Dealing With Stress

The risk of stress on our well-being is not only intuitive but a reality. Elevated blood pressure and cortisol not withstanding, when under stressed, we make poor choices that then could impact our physical and mental health, our relationships and possibly even our finances.

I used to deal with stress by just trying to suck it up. I’d hold it in until I couldn’t stand the pressure, and then the smallest thing would set me off. It made me, and others, feel like I was a big byotchsky. And rightly so.

When I wasn’t taking it out on others, I was taking it out on myself by getting depressed and probably eating or spending too much. Other types of self-destructive behavior may be extra-marital affairs, watching too much TV, spending too much time on the computer, or drinking.

Now, I feel like I’m much better at handling stress. Yes I feel stressed sometimes but it’s not very often that stress gets out of hand. The past year, though glorious in many ways, was extremely intense and had the potential for unbelievable stress given my full time job which included launching a major new initiative, a full time degree program, a move, a marriage, a major birthday, an empty nest, and a death in the family, all at the same time. But I feel like I was able to manage the stress pretty well. I feel quite proud of just managing the stress levels with some grace.

I’m not completely sure of the reasons for the change in me but here’s what I have been working on:

  • Not living in the past – Stress comes in part from harboring resentment or regret about the past. I feel the past has helped me to be who I am now even if I didn’t realize it at the time, so I’ve abandoned all my regrets and disappointments.
  • Not worrying about the future – I have really very little control over the future. Accepting this reality means I can let go of my expectations about the future and stop worrying. I haven’t mastered this one but I’m much better at it.  For the most part, I worry about the future when I decide to spend time considering the future, as opposed to letting that worry drive the mental agenda all day.
  • Being present – This is the result of letting go of the past and not worrying about the future. Meditation has helped me tremendously to train my brain to be in the present. My monkey mind is vastly improved. That monkey mind just creates unhappiness for me, so I work on keeping it at bay.
  • Judging people – I used to sometimes assume the worst about people, which would make me very upset, especially if that person I was judging was me. I’ve accepted my humanity and imperfection while continuing to try my best. Others are also trying their best. And that’s good enough for me.
  • Judging situations – Situations are only bad if we can’t find the opportunity hidden within them. I find the silver lining in every situation so they’re all good. The situations that seem the worst have the largest opportunity for growth.
  • Accepting what is – So if you’re living in the present and accepting the present moment, you’re basically accepting life as it is. Fighting it in any way just creates stress. That doesn’t mean you make no effort to change unacceptable situations. It just means that you don’t fight the reality of a situation or judge it. Instead you choose your response rather than reacting from a place of anger, fear or sadness. In other words, I can create a boundary, a consequence or make a change either from a place of resentment or a sense of trying to do the right thing.

I realize I’m making it sound easier than it is. It has taken me years to get to this point, and I still have a long way to go. However, I think the effort is well worthwhile because I am now happier and more peaceful. In addition, I feel like I’m more productive and effective since I’m spending less time and energy on counterproductive feelings and actions and more on finding solutions and opportunities.

Failing to manage my stress is akin to spending all my energy bailing out a sinking boat instead of just stopping, putting the boat in dry dock and fixing the holes. If you’re stressed right now, then stop and consider whether you’re bailing or repairing. If you’re bailing, then go find your dry dock and make yourself whole.  Then chart a course and sail away. Your health, well-being and peace of mind will thank you.

Money Can’t Buy Happiness, Revisited

Money and happiness

Money and happiness

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor — and believe me, rich is better” – Sophie Tucker

Quick:  which is more important to you, money or happiness?

Yes, this is an either/or question, and intentionally worded that way.  Why?  Because chances are, you are at a stage where they’re no longer positively correlated.  Here’s what the research* shows:

  • Wealth – societies become happier as wealth increases… until incomes reach a moderate level (roughly $65,000/year currently)
  • Mental illness – GDP has increased 3-fold but depression and other mental illnesses have increased 10-fold over the last 50 years
  • Greater divorce rate – is evident among people with rising income compared to those with stable income
  • Materialism – decreases well-being because of problems such as low self-esteem, narcissism, less empathy, increase in comparing oneself to others, less internal motivation, more conflict in relationships
  • Rising expectations – offset further increases in well-being beyond the moderate income level.  Adolescents from affluent neighborhoods are less happy and have lower self-esteem compared to those from middle class and inner city slums possibly because of higher expectations of them and by them.

I’m not advocating that you stop trying to make money, make a living, or improve your station in life.  Rather, I suggest that we stop treating money like a surrogate for happiness and just pursue happiness instead.

I know, spending money makes you happy.  It makes me happy too.  But it’s short-lived.  I get a little high from buying a nice pair of shoes or jewelry, but often by the time I’ve gotten home with it, the euphoria has worn off.  Sometimes I don’t even want to bother putting it away.

Instead, we can invest in our happiness by looking for meaningful experiences, deep relationships,  developing our religion or spirituality, helping others, and using our strengths every day in activities we find meaningful.  So maybe take some of that time you spend thinking about making more money and invest it directly in building your own happiness every day.

“Money has never made man happy, nor will it, there is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more of it one has the more one wants”  – Benjamin Franklin
* from Diener and Seligman, Beyond Money.  Toward an Economy of Well-Being, Psych. Sci. Public Interest,  5(1): 1-31

When You Hit Rock Bottom

“Insanity:  doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” – Albert Einstein

It seems obvious when considered in the abstract or when it’s someone else’s life.  But when we’re mired in the midst of a difficult, emotional issue, change is not so easy.   Unfortunately, for many of us, we wait until when the pain of stasis exceeds the pain of making a change before we are willing to make meaningful change.  For some, this means hitting rock bottom: an emotional breakdown, depression, addiction, or a catastrophic personal event like getting fired or divorced.

Recently I was talking to a mentee about her personal life.  She stated she has hit rock bottom and felt she was on the verge of a breakdown.  Her story was coming out angrily and urgently, and when I offered feedback, suggestions, or shared personal stories of my own for a different perspective, she looked away, crossed her arms, said “that’s not going to work,” or interrupted me to tell me another story that reinforced her position that she was being wronged. And so, at the moment, she is stuck in this unhappy quagmire, continuing to give away her power and happiness to those that are causing her frustration.

I’m not saying she’s a bad or stupid person.  She’s not.  She’s a wonderful, smart, and talented person who is simply trying to do better, but can’t for some reason.  She’s stuck in the pre-contemplation/contemplation stage of change.  She says she wants to change but perhaps she’s really not ready to actually do what it takes.

In my experience, if someone is talking to me about their problems, then typically they have reached either the contemplation stage – they’re considering making a change – or the preparation stage – they’ve already decided to change and are just trying to figure out what they need to do to change successfully.  Change occurs organically following these stages, though the change process may be characterized by alternating successes and failures.

This does not seem to be the case with my mentee.  Why is my companion talking to me about her problems, but not ready for change?

One contributing factor is her left brain.  As I wrote about previously in  Brain on a Rampage, our left brain can become corrupted in toxicity, negativity and judgment to the point where it is overriding our wisdom and equanimity.  Our sage is our right brain, which enables us to feel connected to the world, creative and whole.  Those of us who have been mostly left-brained for most of our lives, are used to using this one tool to solve our problems – our logic and analytical ability that resides in the left.  After all, if all you have is a hammer, everything will look like a nail.  Additionally, that miraculous left brain has gotten us where we are today – smart, accomplished, successful, and in some situations, very f****d up.

It’s natural that we’d try to do what has always worked:  think through our problems.  But you can’t solve an emotional problem with your thoughts.  It’s like using a screwdriver to filter coffee grinds, or algebra to figure out how to get your kid to eat his green beans.  It just doesn’t work.

To solve an emotional problem means we have to engage in inner sage and shut off the critic in our heads.  Peace, love, and connection are within all of us, and when we can quiet the negative chatter in our heads, we can access our universal truths.  After quieting the chatter in my head, I have frequently been able to elicit an “Aha!” moment that sends me on a new, more productive and positive course.

It also means we need new tools and strategies to manage emotional issues.  The main antidote to left brain negativity and destruction is to strengthen the right brain to be more present (recently discussed in Soothing the Child Within).  This requires exercise,  just as if your goal was to firm your abdominals.  Repetition and practice.  That’s why it’s called meditation practice, or yoga practice.   All we can do is to try to get better at it.   Few of us ever really master being present all the time.  Many of us have spent our lives ignoring our right brain, and may have to struggle to get it strong enough to balance the left.

There are also tools that one can learn and use to detoxify the malicious left brain habits.  An intellectual understanding of an emotional situation is usually not sufficient to make a meaningful change.  Again, it’s like understanding that you need to change your flat tire, but until you actually bend down and do the heavy lifting, it won’t happen just by knowing it needs to replaced.  These tools are helpful to elicit changes in behavioral and emotional habits we’ve been relying upon for decades.  It does not tend to happen overnight, but rather, it is a lifelong journey.

If you’re in the contemplation stage but are not ready to move forward, you might be thinking:  this is too much work.  I can’t do it.   My stance is that if everyone took 10% of the energy and time they spend on being critical, judgmental, angry, depressed, resentful, or bitter, and invested that into being more grateful, forgiving and positive – toward self and others – that we’d make a profound change in ourselves and our world.   I also contend that you and your happiness are worth the effort.  So what are you waiting for?  You don’t have to wait to hit rock bottom.