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What I Know About Stress In My 50s

I just finished writing a piece about how 91 percent of Americans experienced stress in the month of March. I find myself wondering about that missing nine percent.
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I just finished writing a piece about how 91 percent of Americans experienced stress in the month of March. I find myself wondering about that missing nine percent. Stress is such a given in my life, and in the lives of everyone around me, that I would like to meet the people who got through last month feeling none at all.

Playing "let's imagine" for a moment, I am guessing they are older. Since most of life's assumptions are personal, I'm thinking this because I see that it is true of myself. With each decade, I handle stress better. I am not suggesting that the worries themselves lessen with age, but the way I carry those worries certainly has.

Here's a little of what I've learned about stress now that I am in my 50s:

Sometimes you need it. There are some people -- and sometimes I am one of them -- who operate best under stress. My creativity doesn't kick in unless something has to be done NOW. I have been known to "play chicken" with deadlines, knowing that what I write far in advance will not have the zest or the energy as what I write when a finish line looms.

Most of the time you don't. What is true, for me, about writing, is not true about most everything else in my life. I make reservations months in advance and packing lists weeks before I leave on a trip. I get to the airport hours early. It took me much of my adult life to sort out the kind of stress that creates a spark from the kind that creates an explosion. Think of it as a controlled burn in the forest.

Put things down. Even better, throw them away. I keep a running to do list, a visual representation of what needs to be done and by when. That means I also have a visual for what I can jettison -- and I have learned to do that with abandon. My aha moment was the day I realized that the logistics of getting to a concert was tying me up in knots. The concert was supposed to be fun, a relaxing gift to myself. So I gifted the tickets to a neighbor instead and went to bed early that night. Yes, that's a waste of money, and when you extend the philosophy to things like lunch dates and dinner plans, it can become a little rude, which is why I now commit a whole lot less often than I used to.

Get off the roller coaster. Much of my stress, especially since I became a parent, is really someone else's. Everyone's life is a roller coaster, and I spent years strapped in next to my children, feeling every loop and lurch. Now I try to stay on the ground, watching and waving encouragingly from my spot right next to the ticket booth. After all, it doesn't really help anyone if I start somersaulting, too.

Most of the things you stressed about turn out not to be all that important.
I had an ulcer in my 20s -- the kind that came from worrying, not from H. pylori. I don't remember what on earth I had been worrying about (a boyfriend? a boss?), an irony that I try to remember every time the darn thing flares up years later.

Some things ARE that important, but worrying won't fix them. When my father was dying. When my children are sick. When Sandy took our power for nearly two weeks. I could jettison and disembark and plan all I want, and nothing would lift the stress. So I breathe deeply and hug tightly and find time for walks around the block.

And I remind myself that everything in life -- the good and the bad of it, the serene and the stressful -- will pass.

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