce you for turning up 17 seconds late for a date? Do you wish they had?
Here’s a secret for you. You only have this moment. The past has gone forever and the future may or may not arrive.
If you spend every last moment wishing you were in either one or the other, then you’re going to miss the only reality that there is, that of now.
You can’t be stressed being in the moment. You stress yourself thinking about what might happen and what did happen, but never about what is happening. Is that sane?
Relax Your Body
This is absolutely imperative and really comes from slowing down and being in the now. Take time out for yourself to relax from time to time.
The fact is that there are over 600 muscles in the human body and although their natural state is to be at rest we are tense so much of the time that it actually becomes the opposite; we train our self for tension.
For a moment, take the time to fully relax your face, make yourself look like a total simpleton. Oh go on there’s nobody looking and even if there were they’d be more likely to run away than poke fun at you looking like that.
Start with the top of your head and move down, paying special attention to the muscles round the eyes, the mouth and in the jaw. Allow them to ease up one by one and feel how unusual your face now feels in a state of complete relaxation.
Tension feels natural to most people because they’ve been practicing it for most of their lives. It is a little bit like sitting in a good posture; it feels weird if we normally slouch (and yes, I am guilty of that one) because we are asking our body to do something it isn’t used to doing.
Of course if we persevere it will start to feel natural and we will get the health benefits. It’s exactly the same with relaxation and being relaxed will slowly start to feel a lot better than being tense all the time.
Amazingly enough and like a lot of the things we have covered, relaxation helps maintain health, reduce stress and promote good sleep. And if that isn’t enough, it can help you look younger too!
Have you ever heard anybody say that they have been to view the body of a friend or family member who has recently died and that they were amazed that they looked 10 years younger and so well?
That’s largely because all the tension has drained from their body and all the muscles are completely relaxed. I don’t want you to wait until you are dead for people to be commenting on how well you look, try it out now.
You don’t have to opt for the full on half-wit look, just allow some of that neck and jaw tension to dissolve by consciously sending the right signals and you will immediately feel the benefit.
Relax Your Mind
There are a number of excellent ways to relax properly, but I’m sorry to say TV isn’t one of them.
I have no objection to TV, in fact I love it. I enjoy my sports especially soccer and football, I like to watch a good movie and enjoy stuff like House and 24. I am aware though, that it doesn’t really help me to fully relax.
Relaxation is something that we actually do, not something that just happens.
It can be reading, walking, talking or playing sports. As long as we are fully engaged in the activity, then we can be relaxing at the same time. TV rarely encourages full engagement and thus rarely helps the relaxation process.
I can offer you something that is brilliant at helping you to relax and absolutely free too. There are no ongoing costs and no maintenance. It has been proved to contribute to lengthening life, improve cognitive ability, reduce stress levels, promote peace of mind and help sleeping patterns.
It is easy to do and has a cumulative beneficial effect with no negative side effects, other than maybe creating a deep desire to go out and purchase a saffron robe and a pair of matching sandals.
Yep, you’ve guessed it, it’s meditation.
Meditation is so easy to explain that it makes a mockery out of the people that try and mystify it.
Meditation is a concentrated form of focus.
That’s it really. You can spin that a few different ways if you want. You could say it’s a trance state or that it’s being in the moment or even refusing to think about the past or future and you’d be equally right. You can meditate lying down, sitting upright, standing up or even walking as long as you are there in that very moment.
I often have people tell me they can’t meditate so I tell them they must be dead then, because if you can breathe yup can meditate. I then get told that they have a mind that is always going ten to the dozen and never shuts up. Welcome to the human race!
I can give you a guaranteed and somewhat unusual way to quiet your mind if you suffer from that problem.
Pretend you have a bubble of liquid on the tip of your tongue. Gently trap it between your tongue and the roof of your mouth taking special care not to break the surface tension allowing it to run away. Whilst you are concentrating on that your mind will miraculously shut up. Keep doing it every day for the next 40 years and you’ll have it cracked.
I know 40 years seems like a long time, but whilst you’re hanging around waiting to die you have to do something, so why not this? It’s a practice so you will get better and better over time and the results will be well worth it.
When I talk to clients about meditating the response I get more often than not is ‘I don’t have time’ I have a stock answer to this and it is, ‘yes you do’ .
I don’t care who you are you have time to meditate if you want to. You don’t need to allocate an hour out of your day, ten minutes is better than nothing and it can be done pretty much anywhere or anytime.
You may not choose to make time to meditate, but that’s not the same as not having any time. You my dear reader have exactly the same 24 hours in a day as I do and you can watch re-runs of re-runs, fear inducing news programs or chill out with some meditation time. The choice as always is yours.
Note: It is important to realize some people literally feel like they cannot meditate.
They will get anxious and stressed because of all the things they think they should be doing. They may also get incredibly guilty at wasting time.
Typically they would tend to be Type A people. If that applies to you, look for some form of exercise that requires high levels of involvement and concentration and you will get much the same result.
I know how amazing eh, Brownson banging on about values again! Well the fact of the matter is, if you are way out of alignment with your values you are going to be highly stressed.
I wasn’t stressed in my last two sales jobs because I was missing targets (I wasn’t). I wasn’t stressed because I hated my job (I didn’t).
And I wasn’t stressed because working 80 hours was physically impossible (It wasn’t). No, I was stressed because I was working for companies that didn’t share my values.
They didn’t care if we sold products that weren’t suitable for the client. They didn’t care if some of their staff had relationship difficulties due to them working insane hours. And they didn’t care what their managers did to hit targets, as long as they hit targets.
In short they were all about the money and I wasn’t.
I had two options, spend every available waking minute working on reducing my stress levels and hope to counter something so fundamental as my identity. Or I could remove that particular source of stress at source. I chose the latter.
Do not under estimate the value of your values, because they are at the heart of who you are as an individual.
Trying to cover a huge topic like stress in one post is a tad ridiculous, and I know I have missed some stuff out including the three levels of stress which are primal, fight or flight and higher processing, and the role faith and community can play in dealing effectively with stress.
The main purpose though, is to give you options and not drown you in information. You really don’t have to be stressed all the time, in fact you owe it to yourself and your loved ones not to be so, and you now have some tools to deal with it..
If you know anybody that is suffering from stress, I’d love you to forward this post to them and hopefully they can take some action toward restoring some balance back to their life. In the meantime, let me know any great ways you have for overcoming your own stress levels.