And yet, without just the right amount of stress, how many of us would actually accomplish anything during the day?
You see, we have adapted over milennia to be able to handle stress — even to require it. Without stress, unmet needs go unmet. Hungry tummies remain hungry. Our ancient forbears evolved with a survival instinct: fight or flight, freeze or faint, drop and drool — all are strategies for dealing with the stress of the unexpected. And so, with just the right amount of stress, people find work to support themselves, innovative thoughts become inventions, bills get paid, deadlines and budgets are sustained, and all goes along quite well indeed.
And yet, in our modern world, we’re not very good at modulating stress. Luckily, most of us don’t have to worry about being devoured by a wild beast who is simply and innocently meeting his own nutritional needs. For some of us, stress becomes pathological. Instead of improving the system, or inspiring it to effective action, the opposite occurs. Our fight/flight instincts, so effective long ago, now cause our bodies and our natural processes to accelerate as if it were actually a life-threatening situation. With our nervous systems constantly on “high alert,” we find ourselves unable to relax. We have forgotten how.
I find that I am most under stress when I am fighting against some “should.” Either I think someone else “should” be behaving differently, to live up to my unarticulated expectations; or I feel pressure to comply with someone else’s “should.” Most of these “shoulds” are just bullshit. I can change my expectations, renegotiate the expectations of others, or go play my own game for awhile.
Of course, there are situations of extreme duress: those life crises that you hope and pray never happen to you or to someone you love. An upsetting diagnosis, the loss of a job (or the threat of losing one); or sudden adaptation to an undesired event, such as a divorce or death of a loved one. These are the events that take the wind out of our sails. They require extreme self-care and professsional help.
Any advice about handiling stress, when you are in the midst of it, sounds like a mere platitude. However, if you focus on finding solutions, rather than just circling the drain and dwelling on the problem, your stress level will decrease. Even if a solution is not evident, or possible, working toward one will restore your dignity and power in the situation.
There’s no glory, or status, in being stressed. Your stress level is not a mark of superiority or a badge of honor. Get some advice on how to constructively manage your stress: some people like yoga, or running, or a hobby, or Feldenkrais classes. A coach, counselor, or therapist can also help. Finding time to be quiet, to spend time in nature, or to meditate (whatever that means to you) can help you to feel a bit more clarity and calm. Stress without purpose and without end is damaging to you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Embrace the stress that motivates you to keep moving forward. As for the rest — do with less. Take some small action in the direction of your intention — even if it is just cleaning your kitchen sink, going for a walk, or doing some research on the internet. Getting into action, and building a support system, will help.