Somebody asked me how I deal with stress. On the spot, I had trouble answering the question. But, after some thought, I have identified how I deal with stress. Some of it is active stress management. And, some of it is recognizing how much of life I control.
What is Stress?
The best description I have heard is that stress is expecting one thing, yet getting another. For example, you drive all day to your vacation destination, only to find out that the hotel does not have your room available. At work, you may expect to do some work within an alloted time. But, for whatever reason you are lagging behind with a fast-approaching deadline. The expectations can be of ourselves, of others, or of the world.
Active Stress Management
I fell into journaling somewhat by accident. A friend and I went on a European vacation. My goal was to document the experience so that I could remember the trip. After the trip, I went off to University. As this was a new experience, I journaled that too. Writing about my day became a part of my life. I learned many years later that journaling is recommended for stress management. ( Example: The Benefits of Journaling for Stress Management ). Blogging has been an evolution of that. On tough days, I have to sit down to write out my thoughts to make sense of what is going on.
David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, wrote that your mind is great for having ideas, not for keeping them. He urges that you put things down on paper so that your mind can stop trying to juggle all the projects. Similarly, journaling gives me a reference to go back to when I am ready to take action. In this way, I can shut off thinking about things with the knowledge that the important bits are written down for when I need them.
In time, my journaling has evolved to bullet journaling. Notes are temporary. Once I am done, I will either summarize for the "official journal", or shredded. The official journal, is just a text file where I keep my journal. I used to transcribe word for word. But, I've come to realize that the value of handwriting is that I am spitballing ideas. I can then take what is useful and summarize it. This is only a recent discovery.
In short, getting things off my mind and onto paper is one important way I manage to avoid stress. I pull those worries out of my brain to deposit on the paper. I let the paper worry. Once all of that mess is on paper, it becomes like trying to put together a puzzle. I know what it should look like. I can arrange the pieces I have. And, I can look for the pieces that are missing. In other words, putting my thoughts on paper makes the process of thinking more mechanical, less existential. I can detach from the emotion, the stress.
Procrastination doesn't always work. I often miss deadlines as a result of this, like my taxes in April. But, when it's really important, I do rise up to the occasion to get things done in time. In between, there is some procrastination. You would think that procrastination would be stress-inducing. However, procrasination serves another purpose. While I am doing something else than what I need to be doing, I am thinking of how I'm going to tackle what I am putting off for later. Often, an unrelated task can inspire ideas for the big thing you are trying to get done. You'll read examples of how some great thinkers love to go for walks, writers in particular. Walks are a form of productive procrastination. So, that's one way of dealing with stress, you change the subject.
That last one segues perfectly into exercise as a form of stress relief. Work and life stress, in my opinion, are bullshit stress. When you break it down, our purpose in life is to eat, sleep, mate, and take care of our families. The rest is just stuff we do to pass the time until we can no longer do any of that. Work is a hierarchy that we create to make it possible to collectively accomplish big things. But, we get so caught up in the minutiae of daily life that we think all of it is real. Our body doesn't know the difference between a report being due and a mountain lion threatening to kill us. Just like you can run from the mountain lion, you can run from your stress. That's probably a bad example. You're likely too slow to outrun a mountain lion.
The point is that we have a built-in mechanism for dealing with BS stress, which is actual stress. BS stress revs up your body. Except, you never go. That energy has to go somewhere. That pent up go energy slowly poisons you. You need to burn off that adrenaline and stress hormones. You need to convert BS stress into real physical stress, the stress nature intended. This, in turn, kicks in the hormones that calm you down. At the very least you'll wear yourself out so that you fall asleep easier.
For me, exercise is related to procrastination. It is a distraction that serves another purpose. Besides allowing my mind time to come up with ideas, it also burns off that BS stress that built up over the day.
Breathing is another simple, yet effective, way of dealing with stress. If, in the moment, you are feeling anxious, then breathing exercises can help. For me, breathing works for two reasons. Going back to that mountain lion example, if I'm going to run, then I need to have enough oxygen to get as far as possible. For me, this is important as I am a naturally shallow breather. This gets worse with stress as I can feel my chest tightening. Just like you stretch out a cramped muscle, stopping to breathe helps me loosen my breathing muscles.
Another reason why breathing helps is related to my next stress management method, being present. Stopping to breathe focuses your attention on the task. Like procrastination or exercise, you're setting aside the problem for a moment.
Being present in the moment is challenging. Most people spend their lives in the past or in imagined futures. The fact is that the past can't be changed. And, the future is being forged in the present.
Many people live in the past. They harbor resentment and anger for what happened to them in the past. They use that past experience to remain angry and resentul. They use that past experience to perpetually fight that mountain lion who has moved on to other prey long ago. To our minds, what we visualize in the past is just as real as a present threat.
Similarly, dwelling on what could happen is just as real to our minds as an actual threat at this moment. The future holds many possible outcomes. In your mind, therefore, you are facing a whole pride of mountain lions. The possibility that your future is free of mountain lions is little comfort as your other futures are full of them.
Living in the moment requires your full attention. It is right here, right now that is happening. Now is when you have control.
You have zero control of the past. You have millions of possible futures, of which the most boring one is the likely outcome. I'm sure we have all had the experience where we work ourselves up to something big to only be underwhelmed when the moment comes. We imagine so much more than what is likely to happen. And, to our minds, it's just as real as the present moment. Yet, it is only the present moment that is actionable.
You have probably heard the Mike Tyson quote that "everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth". Or, as Helmuth Von Molke said, "no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy". Or, if you are a fan of Animaniacs, you'll often witness Pinky and The Brain almost succeed at world domination until some minor little detail derails their plans. The point in these is that dwelling on the future has little practical value compared to what you can do right now to shape your future. Having your mind in the present moment helps you deal with the punch to the mouth, the uncooperative enemy, or your unraveling world domination. The possible future you envisioned is completely useless right here, right now.
I constantly have to remind myself that all the problems thrown my way simply need a decision to move the ball a few feet forward (American football reference). That's all I can do. I remind myself to ignore all the doomsday scenarios my mind can conjure up. Christianity has been awaiting Armageddon for the past 2000 years. It's a bit presumptuous to think that the end of the world will come about thanks to me.
All this leads me to a double-edged sword, introspection. This is related to living in the present and journaling. Introspection can be good in that it allows me to question my own assumptions and motivations. If I'm not careful, I can deceive myself into thinking things that are untrue. There is a prayer that asks for the strength to change the things we can, accept the things we can't, and the wisdom to know the difference. With quiet contemplation, during those long walks mentioned earlier, I can figure out what is actually in my power to change and what I just have to accept.
The trouble with introspection is that you can often fall into a cycle of just ruminating about things without ever doing anything. This is dangerously close to living in the past or the billion possible futures. Introspection can become analysis paralysis. Introspection is a powerful tool for manageing stress. But, it is only powerful when you use that information to take action in the present. In scripture, it is said that "faith without works is dead". Similar to that, introspection without action has no future. You will live in a constant state of introspection. It becomes its own world separate from reality. Introspection must be tested constantly against the present reality.
Circling back to journaling, having written thoughts allows me to come up with a plan of action. And, this is where I try to live, in the next physical actions I can take to move my life forward. My circumstances change. Plans fall apart. The only thing that is real is the next step that I am putting into action, which hopefully is based on truth and the right motivations.
As a whole, for me, dealing with stress is not a collection of individual techniques. It's a way of being. All of these things I do are interconnected. The common thread is living in the present. I can only do one thing right now, which is where my focus should be. Each problem will get its turn for my full attention. There is the saying about children, "out of sight, out of mind". Well, my approach is similar. Paper does the remembering and worrying. My job is to make a decision for the paper, then execute on that decision. I try to only think about the problem when the paper is in front of me, or as I am taking action. When I fail, the journaling, exercise, and breathing help me cope and get back on track. All of this works together. Failing to do these things turns me into an anxious zombie, just going through the actions. Dealing with stress is an active process.
How about you? How do you deal with stress?