Is it possible to live a life free from stress? Or is that a utopia reserved for dreamers?
The question came up last week at The Leaders in Wellbeing Summit in Jersey where we explored and celebrated what it means to have a healthy work culture. I spoke on the importance of boundaries in preserving your energy (your true capital).
The first thing to know about stress is that there’s no real scientific consensus on its definition, other than a general agreement that it’s something to do with an organism’s need to adapt to its environment but the meaning of all the terms in that sentence are debatable.
So can you reduce or perhaps even eliminate stress in life?
The Buddha and various deep thinkers from Greece to India 2,500 years ago seemed to think so…
What is stress exactly?
One reason stress is difficult to pin down is that there’s no perfect correlation between how you feel and what your body is going through – the subjective experience and biological observations don’t always match up.
In other words, if your blood pressure increases but you feel fine, are you still stressed? Conversely, if you feel existentially out of sorts but all your vitals are normal, does it mean you’re making up your stress?
The Galvanic Skin Response is the closest measurement we have to relating a stimulus to our body’s fight-flight reaction. Interestingly, it cannot distinguish between positive emotions like excitement and negative ones like frustration.
Buddhism distinguishes between three types of stress/suffering:
Stress/suffering that is physically inevitable (e.g. sickness); => can’t be avoided but a profound awakening can happen if you’re able to face these with courage.
Stress/suffering that’s psychologically inevitable/existential (a sense of the fragility of existence); => almost unavoidable, unless you find a deeper level of understanding of why you’re alive in the first place.
Stress/suffering that’s truly optional (losing your temper because you lost your place in the queue…) => totally within your control.
You may notice that what’s at the heart of all of these forms of stress/suffering is a fear of loss – the good old limbic brain’s loss aversion.
But what do you have to lose, really? Everything will be gone eventually, anyway…The reality is life is in constant flux and you can’t hold onto anything. If you grasp on too hard to ideas of success and safety, you’ll start to feel stressed. That was at the heart of the Buddha’s liberating insight.
Of course, you are deeply connected to your environment. In fact, if anyone asks you to be more resilient, make sure you ask them: “Why, what’s the threat?”
Individualising the experience of stress is a perverse narrative that ignores the toxic aspects of modern culture in work and life.
But, it’s also true that we only have control over what we do.
You only ever have 4 options: relating differently to stress and the stress-welcome life…
You don’t need a coach to help you figure out whether to buy a blue or red jumper. It’s the complex problems that benefit from more than one brain.
Noble prize winner in Economics Danny Kahneman’s made a compelling case for using different thinking systems depending on whether you’re solving a simple or complex problem.
Most people get into trouble and start to feel stressed because their timelines for making a decision are too short with too little information; they overestimate the amount of control they have; or they’re oblivious to how their blind spots and self-imposed limitations are interfering with the process and holding them back. Having an intelligent sounding board over a period of time is helpful with this kind of complex decision.
For what it’s worth, however much time you spend analysing a situation, you only ever have 4 options:
What those options might look like for any decision in your life is where you get to play and design your world. You turn stress into a canvass of opportunities for courage, compassion and wisdom leading to new and exciting experiences. Life becomes an art.
So is stress just a figment of your imagination?
Not according to the millions of people who take time off work for stress…
The antidote to stress is awareness
Legend in the making: G is an award-winning leader in pharma marketing who single-handedly raised a wonderful daughter. She’s highly successful and highly respected in her field. She was at the height of her career powers but felt called in a new direction to do different work in a different way and grow her own transformational business, putting her wellbeing and big dream of holistic healthcare at the centre. Like me, she decided to take a big leap into the unknown. She lost her career identity and her part of her maternal identity as her daughter went off to university. Engaging in a coaching process to weather the full force of the change, the uncertainty and the ups and downs of the space between identities, she was able to stay the course and turn down the wrong opportunities, until she was offered a dream opportunity aligned with her new vision and values. Now she gets to work with a team of powerful women business leaders in healthcare on exciting projects part of the week while growing her Feng Shui and holistic health business, with time for friends, family and travel. This gives her the new equilibrium she was seeking. Congratulations G! (n.b. I don’t normally recommend the big leap approach. I recommend the hybrid for most people, with an old and new career dovetailing. But with a coach, mentors and community of support it is possible to get through without too many bruises!)
Understanding your character structure including your hidden world-view assumptions and your self-imposed limitations is the only way to distinguish between real problems that are worth solving and manufactured stress where you’re slaying fantasy dragons and rescuing imaginary victims while your real life ebbs away in false opportunities.
As always a meditation practice combined with lifestyle changes helps to calm your mind and activate your inner-wisdom as well as preserve your energy for worthwhile endeavours. If you’re not sure how to do that, don’t suffer alone – get help in the form of community, a coach/guide/mentors, and anything else you need to nourish your mind and body; and give you the right combination of support and challenge.
This week: Where can you eliminate stress from your life by bringing your full awareness to a situation and committing to one of the 4 options available to you (above)? What becomes possible when you take a stand for the things that really matter to you knowing that in the end, you have nothing to lose?
Have a good week,
p.s. Wise Wednesdays will be on a little break.
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Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmi is a personal guide, advisor and coach to career and leadership pioneers who want to put an end to toxic work culture and make their lives, careers and organisations a masterpiece. Book an exploratory conversation here: www.doctoramina.com/book-online. For more information on services see here: https://www.doctoramina.com/working-together