Statistics show that people today are more stressed than ever before. Not only are we facing serious problems and striving for higher goals, the pace of life itself has accelerated – and shows no signs of slacking off.
As a result, the evolutionarily “legacy” systems in your brain, and mine, that we have always depended on to calculate opportunities and dangers are now seriously overworked.
Fortunately, we have developed newer, more sophisticated systems in our brains that can communicate with, manage, and sometimes even override those antique ways of looking at and responding to the world.
When you learn to intelligently engage these newer, higher functions, there’s a real chance you can continue to be immersed in today’s problems, goals, and pace of life, and nevertheless conquer your stress.
Here are some tips on how to do it:
Recognize Your Stress for What It Is
At bottom, stress is simply your reaction to changes in your life. The human animal can grow comfortable with an extremely wide range of situations. But as soon as something – anything – changes, we begin to feel stress.
However, the stress system is a lot more complicated than it may seem. For example, it actually has two different “modes” or responses to change.
There’s positive stress, which is what you feel when you’re striving for something that you want – like obtaining food when you’re hungry or shelter against bad weather, and there’s negative stress, which is what you feel when you’re trying to avoid something you don’t want – such as being eaten by a saber-tooth tiger.
The first mistake many people make when faced with stress is failing to recognize the differences between these two modes.
But the differences are fairly easy to observe, if you know what you’re looking for:
- Positive stress is associated with desire, pleasure, happy memories, and striving for satisfaction.
- Negative stress is associated with fear, worry, unhappy memories, and striving for relief.
When you know which mode of stress you are experiencing, you’re in a better position to exert some control over it.
Reframe Your Negative Stress
It’s obvious that you don’t want to conquer your positive stress; that’s what provides the motivation to work toward what you want and ultimately gets you to your goals.
It’s the negative stress you want to conquer. And while it’s not the easiest thing to do – particularly when you’ve experienced a lifetime of living with but not understanding it – there’s a good chance you can begin to control and somewhat limit the negative stress in your work and your life.
The trick is to recognize that nearly every problem, danger, or calamity you’re trying to avoid can be reframed as a positive opportunity, achievement, or reward, toward which you can strive.
Granted, there are real problems, dangers, and calamities you should try to avoid without reframing. But those are far less numerous and proximate than we think. Most of the “negatives” we live with boil down to a current or impending failure to obtain the flip-side “positive” that we want.
Focus More on the Reward
It’s fruitful to think about your stressful situation in a different way: understand that when you’re suffering from negative stress, pretty much the best you can do is get out from under it. It’s akin to banging your head against the wall: there’s no gain available; all you can really do is stop.
But when you’re striving for a positive reward, the best you can do is much, much more favorable than simply putting an end to the stress. It’s more akin to cooking a wonderful meal or hiking to a remarkable viewing spot: the result of your effort can be extremely rewarding and memorable.
By reframing negative stress into positive stress, whenever possible, you set yourself up for much more rewarding, satisfying outcomes.
Take Action Toward the Positive
One basic guideline is to combat stress by taking action. You don’t have to search for the best, the most perfect, the optimum action; pretty much any action will tend to reduce your stress. Even better, any action directed toward a positive outcome will conquer your stress even more effectively.
The upshot of this whole analysis is that working or living with negative stress – which often goes unrecognized as negative – is unlikely ever to produce a great deal of satisfaction. The most beneficial outcome from that world-view is probably just a slight reduction in stress for a short time.
Even worse, true negative stress is often tied to problems, dangers, and calamities (think “saber-tooth tigers”) that you have little power to eliminate. There’s not much action you can take to rule them out of your life. As a result, you feel helpless, and the associated high level of stress tends to compromise and debilitate your physical and mental health.
Positive stress, on the other hand, naturally leads to specific actions you can take toward gaining the reward that’s in the offing. This happier situation not only prevents you from feeling so helpless, it tends to burn off the energy the stress is generating in your body, and so – long-term – allows you to suffer far less from its effects.
Plus, by striving toward something desirable, you have the opportunity to gain highly pleasurable rewards that will pay off in satisfaction for a very long time.
In my opinion, if you make an honest attempt to conquer some or all of your stress in this way, by the time National Stress Awareness Month rolls around again, you’ll no longer feel yourself to be as much a victim of negative circumstances.
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