As the great musician Homeboy Sandman once said, “stress is the way to make yourself sick… stress is the number one killer”.
All you have to do is look at a few pictures of presidents before and after an eight-year term to show you the obvious truth of this statement. And although most of us don’t have to worry about congress and foreign policy while trying to accept the fact that at least half the nation will probably hate you no matter what you do, stress still lurks in all our lives. If it’s not the chaos of your two-hour commute during rush hour, it’s the strange sound coming from your gearbox that will stress you. If you’re not stressed out from the amount of work you’re doing, there’s a good chance you’ll be stressed out by how unproductive you’re being. Simply put, stress is an inevitability of life that we all deal with. Its origin is constant and diverse, and we must all learn to deal with it or be consumed by its undiscriminating erosion.
In the past, I would say my inability to deal with stress was one of my greatest weaknesses. It had a way of overwhelming the mind, clouding judgment, and destroying productivity. Therefore, learning to stay leveled in its presence has become one of my main focuses in life. And although my journey is just beginning, experience and research have already taught me a lot about dealing with stress. Here are some highlights of the things that have helped me the most.
Tip One: Change Your Mindset
I grew up admiring the tough hands of the field workers in my country. Swinging machetes twelve hours a day had made their palms as rough as thick leather hides. Yet, this roughness did not come easy. They would tell me horror stories of when they first started working the fields. At first, their palms would be shredded raw from the wooden machete handles. It was only after a lot of pain and bleeding that they would develop the strength to carry out the job properly. Although this analogy may sound grotesque and unrelated, I believe it can be applied perfectly to the stressors of life. After all, stress usually arises when there’s a challenge at hand, a problem to be solved, an obstacle to be overcome. So instead of seeing your problems as an aspect of meaningless suffering, tackle them head on. See them as a catalyst that will thicken your palms. The problems you have now will make you stronger to solve the greater challenges of tomorrow. Problems are one of life’s methods of making you well refined individual. If you can achieve a positive mindset around stress, you will learn to redirect your energy for good.
Tip Two: Order
There’s nothing in life that will bring you more unnecessary stress than the disorder. Do you wake up and go to bed at random times? Do you have any idea of what must be done by the end of the day? Not having order in your life will lead you to not knowing what on Earth is going on. Simple problems will seem bigger than what they are, and you won’t know where to start. Therefore, I suggest getting started with developing a sleep schedule. In their book, A Hunter-Gatherers Guide to the21st Century, Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein talk about how crucial it is to keep your circadian rhythm in check. Pretty good read, ten out of ten, would recommend it. Anyways, after getting your sleep in check, buy a planner. Writing out what you must do is of utmost importance in getting it done. Our human minds are awfully imperfect and forgetful. Unless you’re taking care of tasks as they arise, train yourself to write them down to remember them later. And once you see all your task written out, you can start to prioritize the important ones and leave the others for later.
With these two simple steps, you can begin to create order in your life. A good sleep schedule will make you feel rested, alert, and healthy. Getting into the habit of using a planner will organize a chaotic day into a simple list. Therefore, you will be in great condition to tackle your day one step at a time. Will you get stressed a certain point? Probably. Will you know what the hell is going on? Yes. Will you be well rested? Yes. Sounds like a win-win to me.
Tip Three: Exercise
The thing about exercise is that it sucks, but that’s the beauty in it. You know how many times I have been stressing out over a certain issue, have worked out, and then wondered why the hell I was stressing at all. There’s something about a long run or a tough workout session that will make everything else seems easier. Something about getting your heart pumping makes you feel like you got this; makes you feel like everything will be okay. You don’t have to go crazy and try to do a triathlon, but push yourself, you’ll be surprised with how confident and relaxed you feel afterward. Here’s a good workout routine for beginners.
Tip Four: Meditation
In her book, Peak Mind, Amishi Jha writes about the negative effects that a period of high stress can have on focus. Her studies often centered around how army training affected the attention span and mental health of the trainees. What her team found was that during periods of high stress brought on by learning, the mind tended to slow down. Attention spans dwindled and the trainees found themselves more and more distracted. That is, the trainees began to get stressed out which lowered their efficiency to perform. I’ve noticed a similar occurrence in my life. During periods of high demand, I would lose sight of the task at hand. Stress would give me tunnel vision which would make my problems seem bigger than they which would then stress me out even more. In essence, I was allowing stress to distract my mind when I needed it the most, not a feedback loop you want to find yourself in.
So how does one train the mind to keep it together while under duress? According to Amishi Jha and supported by my experience: meditation. Meditation is the practice of keeping the mind focused on one thing for a prolonged period of time. That is, focus your mind on a very simple object or action. Personally, I like to focus on my breathing for fifteen minutes every morning. When my mind begins to wander, I reel it back in on my breathing. The point isn’t necessarily to train focus, but instead to train the ability to notice when the mind has wandered and know how to center it once again. Now, when work is getting too much, I don’t mindlessly freak out anymore. Instead, I notice my distraction and irrationality, then I simply ignore unnecessary stress and continue to do what I have to do.
A resource that was helpful for me was a book called The Mind Illuminated, by John Yates. Yates has a comprehensive way of explaining how meditation operates on the mind and how you can get started. Definitely another great book I would recommend.
Tip Five: Learn to Enjoy Everyday Life
There’s this amazing book called 12 Rules for Life by a psychiatrist named Jordan Peterson in which he elaborates on one of his rules that goes, “pet a cat when you encounter one on the street”. So, what on earth does this mean? It doesn’t mean that you have to pet feral animals, it means that you must slow down and notice the simple good in everyday life. And if cats aren’t your thing, then pet someone’s dog walking by or learn to enjoy the blue skies during a sunny day. How much time do we spend worrying so much about the things we must do that we forget to stop and smell the flowers? Sometimes our stress isn’t caused only by the evils of the day but by our own inability to see the joy the good stuff. Sip your coffee slow in the morning; Observe the wind moving through the trees; Enjoy the songbirds of the day. Now you might be saying “Leonel, what the hell is all this hippie nonsense”. To that I say, shut up and listen. Your problems aren’t as big as they seem. We could be in a war-torn country, a postapocalyptic nuclear disaster, in the black plague for god’s sake, but instead, we’re here. We’re in the twenty first century where water comes out of faucets like magic and where our big concern is not eating too much instead of worrying about starving to death. So, when your problems are too daunting and you feel the stress getting to you, put things into perspective. There is much to be thankful for and much less to worry about. Having said all that, it’s also helpful to just laugh. Did you know that children laugh about 300 times a day, but adults only laugh about 30 times a day (don’t quote me on this, I have no idea where I read it but it seems legit)?. This is sad considering the fact that laughter is one of the prime ways to rid the body of stress. So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, put down the work for a little bit and go watch something that makes you laugh. Here’s one of my personal favorites.