“I can’t seem to face up to the facts, I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax…” (Talking Heads, “Psycho Killer”)
What’s the matter, Bunky?
The news got you down? The economy keeping you up at night? Are sales in the toilet, creditors stalking you, clients not returning calls, the sheer angst of living in a modern tech-drenched world chewing holes in your gut?
Would you like to hear how grizzled veterans handle the evils of stress?
It’s good stuff… because, as everyone should realize, you don’t get to BE a grizzled veteran if you can’t handle stress. Cuz that shit will eat your ass alive and send you to an early grave.
In fact, this is easily one of the fundamental tools for surviving the Bidness Never-Ending Cage Fight. I noticed, in the first years of my freelance career (when I was searching semi-desperately for clues on how to become successful), that there were biz owners who were having fun… and there were other owners not having any fun at all.
Age had nothing to do with it. Nor health (though the fun-havers consistently were in better shape). Nor gender, nor — and this is important — how successful they were.
The difference was simply how they handled stress.
Not what they KNEW about stress. Jeez Louise, some of the worst ones could quote verse-and-chapter on the latest Ivy Tower studies, and would rattle off their blood pressure, pulse and Vitamin D levels at the slightest provocation.
No. What mattered was how they dealt with it.
Because if you’re alive… dude, you’re gonna encounter stress. Rich, po’, self-employed, unemployed, smart, dumb, pretty, pretty ugly, alert or half-asleep…
… humans have been guaranteed an unrelenting marriage with stress ever since we left the real jungle for the asphalt one.
So, basically, forget about avoiding it.
What you want to do… is learn how to kill it. Over and over and over again, as often as necessary, whenever you need to do it.
You can develop your own way of doing this. And good luck to ya. Stress is a Class Triple-X Monster that has ground down many a good man to a sobbing little nubbin’ before. It changes you at the cellular level… where brain synapses snap, where your DNA percolates, where the microscopic Engines O’ Evil fire up and start generating the crap that will clog you up.
Most folks “deal” with stress by waiting for it to boil over into crisis-mode, so they can spend their savings and every moment of consciousness left trying to fix what’s broken.
There’s a plan for ya.
Much better plan: Just gather a couple of good tools for your Bag O’ Tricks, and use them. And gird your loins, and get after your dreams knowing you’ve prepared the best way possible to engage with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
To get you started, here’s what I came up (which has worked fairly nicely for 30 years):
Stress-Murdering Tactic #1: Moderation in all vices.
I am not a guy to emulate, if you’re looking for clues to a perfect lifestyle. Got my faults (yeah, yeah, I know it’s a long list), and did some dastardly things in my time…
… but you know what?
I yam who I yam, and I’ve come to terms with it. I used to fight with myself over the little things, like “how to be the best person I can be.” And that just caused problems.
Because I was defining the word “best” the way OTHER PEOPLE would define it. I was comparing myself, constantly, against measurements erected and maintained by someone else.
Once I let go of that ridiculous pursuit, I kind of settled into a nice groove. I’m not the healthiest guy you know, but I’m not a walking keg of butterfat, either.
What I realized is that I like my little line-up of vices. And life would not be as happy or — gasp! – successful as it is, if I didn’t cut myself some slack.
The first rule for battling stress — if you can’t walk away from it (which is actually the best rule, when you can pull it off) — is to be healthy. Because stress destroys everything good in your system, and uncorks massive floods of the bad stuff. Your endorphins get smothered and gang-raped by adrenaline and stomach acid.
We all know the recipe for being “healthy”: Clean up your diet, get your ass outside and exercise, and stop partying so much already.
Still, how you do that has a little flexibility.
For example: I love me some hamburgers. Yes, I do. So once a month (sometimes — sometimes — twice) I treat myself to a burger-and-fry orgy at In-And-Out.
Not every day. Not every week.
Every once in a while.
I’ve got friends who are fit and thin, subsisting on twigs and lawn clippings, who never, ever, ever, ever even think about eating a slice of pizza.
Okay, they’re happy (or smug) about being healthy. But no pizza, ever? That’s not enjoying a successful life in my book.
I also have aggressively-clean-living friends who are nice people… but everyone is always waiting for them to leave, so the party can get started. They’ll live to a ripe old age… but remain boring-as-fuck until the end. I’ll take a few less years, and stay with my plan of going for the gusto, thanks.
Make up your own mind about what “healthy” means to you… and then get after it. A fit, clear-headed, well-rested dude will be able to withstand more stress than the guy with the perpetual hang-over, bulging gut and wheezing arteries.
Still, life is for living. Passion, desire, and raw urges are part of the deal… as long as you maintain moderation according to your system. (That means, some of you can’t indulge in some things, because you can’t moderate it. So you don’t do those things, or drink that stuff, or subject yourself to situations where you lose all sense of moderation.)
Stress loves it when you go overboard, on anything. Work, romance, sports, hobbies, day trading, video games, whatever. We’re an obsessive species, for sure.
That still doesn’t mean you have to live like a monk.
To start getting the better of stress, examine your life choices… from what you eat, how you treat your body and what you spend your time at, to why you’re punishing yourself with immoderation and too much of a good thing.
Wanna know a secret? I’ve hung out with athletes, trainers, health guru’s, doctors and other health-oriented experts for decades…
… and most of them do NOT live a strict life of no-fun.
In fact, they’re some of the randiest bastards I’ve ever dealt with. Healthy body, sleazy mind. Sometimes, somehow, they make it work. The really successful ones have… wait for it… mastered the art of MODERATION.
So being healthy puts some mojo on your side in your battle with stress…
… but it doesn’t make you immune to it.
Stress is like your psycho ex, absolutely committed to stalking you for the rest of your days.
So get healthy, which gives you some breathing room.
But you still gotta find a way to HANDLE incoming stress when it slams into your system.
Which brings us to…
Stress-Murdering Tactic #2: Write up private “Status Reports”, constantly.
One of the ways stress gets you is to weasel into your brain and set up camp… so you’re thinking about bad stuff all day long, and waking up in the middle of the night (coated in slimy fear-sweat) to go over it all one more time, in detail.
Sometimes stress arrives like a car crash — sudden, violent, earth-shaking and dominating all your senses. Like getting a call from a lawyer who gleefully announces you’re going to have to dance with him now, while he sucks up your net worth and lifeforce like a vampire.
Other times, the stress sneaks in under the guise of repeated, relentless tiny thumps against your heart and head. It’s insidious, and you may not even notice that you’re a stressed-out nutcase until your hair starts falling out in clumps.
Or your doc notes that your blood pressure has spiked to “Dead Dude Walking” levels.
This is when you essentially hand over script-writing duties for your life to Mr Stress. And his idea of a great plot line is the one where you’re sleep-deprived, leaking bile, and developing an alarming little twitch over your left eyebrow.
You wanna bust Mr. Stress in the chops?
Here’s my main tactic: Write yourself a letter.
Take the phone off the hook, lock the door, and give yourself a solid hour to do this.
In this letter, you are writing to yourself 24 hours from now. You are writing out a “Status Report” of your life at this moment.
Lay it all out. All your troubles, all your faltering plans, all your suspicions about coworkers, all your fears about your health, happiness and future.
Be specific. I like to use numbered items, so I don’t have to bother with segues between paragraphs or sentences. Just lay out one thought, hit “return” on the keyboard and start on the next numbered item.
Don’t limit yourself, in any way. You’re going to take pains that no one else sees this Status Report… so don’t hold back.
Stay focused on the fact that you’re writing to yourself, 24 hours hence.
What you’ll have, when you’ve exhausted all items on your mind, is a combination “To Do List”, and a candid assessment of your state of mind right now.
If you’re stressed, your plans for dealing with any of this stuff may actually be horrifically wrong. But don’t get analytical about it while you’re writing.
What you’re doing is a very cheap psychological trick.
See, your brain is obsessing on what’s stressing you out…
… because it fears you’re going to forget about the details.
So it wakes you up, and eats at you all day long, just going round and round in a loop.
Writing it all down — all of it, the bad ideas and the brilliant realizations and the mundane shit that you can’t quite believe you care about — allows your brain to relax.
It’s all down in the Status Report, brain. It’s safe.
Like a dog napping near his buried bone, you can relax.
By giving yourself a 24 hour “grace period”, you can REALLY relax… because you’re not giving up on what’s bugging you, you’re just putting it aside for a bit.
… go do something else.
Anything else. Hell, go have some fun. Leave Mr. Stress back with the Status Report, where he’ll be just fine for one day, and get jiggy with some vice (in moderation).
Here’s what will happen: Your unconscious will continue to mull over what you’ve written.
You’ve taken much of what was probably vague and non-specific, and made it “real” in your Status Report… so your unconscious now has much more to go on than before. It will examine your thinking, deconstruct your plans, and poke at your soft spots.
Meanwhile, the conscious part of your brain is getting a much-needed respite from obsessing over your problems. You may even be able to sleep like a baby, knowing your letter is safe somewhere, and your internal genius is cooking everything nicely.
And when you get BACK to your Status Report in 24 hours…
… you will suddenly have perspective you couldn’t muster before (because obsession blocks it)… you will be able to see your plans in fresh light, more realistically… and lots and lots of stuff that is kick-starting your stress engines will be visible.
Do you doubt this can work?
I can only tell you this “let the unconscious work it out” is a primary tactic for people who write professionally. The great adman David Ogilvy slept on problems, after assigning his mind the task of arriving at a solution when he awoke. I (and many other writers I know) stuff my head with info, and then go take a nap or a walk or engage in a hobby… knowing that when I return to my desk, I’ll have multiple headline ideas flood my consciousness as soon as I hit the keyboard.
The headline that bubbles up may or may not be the one that makes it to the final draft.
Nevertheless, the hard work of sorting through the vast amounts of info has been done, and clarity ensues. And you will have a fresh view of things, which is impossible when you’re down in the trenches of stress.
Stress-Murdering Tactic #3: Change things around.
Armed with your new clarity about what’s stressing you out, and why…
… you now have options you may have not believed were possible before.
My favorite consulting tactic for a long time has been the “Two Lists” technique. You make two lists about any subject — your job, your new product, your love life, whatever — and on List One you write out all the things you want to happen, or want to engage in…
… and on List Two you write out all the things you do NOT want to happen, or have to engage in.
Then, as much as you can, arrange things so the items on List One happen, and the crap on List Two do not.
Get moving on changing things. Mr. Stress HATES it when you’re proactive.
Simple, but profound. You want to make a ton of money, fast? But you don’t want to go to jail? Then drop your plans of heisting gold from Fort Knox.
You want a steady income, but also a lot of free time? Then don’t start a boutique biz in a mall.
You want a great, lasting relationship, minus the drama of strange-fruit romance? Then stop dating hookers.
And so on.
Much of the stress in your life — and please trust me on this — is from your internal “Fight or Flight” instincts… which are the default options all humans have, which are also thwarted, teased, and stalled in perpetual high gear when you try to navigate modern life.
Sometimes, you just gotta man up and deal with it. But in your ape-mind (the primitive part that has no clue whatsoever we aren’t still in the jungle lollygagging in ponds and gorging on bananas) every threat has a beginning, but no END.
It’s just full-bore “THREAT! RUN AWAY! NO, FIGHT! NO, SHIT YOURSELF AND HIDE! NO, BITE SOMETHING!”…
… even when it’s just a voice message from the IRS about some deduction you took a year ago.
Or even if it’s an earthquake that knocks all the books off your shelf. Or news of a stroke in the family, or the stock market tanking, or a glimpse of your psycho ex hiding in the bushes across the street, or I dunno.
Choose your poison.
The thing is… sometimes you’re under stress because you don’t know what to do to resolve a problem that wasn’t your fault and you couldn’t have foreseen. You’ve got to wait, and you feel out of control. And that sucks.
Or… sometimes you’re just hitting yourself in the head with a hammer, and you’ve somehow convinced yourself you HAVE to keep doing it, because…
… well, there’s the rub. And that “because” may not hold up so well once you examine it, let your unconscious get after it, and give it a fresh look.
Maybe your stress is coming from the fact you’re doing something you don’t really need to be doing.
Mr. Stress doesn’t care why he’s in your head. Legitimate reason, or bullshit reason, it’s all the same to him. Rubbing his hands together, he’s just eager to open the valves on your adrenaline and cortisol and other poisonous reserves. For him, it’s heaven to have the Stressed-Out Movie play all day and all night long, over and over and over again.
You’ll never get rid of the little bastard completely. He’s a weed, a zombie that returns from the grave without notice.
But you CAN murder him when he arrives.
It’s justifiable homicide, too. And life is soooo much nicer in a low-stress groove.
I’ll bet there are twig-eating, fun-deprived folks reading this in a lather right now, seething about being called “boring”… and outraged that anyone would defend pizza.
So, have at it in the comments already.
What’s your stress-busting tip?