Who isn’t an expert these days when it comes to stress? Parents rushing their children off to school while packing their own brief cases and munching on a “breakfast bar,” commuters making a breathless dash to catch transportation, dealing with aggressive bosses who don’t know how to manage people, parents moving, divorce, and/or not sleeping due to continuous thoughts about financial or health worries.
Yet for all of this “expertise,” still, nearly 80% of Americans regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress while nearly 75% experience stress-related psychological symptoms. Extreme stress is a familiar feeling for one-third of the country due largely to job pressures, financial woes, health concerns and unhealthy relationships.
Debilitating fatigue, jackhammer headaches, hypertension, weight gain, weaker immune system, lead weights inside your upset stomach, vice-like muscle tension, boiling anger, frozen anxiety, “I give up” depression and yes, even impaired sex drive—these are some of the $300 billion a year stress related costs.
For something that we create ourselves, this is all unnecessary. You read that right. Stress is not something we GET. We are the writers, producers, directors, stage managers, and actors in our own creation we call “stress.”
Seneca, the Greek philosopher, knew,“Everything hangs on one’s thoughts.” Epictetus, another Greek philosopher, observed, “People are not disturbed by outside things and events, but rather we disturb ourselves about those outside things and events.” American philosopher/psychologist William James added, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” And I’ll add what I’ve learned from coaching CEO’s, athletes, and everyday folks for more than three decades, “The link is what you think.”
Believe you lack the resources to handle a challenge or imagined “threat”? Think you “must” do well and it’ll be “terrible” if you don’t? Believe that people “must” treat you well and it’s “awful” when they don’t? Demand that life “must” be fair and it’s the “end of the world” when it’s not? Think that “nothing could be worse,” things are “more than 100% bad,” or “no good can come from bad events”? You may be a “musterbator.” Beware.
Instead of creating the psychological and physiological effects of stress with these irrational thoughts, substitute more accurate and rational beliefs, “I’d like to do well, but I don’t have to do so, it’s bad if I don’t do well but not terrible.” “I want you to treat me well but unfortunately you don’t have to do so, and when you don’t treat me well it’s really unfortunate but not awful.” “I very much want life to be fair but unfortunately it doesn’t have to be the way I want it to be, so if life is unfair that’s very bad, but not the end of the world.” See? Things could be worse. The event you are facing is less than 100% bad, and good could come from a bad event—look for it.
Yes, we could get all scientific sounding here and talk about the amygdala that, under chronic stress, creates heightened cellular activity in the brain making the brain highly reactive to stress. We could even mention how stress is actually neurotoxic to the hippocampus weakening the prefrontal cortex’s ability to deal with stress. But why? These are only by-products of what happens after you create your own stress.
Stress is not a mosquito that bites you when you are resting (remember rest?). It’s not a snake that comes slithering into your office (that’d be your boss!). Stress is only something that originates in your thinking! Change the way you think and you’ll release the energy you built up, leading to a change in the way you feel. Ahhhh…feeling better already?
We know that exercise, of course, increases your ability to combat the effects of stress you created. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF, if you want to sound hip), actually promotes the health of your brain and its growth, in particular in your prefrontal cortex/hippocampus and thus helps in stress management.
But why manage something you can more easily prevent? While there are a myriad of ways to live a healthy, stress-free life, happy and fit, here are a few to begin practicing as soon as you finish this article:
S- Smile more daily, especially at the first 10 people you see
T- Think rationally, accurately, logically, confidently, and positively
R- Relive the good with healthy relationships, the pleasant, the favorable accomplishments in your life and avoid recounting the bad
E- Eat right and light including asparagus, avocados, blueberries, warm milk, almonds, salmon, spinach, oatmeal
S- Sweat more through regular exercise including high intensity interval cardio and resistance training (set a timer and stand every 10 minutes if you can during work), yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, and meditation
S- Savor your life by choosing gratitude and focusing your thinking in healthy, mindful, factual ways without predicting gloom and doom, slow yourself down by finding the beauty of experiences and creating relaxing moments throughout your day
Fred, “Mr.” Rogers urged us to remember, “In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts…” I’ll add, why create stress in the first place? Choose the bliss in front of you.