What to do when stress is ruining your life

Stress used to be a defining feature for me. There wasn’t a single part of me that wasn’t influenced by it.

When I was a teenager, I split my knuckle open punching a wooden beam during an arguement with my Mom. As an adult, I’ve so many stress breakdowns I've blocked out most of them. One time I literally just screamed at the top of my lungs for 10 minutes (probably scaring the living bejeezus out of the neighbors) because I felt so helpless, stressed, and angry over not being able to change a bike tire when I was already late for work.

Outbursts like this were the norm not the exception. While not always so extreme and violent, underlying stress was sort of the invisible hand guiding many of my behaviors.

Stress impacted my relationships, friendships, career, and well, pretty much everything I valued.

Overcoming chronic stress/anger/indignation is a subject very dear to me because it’s been one of my life’s biggest mental battles.

Basically, there’s this ragey asshole reflex that seems to be a part of my DNA I’ve been grappling with my whole life.

It’s something I’m still -- and always will be -- working on. But the difference between now and a few years ago (when I first started doing what I’ll discuss later) is staggering.

These days, not much really gets to me. A few years ago someone cutting in the subway line might send me into a stress tailspin -- temples pounding, jaw muscles tensed, shaking. Now I feel like I could get accidentally Tiger knee’d square in the testicles with zero impact on my mood (after the pain subsided of course).

I want to share with you how I’ve overcome a life of uncontrollable, chronic stress. Because I want you to live a happier, more relaxing, and fulfilling life where you not only enjoy things more, but act like the best version of yourself.

Plus being more functional and capable of doing this whole life thing, aka achieving what you want to achieve and a fulfilling existence, is pretty awesome.

So the point of this post is to rid yourself of chronic stress so you can:

  • Act like the person you want to be because I doubt you want to be a miserable, lonely jerk.
  • Achieve the things you want to achieve.
  • Not be as stressed (duh).
  • Be healthier and happier because everyone knows stress isn't healthy.*

*Having your cortisol (the stress hormone) jacked up all the time completely screws with the way your body functions and has hugely detrimental effects for your health in general. This can easily thwart efforts to put on lean muscle and burn fat. If you want to get nerdy about all the nitty gritty science behind what stress does to the body check out the book “Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers”.

It’s taken me years of focused, concerted effort and working on this to get rid of the daily stress headaches i.e. don’t expect to be zen as fuck because you’ve been meditating for a week.

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Just like anything worthwhile, it takes tons of consistent effort. So keep in mind that for any of the following exercises and strategies to work, you must work at them consistently.

Mindfulness

Be aware of what stresses you out and take note of it. This is the first step.

This alone might make a huge impact on “mission stop being a stressed out asshole”. But even if not, this is necessary for any other destressing strategy.

Remember, destressifying yourself is a lifelong project. Once you get to a certain point it’s easier to stay relaxed in stressful situations, but this isn’t something you achieve and then never have to think about again.

The more you attempt to be mindful around your stress the more you’ll notice it and the more you’ll be able to keep it in check.

The process kind of looks like this:

  1. I want to not be so stressed. I’m going to start working on that.
  2. I’m just as stressed but more aware of what makes me stressed.
  3. I notice when I’m stressed and try to let it go and destress, albeit not too successful.
  4. Ok, I can talk myself down from being stressed a little bit.
  5. When I get stressed it takes less time to calm down.
  6. I don’t get stressed nearly as much, and when I do I can manage it more effectively.
  7. I rarely get stressed out when things don’t go the way I’d like them to.

Your time frame might be different than mine, because our lives are different and we both have our own unique struggles, baggage and starting points. But that’s the general progression.

Obviously there’s tons of stuff that happens in between all those points. But that’s the basic story arc.

Let yourself let shit go

Humans cling on to their baggage like Orangutans to their mothers. It can feel like a safety blanket because in a way, like that baggage is the only thing preventing you from completely falling apart.

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It’s the same with food guilt and self imposed body shaming -- people feel like in order to change, they simply need to feel so shitty they’re motivated enough to take action.

I got good news though: Freud was coked out of his face/full of shit.

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Human behavior isn’t solely about avoiding pain. There’s now enough motivation research to strongly show shame is a very strong DEMOTIVATOR.

Being empowered is empowering. More empowerment = more motivation.

So it’s easy to internalize this idea your baggage is the only thing propping you up as a barely functioning member of society. It’s easy to feel like if you let it go, you’ll descend even further into failure.

I think sometimes people hold on to stress because they confuse stress with preparation. “If I’m not stressed, surely I’m not aware of how hard this will be and I won’t be prepared. To be relaxed is naive you ignorant fools!!”

Maybe you feel if you’re too optimistic or calm about something you’re going to jinx whatever it is you’re worrying about.

The truth is the opposite. Being relaxed and acknowledging you realistically have zero clue what’s going to happen is preparation. Putting yourself in a position where you accept anything could happen (for worse or for better) than you predict puts you in a better position to handle whatever challenges arise.

So for any of this stuff to work you need to let yourself let shit go. And it’s hard. Sometimes it feels really fucking good, intoxicating even, to just completely give in to stress, anger, or indignation.

Because it’s an impulse. Just like it feels good to give in to feeling sorry for yourself, or binge eating, or watching Netflix for hours on end.

So first, acknowledge that stress is a choice.

Once you accept that it becomes easier to let it go.

We can often be our own worst enemy when it comes to this stuff. So to let shit go, you have to actually want to let shit go and battle against yourself as little as possible.

If you can’t change something, or if you’re not willing to change something, there’s zero point stressing about it. I’ll go a step further in saying even if you can change something, stressing is counterproductive.

Why?

Because stress clouds your judgement. The stress isn’t serving you well. Holding onto stress in the hopes it will prepare you for some potential challenge is only stifling your ability to tackle said potential challenges.

Who do you think makes better decisions in a high pressure situation? Someone who’s freaking out with the veins on their forehead about to explode? Or the calm, collected person carefully weighing the options before making a thoughtful, calculated decision based on logic, not emotion or impulse?

You can’t will the traffic to go away by hoping and stressing about it. If that were the case there would be no traffic because that’s what everyone is thinking!

Letting yourself let go of stress is a huge and necessary step in the right direction because that stress isn’t going to go away on it’s own. You need to take charge. Because hoping your commute, your job, or whatever is going to get better so you can be less stressed isn’t very proactive, feasible, or realistic.

Anybody can be relaxed on some beach in south Thailand, but maintaining your cool under high pressure or high stress situations is what we’re after, because we have zero control over what happens to us.

Don’t place your life in the hands of what you can’t control. Own your own power, your own life, and own your choices. Learn to let go of that heavy ass weight holding you down (or learn to squat it).

Remove yourself from the situation

Ever notice how it’s sooo much easier to give clear advice to a friend than it is to yourself?

The problem with being ourselves is that it’s real hard to get an honest, objective view on our own lives.

When you remove yourself from a situation it offers a different perspective and solutions come more readily because you’re not bogged down by your own baggage.

So next time you find yourself freaking out about something, take a step back and imagine you were watching someone else going through the same experience.

This is a great exercise for finding the necessary perspective to cool down your traffic induced stress headache.

Hippy shit

Meditate

When you meditate, you practice the skill of focus. You literally train your brain not to get distracted and to remain centered on what you’re doing -- not what could happen or what has happened.

With stress comes a feeling of panic over things you can’t control. Meditating trains you to stay grounded when stress wants to shake the earth beneath your feet.

I can’t say how much just a few minutes of meditating every morning has impacted my life, well-being, and personal growth. If you don’t want to implement this habit that’s cool too. It’s not mandatory, but I’d highly recommend putting in the time and effort of meditating, even if just for 1 minute a day while the coffee is brewing. Because starting your day like this makes all the other strategies that much more effective.

Grattitude

This is a game changer for perspective, but a lot of people do it wrong. To be grateful, you need to stop being a dick to yourself. Give yourself some empathy and support.

Gratitude isn’t saying, “well at least I don’t have it as bad as so and so”.

Whether your experience is valid has nothing to do with other’s experiences. You have the right to feel whatever you’re feeling. Your experiences are your own.

Just because somebody else has a broken leg, doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to drop some all mighty f- bombs when you stub your toe on the corner of that stupid f*%&ing couch. Emotions aren’t a competition.

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Invalidating how you feel and comparing it to others is simply unhelpful. Any sentence that begins with “at least” isn’t empathetic. This becomes more clear when you make it a dialogue and not a monologue (going back to removing yourself from the situation.)

“At least you didn’t lose TWO arms!”

Like, come on now. That’s not going to make anybody feel better.

“At least” statements can make you feel ashamed for having feelings. When you deny your emotions you can’t sort through them because you’re convinced you shouldn’t be feeling them in the first place.

People, no matter how hard their lives are, tend to invalidate their experiences by saying, “other people have it much worse.”

Things can always get worse, no matter how hard someone’s life is. So viewing gratitude as a self shaming, emotional pissing contest isn’t going to put you in the right frame of mind to destress. It’s probably just going to prevent you from processing your shit.

But it is important to be grateful for what you have, because the world doesn’t owe anyone anything, so anything good we have is pretty incredible.

I don’t mean this in the sense of meritocracy, like “blah blah blah pull yourself up from your bootstraps because no one owes you shit”. I think we should help each other out as much as we can BECAUSE the world is hard enough as it is.

I mean in the sense of chance, of randomness. Everything might have a cause but nothing has a reason. Which means every single good thing that happens to you didn’t have to happen. The world would keep on spinning if you got fired, dumped, or busted your head open on the subway floor.

Make a ritual, make a habit, of thinking of the things you’re grateful for. This has a similar effect to meditating in that it quiets your brain, allowing more focus and mindfulness about your experiences.

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When you have free time, make the most of it.

There’s this popular notion that the only way to recharge is to do nothing and completely zone out. Don’t get me wrong, zonking out can totally be necessary at times, but falling into the vicious cycle of commute, work, commute, TV, commute, work, commute, TV, day after day will drain you.

When was the last time you felt energized watching tv?

Make time for the things that are important to you. Why? Because duh.

But also because part of where modern stress comes from is feeling like a cog in the machine, which is unavoidable, but you don’t have to be as much of a cog.

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Think of how different you’d feel in these two situations.

Scenario one:

  1. Wake up+coffee
  2. Mindlessly surf facebook before getting ready for work.
  3. Watch something on phone during commute, but basically just more facebook.
  4. Go into work.
  5. Sit down and stare at a screen for 8-10 hours.
  6. Go home completely exhausted after commute.
  7. Plop on the couch, eat and watch tv.
  8. Do it all over again.

Scenario two:

  1. Wake up +coffee
  2. Write/draw/read/exercise/stretch before getting ready for work.
  3. On your commute listen to something that’s not just entertaining, but enriching in some way.
  4. Go into work.
  5. Sit down and stare at a screen for 8-10 hours.
  6. Go home pretty damn tired.
  7. Write/draw/read/exercise/stretch or whatever activity you want to start doing but haven’t.
  8. Do it all over again

When you fill in your free time with things that actually make you feel like you’re living and not just waiting for the weekend so you can peruse Facebook guilt-free, life feels fundamentally different.

“If you live for the weekends, your shit is broken” - Gary Vaynerchuck

You feel like you’re actually living and not just slogging away at work. Now, this part is a project in and of itself, but I do feel to live life on your terms, you have to spend life the way you want to spend life. Not super profound, but it’s worth saying.

Nobody says they wish they spent more time on Facebook when they’re dying. Whatever that deathbed regret is, do that instead of watching TV, dicking around on facebook, or what have you.

This doesn’t come with any judgement by the way. This all comes from my own experience of falling into the same trap after my hour + commute after 14 hour work days.

When you spend your mornings before work doing something you love, something that excites you, dragging yourself out of bed becomes backflipping out of bed.

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What activities make you feel energized and grateful for the life you have?

When you’re on your deathbed, what will you wish you would have done more of? Do more of that.

Wrapping up

What building a non-stress driven life ultimately comes down to is perspective and practice. Stress is a habit, a reflex. So with enough practice you can train yourself out of that reflex.

Look, you won’t end stress entirely, but you can certainly make it more manageable. And you can definitely change your relationship with stress to where you can’t really identify as a “stressed” person.

You can stop being someone who’s life is dominated by stress, and free yourself from the impulsive, frantic, self-preservation mindset of chronic stress.

It takes a while, but from someone who used to fall into the “stress rules everything around me” camp, it’s absolutely worth the time, and emotional muscle into fighting the stress reflex.

For me it might be the most important task I’ve undertaken because I doubt any of the things I’m most grateful for now would have been possible otherwise.


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Posted on May 26, 2017