Chronic stress is actually killing you.
Aside from muscle tension, chronic stress can contribute to long-term problems with the heart and cardiovascular system. In the end, chronic (ongoing) stress can increase the risk of hypertension, heart attack or stroke. Additional symptoms include messing up your reproductive system, heartburn and a general drain on your nervous system.
Here comes the next hit, people who are chronically stressed may experience confusion, have a hard time focusing, trouble learning new stuff and be unable to make good decisions or solve problems.
Finally, chronic stress can lead to an entire host of emotional disorders, such as depression, bipolar disorder, ADD/ADHD, anxiety disorders, etc. Some of these emotional issues lead to suicide.
Humans evolved by being very good at getting very stressed for short periods of time – avoiding predators, hunting for food and having sex. You know – those things that drive us.
We weren’t built for prolonged stress – living paycheck to paycheck, hating your boss, keeping a clean house with a kid… This shit just isn’t in our DNA.
The average 21st-century human wasn’t prepared for this massive change in lifestyle. So how do we handle it?
Avoid crappy situations…
The best way to avoid stress is to avoid crappy situations.
I can’t tell you how happy I was to take a pay cut to get out of the office that I’d grown to hate. My paychecks got smaller, but it was worth it. I didn’t want to die early from a heart attack or stroke, so avoiding that stressful situation was totally worth it.
I’m completely fine with working hard, getting consumed with my work, putting in the hours – but it all comes down to having a choice. When you have some amount of control with what you’re working on – it’s a lot less stressful. You aren’t trapped.
The same method can be applied in many areas of your life – avoid overdrafting your bank account by cutting expenses and selling the shit you don’t use. Avoid people you don’t like by getting the balls to say “No, I don’t really want to hang out today.” Turn off your phone if your boss keeps calling and doesn’t leave a voicemail.
Avoiding stress is the best way to eliminate it from your life, but it’s not always a possibility. Sometimes shit happens that you have to deal with.
Managing the stress that’s left.
You had better have a plan for whatever stress still manages to sneak into your perfectly happy life. Be proactive instead of reactive to stress. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
First – Meditate. Being able to calm myself and know that I’ll have a few moments of internal silence keeps me level through most days. Plus, stress reduction isn’t the only benefit to meditation.
Second – I visualize all of the crappy things that can happen and I think of how not-really-bad they are in the grand scheme of things.
Fender benders aren’t that big of a deal. They won’t change the world or destroy your life. There are other options if you lose your job. If you lose your home, you probably have family that will let you crash until you get back on your feet. It’s not that bad.
For the things that are actually quite bad – I simply try to mentally prep myself for them.
I was terrified that my son would have a birth defect or be stillborn while my fiance was pregnant. Rather than freak out and order a barrage of blood tests on his tiny developing fetus – I told myself that I would love him regardless of any “issues” – I’ve worked extensively with adults with developmental disabilities, so I knew I could love my son.
In regards to the possibility of him being stillborn – I tried to imagine my grief ahead of time and how I could recover from it.
Accepting that bad things will happen in advance lets you move past them faster. Accept that you will die one day, and so will everyone you’ve ever known or loved. That house you built with your bare hands is going to crumble and decay eventually.
Nothing is permanent.
“That sounds kind of depressing, dude…”
I hear that almost every time I explain this line of thinking to people, but it really isn’t depressing. Accepting that bad things happen means those bad things don’t affect you nearly as much as the average Joe or Jane.
Preparing yourself for life’s poop-storms lets you enjoy the sunny days more. Look at your family and be thankful that they are there. Be thankful you can see them in the first place. Live the good moments to their fullest and you will be a happier person.
Anything you can do to shorten the amount of time stress sticks around is going to help you avoid the burnout, high blood pressure and degraded mental performance associated with chronic stress. Front-loading your stress so you can prepare for it means stress leaves a much smaller dent in your life.
Think of it as a hack to turn long-term, chronic stress into short-term, acute stress.
I’d like to challenge you to do something uncomfortable. I want you to think of a potentially stressful situation that has been on your mind. Maybe it’s job-related, family-related, financial stress. I don’t care about the category, you get to pick.
Now really think about the worst-possible scenario relating to that stress. Write it down in detail. “I might not be able to afford my car payment this month, so it might get repossessed, which would set off a chain reaction of x, y, and z.”
Once the thought is down on paper, you might feel your blood pressure starting to go up. Now think of a way out of the situation. “If I lose my car, there’s public transportation that I can use, or friends that will give me rides until I can buy a junker that gets me from point A to B. My life isn’t going to fall apart.”
If you’re feeling really brave – leave a comment with your worst-case scenario and solution.
It’s going to be alright. One way or the other, life will go on and the world will keep spinning.