Monday, August 15, 2011

Destress Signals

This was supposed to be a sweet little story about a life lesson learned in a grocery store parking lot – but it somehow turned a little darker and deeper.  And never one to shy away from exposing myself and my faults, I decided to just stick with it and see where it took me. But if you want to bail out now, I understand. In fact, if you read on, you’ll see that I would actually recommend not reading stuff like this. Talk about a Catch-22!

Anyway, for those still here, let me start by saying that I’m a pretty laid-back sort of guy.  But as strange as it sounds, it takes a lot of work to be as easy-going as I am. The secret to a stress-less existence (meaning less stress, not no stress) is to be proactive. You have to take steps to avoid putting yourself into stressful situations.

For an example, let’s look at the aforementioned parking lot story.  I have a two-year old son, and ever since he was a few weeks old, we’ve been taking him grocery shopping. And he has always sat in front “seat” of the cart, buckled in with his little legs dangling below the handle. As he got older, he became aware of the cute little car-shaped carts that they have, complete with steering wheel and horn. But knowing that the store we frequent only had two of those cars, I decided it best to never let him go in one, knowing then he would always want to go in one, and on the off chance that there wasn’t one available, I didn’t want to deal with the tears and disappointment.  It seemed like a logical way to prevent potential tantrums - plus he was happy enough in the regular carriage, so why mess with success?

Well, I messed with success a few weeks ago at Home Depot, when I let him go in one of their really cool truck carts, figuring we didn’t go there nearly as often as the supermarket, so what was the big deal? Plus, he had so much fun “steering” it, it made my shopping easier and more enjoyable.

Of course, since then, he only wants the car carts, no matter where we go, and I’ve decided to just let him. This sucks for my wife, who has a hard time pushing the much larger carriage, but I realized it was foolish to avoid something fun simply because that fun opportunity might not be available in the future. That’s what they mean by carpe diem, right? Roughly translated as ‘seize the cart!’

Anyway, this is about the point in the story where I would have stopped and wrapped things up with a silly little sentiment about not putting the shopping cart before the horse, or something like that. But my first draft started with what follows, where I began by discussing my decision making process and attitude in general. And while I didn't like how selfish and shallow I sounded, it made me realize that those are the very traits that help me handle pressure so well and avoid unnecessary stress. Pressure is good. It makes things happen. Put enough of it on some carbon, and you get diamonds. But if you stress the stuff, you're lucky to get pencil lead. I thrive under pressure and wilt under stress. Which is why I take so many steps to avoid it. Marathons worth.

Some of those steps are literal, as in stepping away from any argument or discussion that does not directly involve me. Which is pretty much every argument, as I have no tolerance for complainers. Most people like to argue about what’s right, and more commonly, what’s wrong, but few are willing to actually do anything about it. And I don’t see the point in getting all riled up if it’s not going to change anything, so I step away.

Along those lines, I also step back from watching TV news and reading the more sordid articles in the paper. Hearing about all the terrible things going on in the world just freaks me out and makes me feel awful, unsafe, and uncomfortable – and since I don’t have a cape, or millions of dollars at my disposal, what can I REALLY do about it? Yes, it is absolutely horrible what is happening in Somalia, and Afghanistan, and right down my very street. But what can I do in response to these events? Other than stress about them and send a couple bucks to make me feel better about it? So I step back.

But lest you think I’m a complete slacker, I do step up when the need arises. I just don’t get personally involved. I choose to keep my blinders on when it comes to problems like starving children and tsunami victims, but I take my wallet out to support charities like the Red Cross and United Way, and trust that they will take care of them for me.

As for caring for myself, I try to step forward whenever there is something with potential to cause me stress and deal with it before it becomes a problem. Sure, leaf-filled gutters aren’t a problem unless it rains, but they’re a lot easier to clean when the sun is shining. And if it’s something that is currently causing me stress, I fix it as soon as possible, rather than let it persist and hope it goes away on its own. Trust me, it won’t. It might feel like it does, but that’s really just you getting used to it, and personally, that’s the worst sort of stress, as you don’t even recognize it as the cause of whatever anxiety or discomfort you are (not) feeling. It’s like a Novocaine injection to your entire system - you may not immediately feel the effects, but the damage is being done. 

And lastly, I’m always willing to step down. I have no problem volunteering or taking on a leadership role in order to get things done, and often do – but once things are running smoothly, or someone else is willing to step in and do it for me, I have no problem relinquishing control.  I’ll make the hard decisions if I have to, but if someone else wants to? More power to them!

Stress can’t be avoided, but it can be minimized. What you have to recognize is it’s not the actual cause that’s the problem, it’s the effect. Think of cows, they seem pretty mellow, right? But when a wolf approaches, they all form a circle, with the weaker ones “safely” in the middle. But who is more stressed out? The cows in the middle, nervously waiting for the unseen attacker, feeling helpless and useless?  Or the ones on the outside who are dealing with the problem head on? And is the wolf the cause of their stress, or is it their reaction to him? To put it in human terms, what’s more stressful? Having the biopsy, or awaiting the results?

Or a more minor example: Say you’re on your way to work and find yourself in a traffic jam. You look at the clock and see that it’s 8:30, and at the rate you’re going, will make you at least half an hour late. Most people would start fussing and fuming at that point, and spend the entire time stressing about how the delay is going to impact their day. But in my mind, I’m not late until 9:01, so why worry about it until then? And even then, what’s worrying about it going to do? Or honking the horn, swearing at the driver in front of you, or driving dangerously through the breakdown lane? It just adds stress to the equation and makes it more difficult to solve.

So as you can see, I’m a very mellow guy. I don’t get all Zen or mystical. I don’t need yoga or tai chi (or chai tea for that matter) – I just need my immediate needs to be met.  And by keeping those needs simple, they usually are. Of course, everything comes at a cost, and the price for my peace of mind is that I have to miss out on experiencing certain interactions and emotions. It takes a selfish person to live a stressless life, as most stress comes from worrying about others.  And the reason more people don’t opt for such a carefree lifestyle is that most people do care – too much, in my opinion, but there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s the caring people out there who make it possible for people like me to care less.  It’s a lot easier for me to advocate “taking care of your own” knowing there are many who will disregard such advice and worry about the world around them. Which is fine with me, since that way I can concern myself with real problems, like not having a car-shaped shopping cart when I need one!

1 comment:

  1. I work in a high-stress environment, and sometimes I think people get frustrated with me because I don't overreact to stress. Over time, I too have developed that filter that tells me when to react and when to chill, as well as the radar that allows me to foresee problems and do what I can to prevent them.

    By the way, being "never one to shy away from exposing myself" is a habit you might want to break, especially if it involves supermarket parking lots. Jus' sayin'.