Can we break the stress habit?

Misfortune nobly born is good fortune.

― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I don’t handle stress well. That’s a kind way of saying I’m actually pretty terrible at dealing with both professional and personal stress. Yes, stress is inevitable, but it shouldn’t be chronic. The issue isn’t everyone else. It’s me. I’m creating behaviors that magnify my stress rather than remedy it.

I react emotionally to things I cognitively understand are likely to happen. My blood pressure spikes. I mutter outbursts of exasperation under my breath. I say things like “Really!” “I can’t do it all!” and “Jesus Christ!” These are just a few of my ramblings that have only got worse after the pandemic. It seemed harmless at the time. No one could hear me. I thought it was a novel way to release stress. Instead, it just increased it. I was hearing my own negative thoughts. Worse, I was vocalizing them. I’ve been programming myself to respond to stressful situations with unproductive and unhealthy behaviors. I’ve actually made my life more stressful.

Now, stress is a habit. It’s become a reflection of my mind.

  • We are what we believe.
  • We believe what we think.
  • We think what we say.

If we live our lives focused on our stress, we can only become stressed. We’re not giving ourselves any other options. Why do we do this to ourselves?

I know there is a better way. I know I can end the cycle. If I change my thoughts, I can change the behaviors. And yet, somehow I don’t do it. I’ve stopped recognizing that I’m in control. I’m merely enduring the day to repeat the cycle tomorrow. That’s absurd. I know I’m not alone in this struggle. I see others go through the same madness. We’re creating a cycle of endless and mindless suffering.

We could do the opposite. We could focus on what we can control. We can control our response to the world. We can focus on what we can change, and stop bemoaning what chance throws our way when it’s inconvenient.

I’m going to take up that challenge. I’m going to break the cycle and live a nobler life. With a little resilience, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus will be my guides to breaking the stress habit for good.

Choose Excellence over Perfection

“I find it amusing that when we look to nature we never find perfection. We find beauty. We find organization. We find purpose. So, why is it we’re always looking for more than those simple truths?”

We need to stop looking for perfection in our everyday life. Otherwise, we just end up wasting time chasing after an impossible dream. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek excellence. We should push ourselves, and others, to perform better, stronger, more amazing feats, but recognize that it’s excellence we’re after and not perfection.

Excellence is about overcoming obstacles by creating systems for success. When we focus on perfection as a goal, we can only be disappointed. This is because perfection can only be achieved in the imaginative mind. Perfection is an idea but not tangible goal. We have to stop setting ourselves up for failure. We need to search for purpose instead.

Try using purposeful intent to drive your performance to new levels of excellence. One key idea to keep in mind is that all systems of success are based on a solid foundation of good habits. Maybe it’s time to take a look at our habits and ask some uncomfortable questions?

  • In what ways am I taking shortcuts and not living to my fullest potential?
  • What excuses have I made about my recent performance or poor decisions?
  • What’s one positive habit I’ve put off adopting? Can I commit to accomplishing it for a day? A week? A month?
  • What is the driving force behind your desire to change or grow today? How is this different from your desires to define yourself in the past?

It only takes perseverance and time to turn short term commitments into lifelong habits. Growth can’t happen without active engagement. We have to make the tough decisions to initiate change. We own our experience. We accept responsibility for what is within our control and acknowledge that there will plenty of obstacles outside of that control. Our acceptance, and resilience in the face of hardship, begins our journey toward excellence.

Appreciate even the unpleasant moments

Obsessing about getting what you want and avoiding what you don’t want does not result in happiness.

The Lojong text

As long as you’re focusing on fulfilling your desires, you’re going to end up being miserable. Obsessing over getting what you want and complaining when things don’t go your way is a little absurd after all. So, why do we do this to ourselves?

Your happiness is not limited to what chance happens to send your way. You can reframe your perception at any time and focus on what you can control. Try to create internal strengths like establishing positive thoughts, sound reason and look for wisdom rather than knowledge. It’s one thing to know that you have a problem. It’s an entirely different reality to understand how that problem came to be and what you can do to resolve it.

At any given moment, your actions and choices will be limited by a thousand obstacles beyond your control—wealth, law, strength, time, location, genetics. These are just a few of the obstacles you will face. Your thoughts, however, can be limitless if you train your mind to accept what cannot be changed and to overcome what is possible.

We don’t do that though. We tend to practice escapism rather than mindfulness in our culture. We just can’t seem to enjoy living in the unpleasant moments. We’re strangely more motivated to snap the perfect selfie–to share with strangers on the internet–than we are to risk experiencing the uncomfortableness of reflecting on the quality of our lives.

I think therein lies the crux of the problem. Living in the moment requires you to experience and accept the disappointments and unpleasantness that surround you within any given breath. You experience the passing of time and the consequences of the choices you make. You must experience something in order to appreciate it. So, if we fail to reflect on our decisions and disappointments, is it really a surprise we fail to appreciate life? If we lack the capacity to appreciate living, then where do we expect to find happiness? In death?