Beating Modern day stressors

modern day stressors

As a psychologist I feel the need to set an example with regard to managing stress and being psychologically healthy.  Unfortunately I am also human and so I don’t always put good things into practice.  However I am trying to be a better role model and I think it’s important to give ourselves a lot of credit when we are at least trying to improve ourselves.  Doing so can be painful.  As such many people don’t bother.  For me I feel there is almost no choice.  I am driven by a near obsession to be better.

Recently I have been reflecting on the way we live our lives.  For many of us it’s incredibly fast paced, complicated and often stressful.  In my opinion, many Australians have lost a lot of the easy going nature that was a core characteristic.  We have ramped up our expectations of ourselves and others.   We are doing more, discovering more, and striving for more than anyone in previous generations.  Many of us are not only trying to achieve more, we are trying to achieve more in a balanced way across several domains.  At work, we are trying to manage our careers in a frenetically competitive economy.  Even though our unemployment rate is a very low 5.6%, the mood of business and the consumer is low.  Businesses have to be more creative and innovative to get people to buy now which means employees need to learn more skills and acquire more knowledge than ever to get results.  At home we have set higher expectations of what we should be doing for our children and even birthday parties have become competitive in some circles.  Health & wellbeing is referenced everywhere and the opportunity to live longer and avoid disease has brought with it a sense of urgency to spend more time focusing on eating well and exercising.  If that wasn’t enough to keep us occupied, the rise of what I call the ‘you deserve it’ culture – the desire to give ourselves the time we need to realise our own goals – prompts us to find more time to travel, learn a new skill or do whatever it takes to live for now like there is no tomorrow.

When we ask our friends “Been busy?” we rarely hear answers other than “crazy busy” or “it’s full on at the moment”.  It would seem odd if we weren’t.

In light of this, I pose the following questions:

  • Is this the new normal?
  • Are we up to the challenge of this face paced life?
  • Is this fast paced life the only option? 

If we decide to take up the challenge of living at such a fast pace and packing more in, can we sustain it?  Will we eventually crash and burn or do we actually have the capability to live at a frenetic pace over the long term and still enjoy life?

Maybe we don’t need to be up for the challenge.  Maybe a frenetic pace can be avoided and we can still achieve a satisfying life.   What do you think?

Regardless of whether we decide to accept the challenge or opt for a more serene experience of life, I have been reflecting on some strategies that you might find useful to help you get closer to a peaceful mind where you can be happy no matter which choice you make.

The curse of the comparison

I often fall into the trap of comparing myself to others.

Am I as successful as Mary?  How come Fred is able to do that but I don’t seem to be able to?

I am trying to fight this but the competitive animal in me keeps pushing the comparison barrow.  Comparisons are often unhelpful.  Why?  Well often they can distract us from achieving our own goals.  Let’s say you have set a goal to learn to paint.  As you go about striving to achieve that goal, you hear about a friend of a friend who learnt how to paint without going to any course and now has a successful business selling paintings.  You see their work and it’s incredible.  Suddenly the green eyed monster named ‘comparison’ perks up and tells you that you won’t be that good and therefore it’s pointless trying.  Comparing yourself to this highly capable person is not helpful.  Why? Firstly, you may not have the capability of this other person in this area.  It may take you longer to pick new things up and you may require more help than others when it comes to developing this type of skill.  Whilst not wanting to thwart ambition, it is important to know one’s limitations.  It is important to accept our limitations and be comfortable that many others will be better than us at many things.  That’s life.  Trying to be as good as this person may be an exercise in futility.

Secondly, comparing yourself to this other person may undermine you achieving what you are capable of.  If your focus is on how you don’t meet the standards that others are setting, one or more of the following is likely to happen:

a)      you’ll give up and not reach your personal best

b)     you’ll be miserable trying to get there as your focus is on beating the competition rather than enjoying the sense of improvement

c)      you’ll spend so much time on reaching this standard that you won’t have time to achieve the other goals you have set for yourself.

Like a racehorse, sometimes us humans need to put the blinkers on.  Some horses wear blinkers on race day because they become so caught up looking at other horses they forget to get down to business and run as fast as they can.  Living in our own bubble to some extent is advisable.  That way we only see where we are at, what we are doing and where our goal post is.  Watching others and wishing we could be like them is a waste of energy and adds unnecessary stress to our lives.  It won’t get us to the finishing line any quicker but it may slow us down.  This leads on to my second strategy.

Know your outcome but then put it out of your head and focus on executing the process.    

When Greg Norman played golf he demonstrated time and again that he could hit a golf ball hard, straight and long.  The trouble with Greg was that when crunch time came in major tournaments he often let the occasion get the better of him.  He focused on the outcome rather than the process.  Instead of just thinking about each shot, he ruminated over what might happen.  “The world expects me to win”, “what if I hit it into the water” and “I have to win this tournament”.  This self talk was all outcome focused.  It took his mind off executing the process, a process he had successfully executed a million times before.   When his mind was off executing the process, the process was executed poorly and bad outcomes followed.

How often do we focus on outcome rather than just executing the process?  A job interview and a date are just two examples of where we are better off executing the process and putting the outcome out of our mind.  Let’s think about why that is.  Let’s say you are in a job interview and you start thinking about the outcome.  What are you doing?  You are listening to your own self talk and you are not listening to the interviewer.  What happens?  You miss what the interviewer says and you increase the chances that your answer is going to be sub-optimal.  Now think about a date.  If your focus is on whether the person likes you and whether you’ll get a second date you’ll once again be focusing on your self-talk which takes you out of the moment.  This in turn undermines the chance of making a connection with your date which decreases your chance of a second meeting.  Putting the outcome out of your head and just focusing on executing the process gives you the best chance of you getting what you want.

Just executing the process is a great stress reliever.  The rumination about the ‘what ifs’ is the noise that disrupts our peace.  The outcome will look after itself and we really have no control over that other than executing the process to the best of our ability.  Once you have determined your desired outcome, try putting it out of your head and making the execution of process your only focus.  Listen for how much noise has been eradicated from your mind.  The silence is golden.  This leads on to my third strategy.

Myth busting through hypothesis testing

A lot of the noise that goes on in our heads is due to the myths we perpetuate – the stories we have held on to that we haven’t tested but have determined must be correct.  When we focus on outcome it’s usually because we have magnified the importance of that outcome.  The job interview becomes potentially the only interview we are going to get or the only job that matters.  The person we’re on a date with becomes a person we can’t live without and/or their verdict of whether we get a second date is actually a verdict on our ‘date worthiness’.

As we go through life we tell ourselves these stories about what things mean.  We are interpreters of life.  The trouble is our interpretations often do us a grave injustice.  The interview is unlikely to be ‘the only one’ or ‘the only good one’.  Without wanting to be crass or disrespectful, interviews and dates are like real estate, another good one will always pop up.  Yet we do ourselves a disservice by carrying around these myths about what events mean.  The longer we carry them around the more we endure unnecessary stress.  Careers change, indeed lives change for the poorer because we hold on to myths and fail to do hypothesis testing.

Hypothesis testing holds the myth up to the light and asks the question, is this really correct?  Is this really the only job I will have a shot at?  Is my life over if this person doesn’t like me?  What does our history tell us?  In most cases history has been kinder to us than we are deciding to be to ourselves now.  Isn’t it funny how things have probably never ever turned out as bad as we imagine things are going to turn out now, on this occasion?  And yet we still get ourselves worked up.  Another consideration when hypothesis testing is that we may be too close to the issue to answer these questions objectively.  So let’s ask those in our network who we trust.  Once again it’s almost certain that they will be kinder than we are, and will bring up examples that bust the myth wide apart, examples that we have selectively filtered out of our thinking.

So as we go about considering how we are going to live our lives and combat the stressors that just keep popping up, consider whether these factors are getting us needlessly worked up.  Are we comparing ourselves to others unnecessarily?  Are we focusing on the outcome when it’s the process that will get us results?  And are we failing to debunk myths we have decided to carry around like superfluous luggage?   Hopefully I have given you some pointers to at least think about.  They may help you achieve a quieter mind, at least every now and then.

Next week’s article looks at:

  • Picking your battles
  • Let go of the uncontrollable
  • Prioritising for sanity’s sake


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