There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness it is in your expecting evil before it arrives. — Seneca
The tricks our mind plays on us. One person approaches a hill and panics. “That’s not a hill; it’s a mountain. I’ll never be able to climb it,” he tells himself. Another person approaches the same hill and feels enlivened by the very sight of it. She embraces opportunity, then triumphs.
Individual differences play themselves out this way in just about any human enterprise — in business, the arts, in politics. One person’s stress is another’s challenge, simply a step along the way.
These opposing perceptions of stress dovetail effectively with the first of our magical techniques for deactivating it. Let’s consider them.
Redefine What Represents Stress to You
Stress can prove a merciless demon, no doubt about it. But it’s not always obvious what stress actually is, or even what it means (or should mean) to us when we encounter it.
Nonsense, you say! What about a divorce? Doesn’t the breakup of a marriage always bring on stress? Or what about the loss of a job? Or failing out of school? Are not these unquestionably stressful events for everyone? Actually… no. The words “everyone” and “always” simply don’t work if we try to come up with a consistent concept of stress.
In her TED lecture, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal reports how she turned the idea of stress as her “enemy” into that of her “friend.” She cites as well a study that tracked 30,000 adults over eight years. Each subject was asked how much stress he or she experienced in the last year.
The same subjects were asked whether they felt stress was bad (unhealthy) for them. Then the designers of the study consulted the public record to see who died. Those who admitted to experiencing stress and who viewed stress negatively had a considerably higher death rate.
What McGonigal is getting at is that it’s our definition of stress, and not stress itself, that ultimately does us in. She also points out it’s possible for us to change this definition. Stress can be viewed positively, as a challenge or a signal for change — just as pain, for instance, signals that we need to change or fix something in our bodies. Once we recast our negative view of stress, it ceases to be necessarily “stress” in a sense that could defeat us or compromise our health.
Learn to Live in the Moment
Actors are very acquainted with this technique. To give audiences the sense of a character, an actor needs to suspend their own personal motivations, and therefore their own feelings of stress.
Just imagine if you could approach your own life and work that way! You would then come to love your work for its intrinsic value, and dissociate your efforts from the possible consequences of these events. By doing so, you remove fear from the equation.
Acknowledge the True Source of Your Stress
I write “source” here instead of “sources,” because almost always the answer will come down to one source — you. You’re due for a meeting at work. You left on time, but now you’re stuck in traffic, with no way to take side roads. If you give it some thought, the stress you feel has more to do with your fear and anticipation of not attending, than with the fact that the meeting will either get postponed or go on without you. Most of the stress you feel works this way. It has to do with your fear and anticipation of the consequences, rather than what’s actually happening.
Take a Walk
Walking is a great way to relieve stress. It’s hard to say why, but it certainly has something to do with the change in landscape. Since you’re feeling the stress where you are, you come to associate moving to a different place with freedom. Also, when you walk your body releases endorphins, the chemical that, according to WebMD, “reduces your perception of pain.”
Yes, I know, you’re laughing at the example I just used about being stuck in traffic. Well, don’t. Years ago, I was stuck for hours on the infamous 405 Freeway in California. Guess what? After about an hour, people began to get out of their cars and walk. They walked to other cars and talked with other drivers. They walked alongside the shoulder. They walked, they calmed down, they de-stressed.
Once you apply these magical techniques, you’ll be able to let go of much of the stress that dogs you.