stress: n tension or pressure exerted on something or someone
Stress is natural.
It’s an essential part of a productive life because the tensions and pressures that stress exerts continuously challenge us to do better, to be better. Those tensions and pressures sharpen our senses, protect us from danger, drive us to overcome, inspire courage and spur us to excel.
Before starting to work on this post about stress management, I was watching Zero Dark Thirty on TV, the story of taking out Osama Bin Laden. While I watched, it occurred to me that Special Forces operations are the epitome of controlled stress at its highest intensity. I can’t imagine the control needed to function efficiently under that level of overwhelming stress.
Most of us will never experience that level of stress. But stress, at some level, is with us every day challenging us to deal with it, or suffer.
Stress, unchecked, overwhelms. However, a life without stress is not possible, or advisable. The task is not to eliminate stress, but rather to manage and control it or, more precisely, FILTER IT. And the single most powerful tool you can employ to manage stress in today’s complex world is a well-developed PERSONAL STRESS FILTER.
To manage stress, we must FILTER stress
One of the core challenges of life is to develop and refine ways to proactively filter stress – to run stressful information, situations and anticipation through a well-designed and well-constructed filter in your brain.
That filter assesses any stressful information, situation or anticipation with one primary test – will it help or hinder you as you move forward on your life’s journey?
Stress can be multi-faceted and multi-layered – involving work, home, family, finances and much more. Often stress environments are self-imposed.
Our every-day task is to assess those environments, run them through the filter and figure out how they can become environments that support and enhance your journey.
Popular Stress Management Tools
Before proceeding to what I consider to be the most important single skill to learn in managing stress - building your PERSONAL STRESS FILTER – I suppose I should dispense with the mandatory list of stress management tools. Each is important and valuable. There are countless articles and videos on these tool options, so I will only list my Top-20 here:
1 Consistent physical exercise – keep moving
2 More sleep – prepare for it, make it a routine
3 A healthy diet – complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, fatty acids, antioxidants, less processed foods, less sugar, less caffeine
4 Relaxation techniques – meditation, yoga, tai chi, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, chew gum
5 Behavior modifications – don’t overcommit yourself, share responsibilities with others, learn how to count to 10 before reacting, walk away when the atmosphere is heated
6 Set realistic, achievable goals
7 When you take risks, be as prepared as possible
8 Find distractions in music, art, reading
9 Biofeedback techniques – tune in to your body
10 Guided Imagery – learn to find a “happy place”
12 Find ways to express your creativity
13 Gratitude – be thankful
14 Laugh a lot
15 Avoid procrastination
16 Optimize human touch – cuddle a lot
17 Get a pet
18 Be more social - connect with people, seek out and nurture relationships
19 Reorganize the personal environment around you to reduce stress triggers and make room for positive input and feelings that can mitigate stress
20 Counseling – seek help if you think you need it - professional, or talk to friends or family
Now let’s review the construction plans for a powerful and essential PERSONAL STRESS FILTER
As noted at the beginning of this post, the single most powerful tool you can employ for stress management in today’s complex world is a well-developed Personal Stress Filter. So what does this mean?
The graphic above represents how the human brain manages our life.
1 Stimuli continually bombard the modern human every day (For example, you just got laid off).
2 How do you react? Core Influencers include:
A Biology (how old you are, your state of health – physically and mentally, your physical attributes, race, talents, your intelligence and learning abilities)
B Life Stage (spouse/partner, children – their age and needs, financial condition – debts, resources, skills, self-worth, social class, family and societal expectations)
C Values (religion, ethics, character- strengths and vulnerabilities, ambition, determination, patience, empathy
3 What Reflexive Emotions does the stimulus evoke? These are the emotions hard-wired into your “atavistic” (ancient) brain that you inherited from your primitive ancestors – fright, rage, frustration , anxiety or joy, pleasure, thrill, exhilaration. You can’t help but experience these emotions – they are innately human.
The main issue is what happens next…
4 What Behaviors do these emotions evoke? What do you do? What actions do you take (or not take)? Without the filter I am advocating that you build in your brain, your powerful Reflexive Emotions can lead directly to behaviors that may be positive, or, too often, they can directly drive behaviors that are highly destructive.
5 The last step in this process is to determine how you feel about the action(s) that you took? And how you feel defines your personal state of Well Being – experiencing the Complex Emotions of Happiness, Fulfillment, Love or Despair.
6 However you feel about what you do or say, and however you feel about the reactions of others to your behaviors become instant feedback to your brain that impacts you – physically, mentally and emotionally.
This 2nd graphic illustrates the critical need to insert a FILTER between your “atavistic,” reflexive emotional responses to stimuli and the behaviors they evoke.
Think of it as a water filter inserted into a water line to filter out harmful bad stuff – bacteria, harmful chemicals and solids, and inject good stuff – additives that make the flow more healthy and avoid clogging.
Think like an engineer.
Visualize constructing this Personal Stress Filter in your brain. See it in detail. Visualize the flow of powerful reflexive emotions that, if unfiltered, could generate potentially harmful and destructive reactions and behaviors.
Visualize this unique Stress Filter that you constructed in your brain to divert that harmful and destructive emotional energy… to filter it with reason, judgment, values, an analysis of consequences and options… with your best self.
If this sounds too complicated or over the top, consider this: You do this filtering throughout virtually every day of your life. But, too often, responses to life’s stimuli are, at best, random or, at worst, unfiltered emotional and destructive responses – anger, fear, shame, jealousy, confusion, despair, etc.
Unless you invest the time and energy to proactively build this filter in your brain… to proactively THINK about the person you want to be… pre-load responses that your best self wants to see when life’s stimuli challenge you… you are really never in control of your life.
Unless you pre-load that computer brain you’ve been given with a well-thought-out vision of your very best self… you are leaving your life, your future, in the hands of your reflexive emotions. Such a life is seldom rich and fulfilling.
So you’ve just been told that you lost your job.
Do you react reflexively with anger, fear, shame and despair? Do you curl up in a fetal position wallowing in self-pity? Or does your best self step in, allow you a few moments to grieve and then challenge you to overcome the stress and get to work to fix the problem?
Your task is to consciously build a “best-self” image in your brain that knows your value and is always standing by ready to take charge when stress threatens to sideline your journey toward a fulfilling, meaningful life.
Your Personal Stress Filter is a 3-D image of your best self
That Filter must be pre-programmed and ready to protect you, and support you when faced with life’s challenges. But to build that Personal Stress Filter, you must consciously and proactively construct it piece by piece. You must think about who your best self really is, visualize it, write it down on paper, give it flesh. This is how the best “me” will respond to life.
Your investment in this task right now will pay enormous dividends on your journey.
Life in the 21st century will continually present stressful challenges. Will you respond with reflexive emotions and live with the consequences, or will your best self be there forever ready to filter your responses into constructive behaviors that advance you forward on your journey to fulfillment. The choice is yours.
I am currently writing a book “6 Steps To An Ageless Life,” in which stress management is Step #3. The more I research and think about how to best navigate life in the 21st century, the more convinced I am that effective stress management and building a best-self-constructed Personal Stress Filter as described here is the single most important task worthy of your investment.
The second most important task in stress management is training yourself to be able to see stress as your friend. Two quotes from my favorite TED Talk on stress management sum up the power of this change in perspective:
"When you CHOOSE to view your stress response as helpful, you trigger the biology of courage."
"Go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows."
I'm working on a Part 2 companion post that expands on this profound view of the positive power of stress. Check out the Ted Talk video - it's thought-provoking. And watch for my coming post on this topic.
Finally, please don’t dismiss all this as intellectual masturbation. This is big stuff. Think about it.