• Tue, May 24 2011

Bullish Life: How to Reduce Your Stress Level Immediately

The weirdest compliment I have ever received from a non-hobo was from a boyfriend who said, “You have a really low resting stress level. That’s good, since resting stress level is passed on from mother to baby in the womb.”

That relationship didn’t last — I suppose my unusually pacific uterus is back on the market — but that compliment really struck me.

Despite my own mother’s fairly low resting stress level, I was an extraordinarily stressed out teenager and young adult. I could easily make myself sick with stress; I suspiciously came down with laryngitis two years in a row before the state debate tournament and then got my voice back right at the very last minute; when I ran my dotcom, I could stress-procrastinate for many hours (“stress-procrastinating” is when you are doing nothing, but feel that you are morally excused for that because at least you are suffering).

My company failed, which was fortunate because the amount of stress caused by that event was so great that something snapped inside of me and I was no longer able to feel stress in the same way, as though my business failure were hardcore pornography and the regular stresses of life were my dull and conventional spouse: below a pretty high bar, I just don’t feel anything anymore. (Donating eggs was also enlightening — see Bullish: What Egg Donation Taught Me About Being a Dude.)

Here are three ways to reduce your stress level right now.

Specify the worst case scenario, and put it in its place.

A week before the SAT, one of my teenage students was freaking out. He was going to fail the SAT! He was going to fail everything! It’s too late to fix it! OMG!

It was true that it was too late to ace the SAT. By the time I’d been called in, this young man was many years behind in both math and reading skills. We worked to raise his scores from rock-bottom to average. And now he was freaking out. I said, “Okay, tell me this. You know you’re not going to Harvard?”

“Of course not,” he said, startled. His first-pick college was a low-key local school.

“And do you really think your parents are going to let you not go to college at all?”

“Of course not,” he said.

“So … how big is the difference between the best case scenario and the worst case scenario?”

“Oh. Not that big.”

He calmed down like he’d been away at meditation retreat. Then we did some math.

Most things that terrify and stress us out are kind of ridiculously not that bad — or not that likely — when we actually nail down the worst case scenario. In many cases, the worst case scenario is something like, “I’ll be embarrassed.” Hmmn. Embarrassment is an uncomfortable emotion. So is stress. We all experience embarrassment from time to time. If we’re guaranteed to have to feel embarrassment, why top it off with an additional unpleasant emotion?

Consider: I find that life goes much more smoothly as a business owner if you accept that you will simply lose money sometimes. Beating yourself up doesn’t get the money back. Every reneging client or bad decision isn’t a failure about which you must experience emotion; it is simply a normal event, like getting the flu. Retail stores expect people to shoplift; it’s built into the business plan. You can try to cut down on these events, but you will never eliminate them.

Embarrassment and failure are similar. They will happen to you! Once you accept that (“I will definitely be embarrassed sometime this month”), it’s hardly worth thinking about. We’re all going to die anyway, you know?

If your worst case scenario is something much worse than embarrassment, actually map it out — be really specific. You lose your job, then you can’t pay rent, then you and your child have to move back in with your parents, and your child sees you fail and feels insecure, and you never get your career back together. Keep going — what else? And then your kid grows up to hate you and you end up on welfare and you never get health insurance and you die of tetanus. That got kind of ridiculous, right? What I love about mapping out a worst case scenario is that it usually gets less and less likely as you go. It’s pretty likely that the chain of badness runs out of steam at some point, and then you have to acknowledge that your kid would enjoy spending some time with the grandparents and that tetanus is a ridiculous thing to worry about dying from.

Seriously, what are you worried about? Map it out. With arrows. It is probably not a very scary drawing in the end.

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  • Eve

    Very helpful. And I agree about the massage example– I hate when I’m trying to solve a problem and people tell me, don’t worry about it, go take a nap or something. Naps are great, but they do not fix bank account issues.

  • Charley

    Thanks for this! Attention guys- backrubs do not help when you are trying to solve a problem.

  • Allie

    Help Someone Else! This always works! Even on a micro-level, in a terrible day at work, I find if I get up off my seat and go lend a sympathetic ear to someone else, and don’t mention my rage at all, two people get helped. It takes some effort to transform rage face to helpful face, but that effort echoes into the inside.