Learning to live with stress

Humans thrive on the illusion of control. Most of us go through our life with the notion of being rational thinking beings choosing their destiny. The reality is far from this. Depending on the definitions of ‘an action’ and ‘choice’ around 90–99.99% of our actions happen without consciously choosing to do something.

Choose your intent

One thing we can have a lot control over is our intent. If we ever figure out what consciousness exactly is, I’m bet a huge part of it is forming our intent.

Based on my experience, choosing your intent has a huge impact on, well, your impact on the world. In becoming a coach the key insight for me was to very consciously settle in to a coaching session with the intent of helping this person, right here, in this moment. This made a world of difference compared to just trying to be a really good coach.

What are you trying to accomplish right now? Confirm what you already know? Learn more about stress? Spend some time while waiting for something else? Curiously explore whatever comes next?

Take a moment to feel your body in the space and time you occupy and just allow it to breath a few times.

Choose your intent. What are you trying to accomplish right now?

Stress drives

The more stressed we are, the closer to full autopilot we get. Under heavy stress our prefrontal cortex, the seat of executive control in our brain, is shut down to provide more resources for other functions. This has been useful in the past as contemplating the meaning of life, solving mathematical equations and planning our retirement were not very useful when fleeing from a lion fighting over limited food resources.

Stress has been extremely beneficial for our ancestors and for millions of years. Since the time of our Grandmother Fish, the ability to quickly react to a threat and to destroy or flee from it has been crucial for our ancestors survival. And the mechanism was so useful that it has survived in all of her descendants. This also makes many insights gained from experiments with rats much more applicable to humans than one might think based on differences in our physical appearances.

The stress response has evolved in conditions where life and death was decided in a matter of seconds or minutes and then wasn’t needed most of the time. And it works great, we all are living proof of that. The problems start when we get exposed to stressors for periods longer than seconds or minutes.

The art of psychological stress

One of the coolest features of the human brain is to dream up an infinite amount of things to get stressed out about, such as:

  • Choosing which colour shoes to wear
  • What will the boss think of my presentation?
  • The amount of Christmas lights a neighbour has
  • How to name my character in a single player game
  • Will Ted from Marketing like this tie or that one?
  • Why is my kid wearing two skirts?
  • That image is two pixels to the right from where I want it to be
  • How will I be remembered after I’m gone
  • I should wash the dishes
  • Deciding between more than 7 different options for a snack in the kitchen

What makes this a bit inconvenient is that the reaction of our brain and body to all of the above is physiologically identical to encountering a bear or getting shot at (with varying levels of intensity depending on the individual in question). And with all this and the additional burden of the everyday stressors of getting food, having a safe place to sleep and what is required to get the first two in society today, it’s quite easy to get into a state of perpetual stress.

Drive

As I mentioned in my previous post about learning: exercise is a great way to deal with stress, both to prevent it long term and to consume the actual bodily response in the moment.

Another effective way of dealing with stress is leaving the environment that causes it. This can happen on many different ways like taking a walk and returning a bit later, taking a longer vacation, getting a new job, ending a relationship or moving to a different planet.

Beyond these two it starts to take a lot more effort. So, if high stress frequently visits, start from the above. In fact, I recommend doing that now. At least go for a walk before reading on.

Worry, be happy

The ability to be happy, right now, exists in all of us. We’ve all experienced it when we were little. To a 6-month old holding a rock, smelling mom, eating broccoli, seeing a fellow human, turning on your stomach, hearing music and having a thought are all moments of pure presence and contentment.

By far the greatest stress exterminator in the long run is learning to be content with the way things are right now, in this moment.

If you’re feeling annoyed right now I’m not surprised. I remember seeing some variation of this years ago and being fucking pissed off. This can easily be interpreted as lowering our expectations and just letting crappy things stay crappy which still is fundamentally against what I stand for.

The difference the past 10 years have brought is that I get it now. Everything is easier when you first accept that things are the way are the way they are right now, and then start to change them if needed. The difference is not in what you do, it’s how you are with something unpleasant.

Practice

Our natural capability to just be happy is challenged when we are faced with stressors such as the ones I listed earlier. This is where regular practice comes in.

The more we practice being here, the faster we notice we’ve left and can return.

And we will get lost. Often. And again and again. There’s a reason we’ve been using the expression ‘practice’ for thousands of years about the art of being present in the here and now.

In it’s simplest form the practice is just the intent to be fully present. Unfortunately continuous presence with everything you do is both extremely energy consuming and impossible. I recommend starting with something easier:

Breathing in, you are aware that you are breathing in.
Breathing out, you are aware that you are breathing out.

As long as we are breathing, there’s more right with the world than wrong with the world. And wherever we go, here we are.

I’ve written about the beginning of my own practice before and listed many of my own teachers. I’ve been using Insight Timer for the past few months to remind myself to practice and gather some data. Many of my friends have also benefited from using Headspace especially in getting their practice started.

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