"Stress" seems to be an epidemic right now -- emails to answer, activities to attend, houses to clean, groceries to buy, jobs to do... the pressure seems never-ending.
But here's what you need to know:
Stress may be a given in our lives...
but being stressed out doesn't have to be.
What Non-Stressed-Out People Know
1. They know stress is a normal and expected part of life
No one gets a "Get out of Stress Free" card in this game.
In fact, we need a healthy amount of nervous system activation to get through our days -- working and parenting and all the other important things we do require our energy and engagement. You know that list that ranks all the stressful life experiences that people can encounter? There are bad things on that list, like the loss of a job or the death of a loved one. But there are also good things on the list, like getting married, buying a house, and having kids.
Change is constant, and change often creates stress.
Non-stressed-out people know this. They know stress will show up in their lives, so they're less likely to be knocked down when it does.
2. They understand that what makes us stressed out is how we perceive the stressor
Stress researchers Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman at UC-Berkeley have defined stress as, "a particular relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and endangering his or her well-being" (from Jon Kabat-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living).
This definition of stress clearly indicates that stress is about our relationship to events and our perceptions of them. If you view a particular event as a threat (to your physical, emotional, or social well-being), then you'll likely experience it as stressful. If you choose to reframe the event, perhaps as an opportunity, then it may not be stressful at all.
Non-stressed-out people know to take a deep breath, and assess the situation. They try to see it like a camera would, noticing what is actually happening, instead of rashly interpreting the event from their limited perspective. And in that short period of time, a whole world of options open up.
3. They know when they are stressed
Has this ever happened to you? You get home from work, make dinner, start getting the kids ready for bed... and then a small infraction by your child sets off a wildly disproportionate reaction from you.
You were probably stressed out all day, and didn't even know it. We often spend our days in a state of low-grade fight-or-flight arousal, and then even the slightest stressor can set us off.
Non-stressed-out people are in tune with their bodies. They notice the tense shoulders, the furrowed brow, the tightening chest, or whatever their stress signals are, and then act (see below) to defuse the stress energy before it explodes.
4. They know they have power and choice
Resilient people have a sense of efficacy. They know they have a choice in how they respond. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, "They view life as a challenge... and assume an active role in [it]."
They understand the serenity prayer -- they know they can change the things they control, and they choose to live in wise relationship with the things they cannot.
5. They have a sense of meaning
Non-stressed-out people know the why behind their actions. They act with purpose and intention. Even the most mundane task can have meaning -- for example, cleaning our home is a way of honoring our surroundings.
And when things go wrong, Non-stressed-out people find meaning in that, too.
"What we think are our failures are not failures. They are gifts -- revealing extremely useful information -- if we are open to being mindful of everything that unfolds in our lives, in a day, or in a moment, and putting it all to good use as grist for the mill." (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
What Non-Stressed-Out People Do
1. They practice mindfulness
With mindfulness, we learn to pause. We learn to see things as they actually are. We learn to drop the story, which only exacerbates the stress, and choose wise action.
The practice of mindfulness is what allows us to notice and experience the buildup of stress, instead of suppressing it. When we ignore and internalize stress, it never gets released.
Think of the zebra in the wild, who gets startled by a lion, and bolts away in a flight response. Once he's safe, the stress has been released from his body, and he calms down and takes a nap. He doesn't worry about what might have happened had his offspring had been eaten, or agonize over when the lion will return. (See Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers).
If we ignore our stress, it builds up and we never return to a calm baseline. Mindfulness gives us a basic awareness of our stress. And then we can develop healthy restorative practices.
"Under duress we don't rise to our expectations, we fall to our level of training." -- Bruce Lee
So resilient people train.
2. They exercise
Exercise releases feel-good hormones and a bunch of other chemicals that promote resilience and well-being.
3. They get adequate sleep
How clear-headed are you without good sleep? It probably goes without saying that we're much more likely to resort to habitual reactions when we're tired. Jon Kabat-Zinn says that resilient people build up a "bank account" that they can draw upon during tough times. Sleep, exercise, healthy food, and meditation are the most important deposits we can make!
4. They make time for relationships and intimacy
We are social beings. Simply sharing our frustrations and talking about what's bothering us can relieve a great deal of our stress.
5. They put themselves in timeout
Non-stressed-out people make time for themselves. They nurture the hobbies that fulfill them and give their minds a break from day-to-day busy-ness. They go for a walk or read a good book or savor a delicious meal. They know that
self-care is not selfish.
They do the things that feed their bodies, hearts, and minds. Janice Marturano, in Finding the Space to Lead, writes, "Such moments -- when we fully inhabit our bodies and our senses are at work on more than an internal storyline, checklist, or rehearsed conversation -- are what give life true meaning."
Stress may be a given, but being stressed out doesn't have to be!