A stress-reducing toolkit
Updated: Dec 2, 2021
Images of peace and tranquility are Matisse's Luxe, Calme, et Volupte (1904), Vermeer's The Milkmaid (1660), Matisse's The Dance (1909), and the cover picture is Berthe Morisot's Bergere Couchee (1891).
If enough pressure-packed things are going on in your life—bad bosses, big bills to pay, bawling babies—you’re going to feel stressed out.
Last time we talked about the huge risk stress places on your relationship because of what we call the stress implosion. And we promised that this time we’d show you how to not get so stressed out by the pressures that life puts on you. So here goes.
What IS stress? That’s simple. Stress is fear times helplessness. When someone or something put pressure on you, you feel stress because of that combination of fear and helplessness.
Why fear times helplessness? Because research shows that as our sense of fear and helplessness pile up, their effect on us is more than just additive. The effect multiplies, which is exactly why stress can so quickly become so disabling. And why the stress implosion can take hold so quickly.
But if we understand this, it can be good news for conquering stress. Here’s why.
Do you remember from grade school how any number times zero is zero?
1 x 0 = 0
1,000,000 x 0 = 0
A bazillion x 0 = 0
Okay, good, we’ve got the math part of this out of the way. Well, that means that since stress = fear x helplessness, if you can get EITHER fear OR helplessness down to zero, or close to that, you’ll get your stress down to zero or close to that.
And THIS means that when you’re feeling stress you can potentially reduce your stress a lot by dealing with either your fear or your feeling helpless. And believe me, that will make your stress much more manageable.
How do you deal with your fear?
By answering some questions. These questions, if you add up your answers, will lead to your whittling down your fear to manageable levels. In other words, to near zero.
How likely is it that what I’m afraid of will actually happen?
How bad would it actually be if it happened?
What are all the ways I’d be able to cope?
What support could I count on?
What can I do now to prevent it?
Most people, when they go through this exercise, realize that what they’re afraid of is less likely to happen, less horrible, more manageable, and/or more preventable than they’d ever thought. The real problem all along is that they’d allowed themselves to think only scary thoughts. These questions allow them to think reassuring thoughts. Which cause fear to drift down towards zero.
But suppose the fear is a big one. What if there really are tigers running around your neighborhood?
So, then, what about your feeling helpless?
Actually, there are a lot of things you can do to empower yourself short of putting on an anti-tiger suit, if there even are such things. Have you locked your doors and windows? Do you have anything like a baseball bat to fight the tiger off with? Can you barricade yourself in anywhere till the tigers go away?
Look, I know this is a silly example (though maybe not if you live in certain parts of India). But substitute cancer for tigers. Cancer is something we’re all afraid of, to some degree. And the thing is, we’re not totally helpless there either. Maybe a baseball bat won’t help, but diet and other lifestyle choices will help, a lot.
And I’ll let you into a powerful secret. It doesn’t matter whether the things you do are actually super helpful or not. You know all those people who carry guns around now in these anxious days? Well, who knows if they make the person or society at large actually safer? But they give the gun carrier a feeling of not being helpless, illusory or not. And his stress goes down.
The point being that anything you do to lower your feeling of helplessness and bring it close to zero—whether it actually makes you safer or not!—will lower your stress level.
So even if you can’t do anything about the pressure that is out there, you can do a lot to reduce the stress you feel inside. I’ve given you some tools. You just have to use them.