Stress is essentially a given in life. Personally I also think it is also given for a purpose. Stress can drive us forward and propel you to do the best you can in a given situation. It can allow you to focus with laser precision on the single most important thing that we want to do, be, or accomplish. It can, and often does, hold us back due to fear associated with the single most important thing. Stress can allow us laser focus, but on something trivial that wasn’t worth five minutes of our time let alone the 5 months we spent thinking about it.
Case in point for me, running. I have always enjoyed running. As an introvert it provides me time to recharge by myself. It allows me to see and appreciate my surroundings more clearly. It has also always added some degree of stress to the situation. Stressing over running originally, in school and college, meant not wanting anyone to see me walk. My goodness would that be mortifying right, someone who has no idea how fast, long, or far you have been pushing yourself to see you walk? What would happen if that person driving by, who has no idea who I am, where I’m at in my fitness journey, or would ever have the chance to vocalize any judgement (real or imagined by me) saw me walk? Not a dang thing, that’s what would happen. Silly to put so much energy into it but it did cause me to push harder and go farther, longer, faster. As my mom would put it, I was doing the right thing for the wrong reason. I would continue to think about it every time I ran. My focus on not wanting anyone to see me walk became a focus on not wanting anyone to know how far I ran for all the same reasons. If someone saw me come back from a run in college and casually ask how far I went or where I went I would be extremely vague so they couldn’t actually calculate the distance (Because as everyone knows, your college friends are obviously going to do additional math in order to judge your skills and abilities.) It got to the point that when I was running I couldn’t think of anything else. I couldn’t appreciate the surroundings or recharge because I spent the entire time consumed with thoughts of what people would think or how I could phrase the location so that they wouldn’t know. As you can imagine, that got absolutely exhausting. Eventually, I just stopped running.
It is funny that stress can do that to you. One day you’re pushing yourself further and harder because of it and the next you’ve given up completely because it got to be too much. It’s all about focus. As you continue to focus on something it brings it closer and closer to you. Sometimes it brings it so close that it is literally all you can see. That is the case for so many of us. The reason we can’t fall asleep at night, what we’re dwelling on during the day, we simply can’t get it out of our head. In different seasons of my life I have thought about the same thing first thing when I woke up, while I was getting ready in the morning, during any down time throughout the day, and last thing before I went to bed. Running was one of those for me but certainly not the only thing.
During one particular season in my career, I believed a person I worked with was trying to get me fired. I would consistently be brought into meetings and asked to verify facts about what I did, said, or intended by certain looks in meetings. I was confident in my behavior and where my intentions came from. I knew that my boss was in my corner and understood my actions and intentions. Still, it kept nagging at me. Eventually, it was just consuming for me. So much so that that when I went upstairs to check on my little guy who was sound asleep I laid down next to him and just cried wondering if I should just opt to be a stay-at-home mom instead. (This is such a gross reason to be considering taking on as noble work as being a stay-at-home parent.)
I realized through this that my stress in this situation wasn’t solving anything. It wasn’t even impacting anything except to give that person a hold on me 24 hours a day. There was no way that I could give them one more ounce of my energy I had far too many things that deserved it.
Getting out of the tunnel
Clearly in both of these situations I was not able to see past the thing that was stressing me out. It was there in front of my face so close I couldn’t see anything else; almost as if it were affixed to a pair of glasses I couldn’t take off. So how do you get rid of it? How do you block it from your mind? You don’t. (Well there’s a let down.) It is there for a purpose remember, see first paragraph. You have to add objectivity to the subjectivity of your stress to keep it at bay.
Start by identifying what it is moving you toward and if it is even yours to control. I find that these typically go hand in hand. For example, in running the stress was originally moving me toward a goal of running farther and faster and was clearly mine to control as it was entirely in my head. In someone at work trying to be a detriment to my career, that moved me closer to nothing and had absolutely nothing to do with me. Then, and I find this part so liberating, ask yourself what would happen if I failed? As in, what would happen if I quit on the goal or if I didn’t prevail against the outside force? What is the worst case scenario? This truly helps put in perspective because you can figure anything out. Even if the worst case scenario is that I lose my job, I could find another one. It would be hard and there would be stress on my family, but we would figure it out. Usually, the worst case scenario isn’t even that big. Usually its more like the running example, worst case scenario there, if someone saw me walk or knew I only ran a mile, they would think I was chubby and maybe lazy. OK. (Man I wish I would have actually realized this back then.)
My husband and I just did this recently while deciding to make a big purchase during Covid quarantine. I will admit he and I are wired differently so when I suggested the worst case scenario would be that we both lose our jobs as a result of Covid it started a bit of a tail spin (Maybe ease into it a little if you’re trying this with someone else rather than assuming they think how you think.) I did get him on board. Because we were thinking clearly and with the worst case in mind we determined that the likelihood of that was miniscule and even if it did, after working out the math, we would be ok. I’m telling you it is liberating to think in this perspective.
Sometimes, objectively understanding your stress and the reality isn’t enough. In those cases, take action. There are lots of stressors like that right? Where you know it is silly and serving no purpose but you just can’t get it out of your head. My experience is that it happens more when you don’t feel like you have control over that situation so, find something you do have control in. Identify those resources and work them. This could look like, finding someone to talk it through with, researching to increase your skills or knowledge in a certain area, or making a plan to restructure some of your work. In my case, I updated my resume incase worst case happened and made a list of areas and projects where I added value. This both remind myself that the person was wrong and allowed me to be ready incase I needed to remind others. Accepting that we have no control over the greater situation and then taking some semblance of control of the pieces, gives us a sense of peace and allows us to see the worst case and just one more hurdle in the race.
Finally, listen to others. I don’t mean listening to advice I mean listen to what is going on in their lives. What struggles are they facing? What triumphs are they seeing? It’s not about comparing and reminding yourself that other situations are just as bad or worse in other situations it’s about connecting to something that is bigger than, or even just other than, you. I have a friend who I would regularly talk to on my morning commute. We rarely had a balanced conversation it was one of the two of us dominating until we were out of time. There would be days where I would call her knowing I had things to say and would spend the drive processing or venting to her about whatever was on my mind. On other days I would have things to say and, evidently, she did too. I would spend those days listening to her talk about something great or something she was working through and I would no get a word in except to end the conversation when I got to my office. It was on those days that I really put my problems into perspective.
The world is bigger than me. The world keeps turning even if it feels like it is crumbling around me. There are joys, frustrations, projects, lessons, and expectations that have nothing to do with me. It doesn’t diminish what is happening in my life and it doesn’t make me fall into a comparison trap because during that time, I’m not thinking about me. I am thinking about her and funneling my efforts into understanding, celebrating with, or helping someone and something other than myself.
Things I’m reminding myself of
Stress is not inherently bad. What we do with it can be detrimental and get in our way. It needs to be used in a way that motivates you toward your goals. If you’re so focused on it that it is all you can see, you’ll fall. Taking a step back allows you to see it and everything else around it. Use it to motivate you but understand your limits and set boundaries to help you up and keep you there.
Write down the problem and the resource. Writing things down gives you so much more power around them. It also helps you remember them. It is one thing to do the cathartic act of writing it all out, and trust me there is immense value in just that. There is a whole other level of value when you leverage those solutions and resources when you need them.
If it doesn’t matter in five years, it doesn’t matter. That is a quote from Cher, not typically my go to resource on these types of things, but its a good one. I agree whole heartedly with the sentiment but it’s not that easy in the majority of cases. That doesn’t mean that this isn’t helpful. I need to train my brain to agree with that so continuing to remind myself of this is important and I do. Ask yourself the question consistently and actively work to make a decision based on the answer; it will make a difference.