By the time I started working as a stress columnist in 2011, I had already spent decades in stressful circumstances: I escaped a revolution as a child refugee; lived in six countries on three continents in five years; survived the grueling hours of a Big Firm lawyer; suffered from a mean depression after I saw the Twin Towers collapse from 20 blocks away; and tussled with late-stage cancer — and all before I turned 40.
I wouldn't know it until much later, but the years of researching and writing about stress were no less than a gift. My work as a student of the science, the history, the philosophy and the spirituality of stress helped me to piece together the punishing fragments of my own life, and gave me a profound, empowering sense of the whole. Even I wasn't prepared for the remarkable roadmap to living that emerges when you pull together all the different pieces to the puzzle of modern stress.
Here are the eight most important lessons I have learned about stress:
1. We need to tell better stories.
Consider how many times a day and in how many different ways you find yourself uttering some variation of "I'm so stressed!" The words we repeat to ourselves form our stories, the core of our beliefs, the fabric of our existence. When it comes to stress, our perceptions matter and our stories matter even more.
The stories we tell ourselves about the anxieties of our lives are off. The trouble is that the false stories we tell ourselves can do real damage, both physically and psychologically. For example, maybe what we're calling "a stressful situation" could just as equally be viewed as "a chance to grow."
Not only are our false stories about stress doing us a disservice, they also stand in stark contrast to scientific research and centuries of wisdom and spiritual insight about the profound power of adversity. "The wound is where the light enters you," wrote the poet Rumi.
2. We must learn to see stress across a spectrum, differentiating between good stress, toxic stress and tolerable stress.
We have to stop painting every kind of stressor with the same toxic brush. Stress as the bane of modern living is a story we've been telling ourselves for only about the past half-century. Before that, the belief was that what didn't kill you made you stronger.
Yes, stress can be bad, but only a certain kind of stress: chronic, toxic stress. There's also good stress, the life-saving, life-enhancing kind that can help you jump out of the way of a speeding car, ace a test, give a fantastic speech, lean into the excitement of a first kiss, recover better from surgery and so much more. And then there's tolerable stress, the kind that helps you grow, learn, evolve, become the person you were really meant to be.
3. There are two important ways to reframe stress.
The first involves choosing to see adversity as the pathway to growth. This helps reframe challenges that you might have avoided, resisted or lamented in the past. For example, top athletes willingly move into situations that test their limits. They make themselves uncomfortable and stay with that discomfort in order to perform better.
The second involves stress as an early warning system. Oprah Winfrey once said: "I say the universe speaks to us, always, first in whispers. And if you don't pay attention to the whisper, it gets louder and louder and louder. I say it's like getting thumped upside the head. If you don't pay attention to that, it's like getting a brick upside your head. You don't pay attention to that — the brick wall falls down." Consider stress the whisper, the thump, the brick and the brick wall. And don't wait for the brick wall!
4. Actually, optimists have it right.
Every so often there's a spate of writing about the power of "negative thinking" and how optimists have it all wrong. Why do they think optimists deny pain and misery? That's not optimism at all!
Optimism is the ability to suffer, but to continue to tell good stories that propel us forward. Failure and suffering can be important parts of growth and evolution — with one major caveat: You can't remain in the suffering. You have to move through it. Success, it's been said, consists of getting up just one more time than you fall.
5. Sometimes it's you ...
There is a well-documented phenomenon called emotional contagion, whereby we can "infect" each other with our emotions — both good and bad. In a world of hyper-connectivity through social media and technology, we are all responsible for the energy we bring to the table.
Are you contributing to a culture of anxiety by helping to set a negative emotional tone that infects our collective well-being? Some stress influencers are merely passive, thoughtless and irresponsible, while others are actively manipulative and self-serving. Either way, it's possible to wreak havoc by spreading stress and anxiety, so don't be the virus.
6. And sometimes it's not you.
And there's another important thing to keep in mind about stress: It is not always you. We are living in an era of dramatic highs and lows — the best of times, the worst of times — with lives that move at a pace and intensity impossible at any other time in history. These contradictions throw us off-kilter as we find our way.
As writer and philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti wrote, "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." Evolution comes with growth pains. The key is to recognize this and to construct the best narratives (and responses) for moving forward and upward.
7. Learn how to stress better.
You can't eliminate stress — and given that it can serve as a virtual super-power, why would you want to?
Pioneering research by Stanford neuroimmunologist Firdaus Dhabhar highlights a range of benefits associated with the acute stress response — short spurts of stress — and suggests how we can learn to stress better by making sure that we alternate between periods of high stress and periods of low to no stress.
8. You have three ways to protect yourself during stressful situations.
James Gross, one of the world's top experts on emotion regulation, emphasizes three important strategies for protecting yourself during stressful circumstances:
- Change your world. Or change those aspects of the world to which you choose to expose yourself. This might involve turning off the devices and going on a technology fast, or doing your best to stay away from aggravating people and situations.
- Change your mind. It is possible to change mental activity through a quick shift in attention or thinking.
- Change your body. Consciously insert periods of low-to-no stress, what Dhabhar calls "green zones," throughout your day. These green zones can range from taking deep, cleansing breaths for a few seconds to listening to music, going for a walk, exercising, cuddling a pet or anything else that helps calm your mind and body.
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