I’ve had more than my share of stressful jobs. In fact, my three year stint as a customer service rep for a very prominent credit card company had me on six weeks’ mental health leave before I finally quit for good.
At another job, I was so efficient that the boss “honored” me by shifting work to me from other accounts. In fact, at one point, I described my day as “Surfing through Hurricanes–if you survive the ride, it was quite a rush.”
While living a life of constant stress can be, in some ways, a rush, it can also kill you. Chronic stress leads to a multitude of health issues, including high blood pressure, sleep deprivation, and poor diet and exercise choices, to name just a few. It can also wreak havoc on your relationships, not to mention your emotional health.
It’s taken me a long time to start to give up “stress-boarding” in hurricanes. It wasn’t easy, and I’m still not quite there yet. But I have to tell you–leaving stress out of the equation of my life makes everything easier. I sleep better, I do better at work, I have more energy for my creative and family life, and my health is improving.
But it’s not one-time fix. It takes vigilance and continuous recommitting to the decision to live a stress-reduced life.
My Scheme for Beaching the Stress-board
- Recognize that stress is a choice. The Buddhists have a saying that really resonates with me: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” The same can be said with stress. I work in an industry where I am constantly dealing with strangers who are angry, confused, or frightened. The decisions I make can help or hurt my customers, and I am trained to make the right decisions. The reality is there are going to be days when things are crazy, people are frustrating, and the stakes are high. These things are inevitable. Whether I choose to deal with these things in a stressed-out way, however, is optional.
- Leave something for “Future You.” Michael Neill tells a wonderful story about his son Oliver, who was agonizing over a choice. When he finally made the choice, his father asked him about the consequence he might face. And Oliver said, “That’s a problem for Future Oliver.” The truth is, most of us spend way too much time agonizing over the past or worrying about the future. Just as you can’t eat a cake before it’s baked, you can solve a problem before it’s happened. That’s a job for “Future You.” Leave it be for now, and deal with what’s currently on your plate.
- Write it down. As simple as it seems, the mere act of writing something down in a safe place (and meticulously referring back to it as part of your routine) is an amazing stress reducer. When you write it down, you give your brain permission to forget about it. You don’t have to keep it in your mind because it’s safely in your calendar or notebook or reminder app. When you have a free moment, pick up your list, find something easy, and get it off your plate. You’ll clear up so much mental clutter, and you’ll actually be more productive. I believe it was Mark Twain who said, “The palest ink trumps the strongest memory.”
- Think hashtag-Elsa and let it go. Please take a moment and repeat this mantra with me: I do not have to be perfect. It does not have to be perfect. There is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an illusion. Good enough is good enough. Now. Memorize it, repeat it, tattoo it to your forearm if you must, but find a way to make the quest for perfection a thing of the past.
- Never forget it’s all a game and there are no winners or losers. Perhaps the biggest gift I gave my mental health in recent years has been letting go of the idea of winning (and concurrently, losing). For so much of my life, I took everything so damned personally. Every success, every failure, every social faux pas took on epic proportions in my mind. Every decision weighed heavily on me, or if I did not give a decision the weight I thought was due, I felt like a slacker. When it finally sunk in that all of this is a game, it’s all just choices we make on the birth-to-death choose your own adventure game we call “life,” it was like a release. There are no right answers, no right choices. There are just choices and the consequences of those choices which lead to new choices. Nobody wins. Nobody loses. We just live as best we can and do what we do.
These five simple changes have done wonders to reduce my stress. I’m not saying they work 100%, but they do work. When I get lost in a thought vortex, or try to solve future problems while ignoring the current reality, it helps just to step back and remember these things. Leave the future to the future, write it down, accept the fact that nothing is perfect, and enjoy the game.
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