If facing the new year’s work challenges stresses you, you’ll want to check out Amanda Enayati‘s article, “Dissecting Stress: ‘The Greatest Myth Is That Stress-Free Living Exists at All’ “
Enayati knows from stress. She fled Iran as a child refugee, then she became a lawyer and a consultant in the U.S., before witnessing the collapse of the World Trade Center and battling late-stage breast cancer.
Her personal experiences led Enayati to write about stress, including her recent book Seeking Serenity. Her years of reporting taught her this: The greatest myth is that stress-free living exists at all. It’s impossible for anyone to live in a state free of stimuli; in reality the only time you are truly stress-free is when you’re dead.
What is stress?
Here’s how Enayati explains it:
A stressor is typically thought of as any stimulus that knocks your body off balance. On any given day, our bodies are thrown off balance in hundreds of different ways, both big and small. Stressors can range from frustration at being stuck in traffic and negative interactions with colleagues to the sudden ping of incoming email, the anticipation of a first kiss or even exercise.
And here’s the kicker: The stimulus that knocks you off your equilibrium doesn’t have to be real. It can also be imagined. The devil of modern stress lies in the details of how we perceive events and circumstances, in the stories we tell ourselves and each other about our experiences. Because when it comes to stress, it’s less about what’s actually happening to you and more about how you think about what’s happening. Perception is everything.
I’ve heard many times that our brains don’t differentiate between actual threats and the ones we manufacture, so you’re creating your own stress when you imagine terrible things that could happen.
And by the way? Most of what we worry about never happens.
85 percent of what subjects worried about never happened, and with the 15 percent that did happen, 79 percent of subjects discovered either they could handle the difficulty better than expected, or the difficulty taught them a lesson worth learning. This means that 97 percent of what you worry over is not much more than a fearful mind punishing you with exaggerations and misperceptions.
I don’t know if I follow Goewey’s math, but I take his point that the majority of our worrying is unnecessary. We need to do a better job of managing real stress and not creating imaginary stress.
There’s good stress and bad stress
Enayati explains that not all stress is bad. Yes, chronic stress can wear on us, but there’s also good stress.
This is the life-saving, life-enhancing kind that’s like a superpower. It helped our ancestors either outrun a tiger or stay and fight it. Good stress can help you jump out of harm’s way, recover more quickly after surgery or give the best speech of your life.
A public speaking instructor told me a few years back that athletes see adrenaline as an ally, their internal rocket booster to help them perform at their peak.
While some people preparing to give a speech feel butterflies and think, “I’m going to flop,” he suggested thinking of pre-performance jitters as a jolt of brain juice, like a double espresso, to help you perform.
A researcher I interviewed when I did PR at University of Michigan studied the way athletes use self talk — that is, what they think when they feel pain or fatigue or frustration. If they feel agitated and nervous, they see it as a natural part of their bodies gearing up for competition. If they’re sweating and breathless and aching, they celebrate pushing themselves to their limit. The physical sensation doesn’t change but the interpretation of it does.
You choose how you frame stress
Enayati says something similar:
Research shows that one excellent way to avoid the damage of toxic stress is to reframe it. Take the fragments of your life, your experiences, and use them to tell a different story—creating a virtuous narrative instead of a vicious one. This reframing casts adversity as the pathway to growth.
So if you’re feeling stress at work this week, consider the story you tell about that stress and how that affects your experience of it.
Remember that no one really lives a stress free life, it’s more a matter of whether it’s manageable or not.
Three important things you can do when you’re facing stressful circumstances:
Change the world – or at least the parts of the world you expose yourself to. Turn off the television, put away the devices, stay away from the divisive forces in your life.
Change your mind – that is, change your mental activity, either through attention or thinking. Shift your attention in a very rapid way so that you think of other things that are more positive or neutral.
Change your body – and how your body is responding. Go for a walk, try deep breathing, listen to music, or another technique to keep your body calm.