Surviving Stress, Still Proudly Caffeinated

“I’ll only work with the barely competent.  Takes the stress out of slacking off.” – That’ 70’s Show

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Sure, it looks placid – but two minutes after I took this picture the building inspector and OSHA showed up and shut the job down.  No hard hats, no safety glasses, and the building wasn’t even to code.  The foundation didn’t have properly spaced rebar – heck, the foundation was just FROSTING!  The Boy and Pugsley will be out on bail soon.

I can recall only a few holiday (Thanksgiving and Christmas) seasons where I felt a lot of stress.  Anticipation?  Sure.  I wanted the G.I. Joe® Mobile-Adventure® Action© Playset™, but I also sensed that the holidays, especially Christmas, was really about more than just toys and presents.  It was also about food.  And time off from school.  And . . .   Okay, okay, and it was also about family.

With one or two exceptions during my life, I have been pretty stress-free at the holidays.  Now even most of that anticipation is gone:  if I get to see everyone, great!  If not?  No problem.  If I get a great present?  Great!  If I don’t get a single present?  No problem.  If they really like the present I got them?  Awesome.  If not?  Meh.  I’m not going to lose a bit of sleep over it.

But a lot of people aren’t like me:  Thanksgiving and Christmas cause them immense, negative stress.  Stress is horrible, and it is (unfortunately) a gift we often give ourselves.  Don’t get me wrong – there are good stresses:  anticipation, competition, challenges.  These, overall make us healthier, so we’re talking about bad stress.

Certainly there are aspects of life (and stress) that we cannot control ourselves.  I agree – there are things that are visited upon us through life events that are pretty difficult.  Family death?  Job loss? Family (or personal) chronic illness or chronic pain?  Yeah, it’s hard for me to jump out and say, suck it up, buttercup – all is well, because sometimes that stressor is deep and may profoundly impact you – forever.

And stress can kill you – literally.  Bad stress leads to (and this is a short list, there are many more items that could fit):

  • Depression – not the economic one, the personal one. This can be devastating.
  • Heart Disease – which is the number one cause of life insurance payouts.
  • Weight Gain – which everyone wants, right?
  • Chronic Inflammation – which goes through and impacts multiple body systems, including your immune system.
  • Subscribing to Magazines About Knitting – Don’t ask me why.

But stress can be controlled.  When?

When you don’t care.

Or, rather, don’t have a set of expectations of the way that you think the world should be.  For a large number of situations, our stress is self-imposed.  Your football team isn’t winning?  The waitress messed up your order?  The person in line at the store was rude?  These are really small matters, and why would you be upset about them?  Chances are slim you’ll even remember them tomorrow, never mind next month or next year.  If it isn’t a big deal, I give you the permission to just not care.

But . . . what if work not going well because the boss hates you – and hates you for no good reason?  You’ll remember that.

This really happened to The Mrs.:  She was hired for a job while her manager was on maternity leave.  The first time she met her manager was three months after The Mrs. started.  Her manager immediately hated her.  Why?  Her manager didn’t like the person that hired The Mrs.  The Mrs. lasted only about three more months at that job – she quit – and had stress every day.  Another stressor for The Mrs. was that there just wasn’t much to do at the job – it’s one thing to be busy and have to deal with office politics – it’s quite another when most of the day is filled with . . . nothing.  Her job, for her, had no meaning.

Yes, it’s hard not to care (or have low expectations) if your boss hates you and your job has no meaning.  It’s even harder to deal with this if you’re not fortunate, like The Mrs., and have the ability to quit your job.  But you can decide not to care if you must have the job, because you choose to find your meaning elsewhere, though given the circumstances above, you should probably be floating your résumé.

Let me give an example:  Victor Frankl was an inmate in a WWII German concentration camp.  Pretty awful place.  And he saw that everything, absolutely everything could be taken from him.  Even his life.  Except . . . Frankl saw that the one thing that couldn’t be taken from him was the way that he felt.  His attitude belonged only to him.

From his book, Man’s Search for Meaning:

“The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day.  On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back.  He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest.  What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old?  Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth?  What reasons has he to envy a young person?  For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him?

“No, thank you,’ he will think.  ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered.  These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, although these are things which cannot inspire envy.”

If you ever want to feel small, just remember those are the words of a man who lived for years in one of the most difficult environments we know of, and came out filled with hope.

So, from Frankl, meaning is key.  You have to have your own reason for doing what you’re doing.  If you have a reason, you can endure anything.  Amateurs try to treat the wrong thing when they try to give you advice on how to beat stress.  Here are examples of really bad advice:

  • Too Much Caffeine – Caffeine doesn’t cause stress. And coffee is awesome.
  • Not Enough Exercise – I like to exercise, but lack of exercise doesn’t cause stress.
  • Not Enough Sleep – I like to sleep, but lack of sleep doesn’t cause stress.
  • Not Keeping a Stress Diary – Now they’re not even trying.

As you can see, these are bad ideas – they look only at attacking symptoms, and not the underlying problem.  Rule 1:  Ignore stuff that’s not important.  Rule 2:  Have meaning and or a purpose.

Everything else is details.

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom – How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.

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