By Jack Thomas
Stress is a heartless killer. Many of the world’s great achievers live frustrating lives and then die young because they do not know how to control their own emotions instead of having their emotions control them.
In a recent article in The Atlantic[i], the writer pointed out that “Dean Ornish, a physician-researcher at the University of California…has been showing in studies for more than three decades that diet, exercise, adequate sleep, and stress reduction can do a better job of preventing, slowing, and even reversing heart disease than most drugs and surgical procedures.” The same case was made for treating cancer, diabetes, and a number of other expensive, life-threatening diseases with these non-medical alternative protocols. The writer went on to say that, according to Nobel laureate biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, “Relieving patient stress, in particular, is looking more and more important.”
The problem we have there is that the professionals who have been entrusted with the privilege of taking care of the problem of stress aren’t doing a very good job of it. A tragic example of their ineffectiveness can be found in today’s military. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the suicide rate among active-duty soldiers “hit an all-time high in 2011.” A couple of years ago CNN was discussing stress-related problems in the military and the network’s very credentialed “expert” on stress recommended hot baths, warm milk, and confiding your fears to someone you love as remedies for dealing with stress. Of course the good doctor didn’t reveal how that prescription could be filled in a desert foxhole or an LA traffic jam.
If you think of yourself as a machine, which you are, really, there are three main factors that govern how well and how long your motor will run. One is the fuel you use – the food and beverages you consume. Eating junk food and even eating mostly highly processed, drug- and chemical-laced cooked food is like putting kerosene in the gas tank of your family car. Another key factor is the environment in which you operate your machine. Living in a noisy, polluted city where you spend two hours per day in traffic and fail to take time out for healthy exercise and peaceful relaxation is like running your compact car through swamps, deserts, and fields full of landmines.
Finally, there are the demands you place on your physical, mental, and spiritual machine. When you spend every day trying to achieve such impossible goals as doing a week’s work in a couple of days, longing to be somewhere now that you’re not, pleasing every person that you encounter or, even worse, demanding that they please you, you’re really doing serious damage to flesh, bone, and spirit. Those are all impossible goals. What you’re doing is equivalent to putting your car in low gear, pressing the accelerator to the floor and, at the same time, holding the brake down as hard as you can. Something’s got to give, right? Like maybe your heart, brain, or stomach?
In 1936, Dr. Hans Selye basically coined the word “stress” as it relates to animal behavior and subsequently became the acknowledged expert on the subject. Unfortunately, both he and his followers over the years, along with his sponsors in the tobacco industry who were eager to shift the blame for various diseases away from cigarettes[ii], have tended to link external “stressors” directly to physical symptoms. They gave very little consideration to the interim cognitive processing of data that varies tremendously with each individual.[iii]
It would have been very helpful if Dr. Selye had been able to point out that the poor rats on his roof were stressed because they were maintaining the impossible goal to be warm while being subjected to a freezing environment over which they had no control. Selye added further confusion with his theories by discussing “good stress” and “bad stress.” Brilliant as he was, English was not his first language, so the confusion his terms created is forgivable.[iv]
For the sake of clarity, however, I adamantly contend there is no such thing as good stress. All stress is bad. Stress makes you do stupid things. It makes you sick. And, in the end, it can even kill you.
What possibly was meant by “good stress” was simply tension. Tension definitely is good. Every time you set a goal, it creates some degree of tension in your mind and body in the same way that you twist a rubber band to power a vintage toy airplane. Even very high tension is good as long as it’s in pursuit of a possible goal. It’s what gets us out of bed and off to work. As with pleasure and pain, tension and stress are on a continuum. In my system of Psychoharmonics® it is only when tension becomes so high that it hurts that it legitimately can be called stress.
Contrary to most popular professional theories, it is a simple fact that the various stimuli you encounter in your life do not in and of themselves cause stress. If this were true, then the death of a family member, moving, or losing a job would be stressful to one and all. But what if you hate your heavily insured spouse, move to your dream house, or see losing your job as a great opportunity to start up your own business? If you consider the common factors in all so-called stressors, it becomes obvious that all stress originates in your own mind when you set, and try to achieve, one or more impossible goals.
An impossible goal is one that cannot be achieved because of time, space, or circumstances. You can’t do anything yesterday. You can’t be working in your office now and also be fishing with your buddies in Florida now. You can’t stop the rain, resurrect a loved one, or achieve goals for anybody but yourself. When you set the goal for other people or even your dog or cat to love, serve, forgive, or honor you, or even conform to your standard of morality, ethics, and good manners, you’re setting yourself up for energy-wasting, disease-causing stress. What then also becomes obvious is that the logical, rational way to relieve stress is to identify and cancel all impossible goals that you are harboring in your own mind. It’s that baby simple.
Your choice of what you put into your body, your lifestyle, and your stress management techniques will determine whether you will be healthy or diseased. You also can choose to be happy and productive or depressed and stagnant. And your own choices determine whether you are blessed with a long, joyful life or die before you even get to retire.
These factors tend to be interdependent. Smart food choices improve your body’s chemistry which, in turn, makes you feel more like taking a brisk walk every day. That, in turn, makes it easier to cancel those impossible goals and reduce your stress level. Improvement of any one factor has a positive impact on the others.
Learning to deal rationally with small potentially stressful situations builds up your skill level and makes it possible for you then to cope with the big challenges that we all face sooner or later. Traffic frustrations are a good place to practice. I start my trips with this mantra: What’s the game? To get home safely. How do I play? Avoid all contact with opposing players. With that mindset, I then pretend I’m canoeing down a rapidly flowing river where I go around the rocks and get out of the way of floating logs that want to pass me. The result is I get home safely and stress-free. When the potential road-ragers figure out that you’re not playing their game, they usually will leave you alone.
Anytime you start feeling angry, frustrated, or depressed, it’s because you’re trying to achieve an impossible goal. Take a deep breath and find that joy robber. Once you’ve identified it, cancel it. If the end result is something important to you, then reset the goal with possible parameters of what, how, when, and why.
For example, if a traffic jam makes it impossible for you to get to an important meeting on time, reset the goal to do the next best thing. Tell yourself that it is your goal to arrive at your destination as quickly as you can safely get there. Use the what’s the game mantra. Call with an apology. Ask an associate to stand in for you until you can make it. Even if you miss out on a great opportunity by being late, which makes more sense – cancelling the impossible goal to be there on time or stroking out on the freeway? Duh!
The right answer to this question was poignantly expressed by Marcel the Shell, a little cartoon character who was introduced on the Internet in 2011. Marcel’s “car” is a bug whose destination is a bit unpredictable. So, easygoing Marcel says that when your car’s a bug, “Really, what you just have to want to do is take a ride.”
That’s all we’re doing in this life – just taking a ride on an unpredictable bug. You can make that ride a joy or a living hell. Both stress and joy are choices that only you can make for yourself. If you let a lot of minor impossible goals accumulate in your mind, they can mount up by the end of the day. Eggs too done, coffee too cold, children not getting dressed on time, having to make an unplanned stop for gas, forgetting your wallet, slowpoke in the left lane, traffic jam, a disrespectful remark by your coworker, losing a sale – all of these little frustrations can add up to major stress by the end of the day if that is your choice. By canceling each of those impossible goals as they occur, however, your day can be relatively stress-free.
As you learn to find joy wherever your bug takes you on your daily ride, then you’ll be ready when a bigger challenge, such as being in a serious accident, getting fired, or losing a beloved mate, presents itself. Stuff happens, but stress, indeed, is a choice, and so is joy.
[i] The Atlantic, “The triumph of new-age medicine” by David H. Freedman, July/August 2011