“How we spend our days,” Annie Dillard memorably wrote in her soul-stretching meditation on the life of presence, “is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And yet most of us spend our days in what Kierkegaard believed to be our greatest source of unhappiness — a refusal to recognise that “busy is a decision” and that presence is infinitely more rewarding than productivity. I frequently worry that being productive is the surest way to lull ourselves into a trance of passivity and busyness the greatest distraction from living, as we coast through our lives day after day, showing up for our obligations but being absent from our selves, mistaking the doing for the being.
I figured this powerful reminder from Maria Popova would be the best starting point when it comes to reflecting on what’s really important.
The truth is we, mistakenly, reward the busy culture. I don’t know about you, but reframing things this way makes me feel anxious, my brain immediately thinks “busy” equals unfocused and therefore, I won’t get much done and I am somehow falling behind. And this goes for both my personal or business life.
As Derek Sivers, nicely puts it: “To me, ‘busy’ implies that the person is out of control of their life.”
To top it up, this leads to an elevation in our cortisol levels which in turn leads to stress. And though some form of stress is actually good for you, constantly experiencing acute or chronic stress has a negative impact in our lives, especially if left unaddressed.
So how can you make stress your friend and reframe your situation?
I now base my life on this quote “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% the way you react to it” (Charles R. Swindoll) – I love this so much that I had it printed and it sits on my fridge as a daily reminder.
And this brings me to my core idea – It’s all about mindset & perspective.
Let me say that again: ANYTHING WE DO IN LIFE BOILS DOWN TO MINDSET AND PERSPECTIVE
I am the first one to admit that when you’re in a stressful situation it’s really hard to stop and ponder, our reptilian brain takes control and …we all know how that goes. But I can also tell you that in time and with practice you can become better at managing stressful situations and even manage to keep your cool (Yes, really!)
In order to understand our stressors and how to effectively manage them, we’d also need to understand there are a few different types of stress and they are not all bad.
So-called “good stress,” or what psychologists refer to as “eustress,” is the type of stress we feel when we are excited. Our pulse quickens, our hormones change, but there is no threat or fear. We feel this type of stress when we ride a roller coaster, about to get a promotion, build a business, or go on a first date. There are many triggers for this good stress, and it keeps us feeling alive and excited about life. For example, research shows that when an event is perceived as a “threat,” we respond to it differently than if it’s seen as a “challenge.” Threats tend to elicit a greater stress response from us and create greater levels of anxiety. Challenges, on the other hand, can be exciting, and even enjoyable to overcome. Threats are scary, while challenges are opportunities to prove ourselves and learn how much we’re capable of accomplishing when we really try.
Another type of stress is acute stress. It comes from quick surprises that need a response. Acute stress triggers the body’s stress response as well, but the triggers aren’t always happy and exciting. This is what we normally think of as “stress.” Acute stress in itself doesn’t take a heavy toll if we find ways to relax quickly. Once the stressor has been dealt with, we need to return our body to homeostasis, or its pre-stress state, to be healthy and happy.
The type of stress we really have to worry about is chronic stress. This type of stress comes when we repeatedly face stressors that take a heavy toll and feel inescapable. A stressful job or an unhappy life can bring chronic stress. This is what we normally think of as serious stress. Because our bodies aren’t designed for chronic stress, we can face negative health effects (both physical and emotional) if we deal with chronic stress for an extended period of time.
How understanding eustress can help
Understanding eustress can help us to more easily manage other types of stress as well. This understanding reminds us that we can view many of the stressors in our lives as challenges rather than threats merely by changing how we talk to ourselves about the challenges and by focusing on the resources we have to handle these challenges rather than focusing on what may go wrong and how damaging that would be. When we work on shifting our perspective and approaching stress as a challenge, whenever possible, we can manage the situation more easily and handle these stressors without a feeling of complete overwhelm.
Trying to approach various stressors in life as we’d approach eustress enables us to manage that stress more easily.
That said, while eustress doesn’t generally carry the same type of damage as chronic stress, too much eustress can still be taxing on your system. So even when you have a schedule filled with “fun” activities, you can feel overloaded and stressed by too much eustress if you’re not allowing yourself to relax and give yourself a well deserved restorative downtime. A balance between work activities and fun activities is important, but a balance of eustress and leisure is also an important focus. Changing one’s perspective can certainly help with stress management, but it’s not the only way to manage stress, and it’s not the only strategy that should be used. If you have too many challenges in your life, even eustress can become chronic stress and lead to burnout or worse. That’s why it’s important to be mindful of where your limitations are and workout where you can cut down. It might mean that you need to say No more often to things that don’t particularly bring joy or you don’t enjoy doing.
This takes practice but it can make all the difference in your stress levels.
What’s important to acknowledge is this: You will inevitably get stressed, especially when it comes to the things that you care about. Maybe you’re presenting in front of people (this is literally me right now!) or you’re building a new product, managing a huge project, managing a big team or have an important deadline etc. One question that I always tend to ask in any situation and particularly in a stressful one is: What can I learn from this? I believe most time we tend to ask the wrong question: Why is this happening to me? – which can bring further stress or is not particularly helpful in this scenario.
So with this question in mind, here are a few things you can consider today do better manage stress
- Reframe the situation, shift your perspective Next time a stressful situation arises ask yourself: What I can I learn from this? Put those answers on paper (iPhone/Macbook notes for my techie people out there). I prefer to write it down and then structure my ideas in Notes – you get the point, whatever floats your boat. Once your reframe the situation by asking this question, it will actually help you see the opportunities a stressful situation might present.
- Focus on what you can control The main stressor is usually the fact that more often than not we focus on things that we cannot control and play those scenarios on repeat in our head. All we actually achieve by doing that is causing more stress and anxiety and most times blowing the situation out of proportion. So I will say it again focus on the things you can change (hint: you can’t change outcomes, people, especially what other people say or do). It might be your own attitude and behaviour – especially if you’re a leader – the way you respond will influence the rest of your team. And remember when you stress out you also impact those around you. As Daniel Goleman – Emotional intelligence puts it, we always influence those around us with our own emotions. So be the leader who chooses to focus on the things you can control.As an exercise try this – Think of a stressful situation you’re dealing with right now and write down a list of things you can control and a list of things that are out of your control – you will instantly feel a bit more in control of the situation.
- Action trumps perfection and fear Take action to stop the paralysing fear. We are all too familiar with the way our reptilian brain will react in situations that are very stressful and most times that fear can leave us paralysed, I know for a fact as I have been in that situation many time before. So take action, take one small step in the direction that scares you. What’s one small action step you can take today towards achieving your bigger goal?Take 5 minutes and write down 3 action steps you can take this week/month in order to help you move forward
- Surround yourself with positive people I can’t stress enough the importance of having around you or in your team people that are positive, resilient and can keep their cool in stressful situations. I don’t know about you but I absolutely dislike being in a stressful situation when on top of having to deal with my own emotions, asses and manage the situation, I need to also calm down everyone around me. I am big on creating a culture that rewards and promotes positivity. So choose your people wisely. When you build such a positive environment it’s actually hard to get dragged into a pity party because you’re working alongside individuals who have a positive outlook on life, hence they will have a much healthier approach to a stressful situation. And of course, the same goes for your personal life.
For those of you who want to dive deeper in other practices, here are some things that have helped me massively:
Exercising – Not only it releases endorphins and dopamine but it’s also good for boosting your immunity system and will help you feel more energised.
I swear by yoga and meditation – they go hand in hand for me but you can pick one to get started – there’s a misunderstanding that meditating means keeping your mind completely empty of thoughts which is not accurate; you can always start with 2 minutes a day. It’s been scientifically proven that meditation boosts your brain’s neuroplasticity – a process that helps our brain create new neural connections throughout life – I totally recommend reading Rewire your brain for love by Marsha Lucas
Journaling can also be a powerful tool especially when going through stressful situations as it allows you to empty your mind.
Keeping a personal journal a daily in-depth analysis and evaluation of your experiences is a high-leverage activity that increases self-awareness and enhances all the endowments and the synergy among them. Stephen R. Covey
What’s one action step you can take today to resolve a stressful situation? Pop your answer in the comments below 😊
Author: Ionela Spinu