Don’t snap from stress: How to let go and improve your life
When stress is built in to your day, concentrate on recovery rather than avoidance
Stress is not just unpleasant – it raises your blood pressure and can also end up with the gift of ulcers. Photograph: Getty
“All this stuff about stress,” he said, “is a waste of time. It comes with the territory, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
We were chatting before an event about, among other things, stress reduction. “I was dragged along to this thing,” he explained.
“Do you have a stressful job?” I asked.
“Everybody has a stressful job,” he said. “More of the same,” he added sourly as he went to take his seat.
His routine consists of getting up with the day’s challenges on his pessimistic mind, driving two sulking teenage boys to school through a traffic jam on the way to the office, getting held up by every red traffic light on the road, sorting out demanding customers and unco-operative colleagues at work, struggling home through rush-hour traffic, which “turns the road into a car park”, and finally making it through his front door shortly after 7pm.
And that, indeed, is the way it is for many people.
It’s all very well to say we should avoid excessive stress, but when it comes built into your day, your work, your life, you might do better to think of recovery rather than avoidance.
Almost all stresses rise very quickly, peak and then fall away fairly slowly. But sometimes we don’t let them go.
If I’m mulling over something stressful and annoying that happened five years ago, then the stress hormones start to flow. Stressful memories are not just memories: they are also “here and now” events that affect the body. If you are in the habit of going over past grievances, you are refusing to let yourself recover from the original stress.
I am not suggesting here that you shouldn’t tell your story to a sympathetic, or professional, ear that can help you to lay it to rest. I am also not saying you shouldn’t do something about an injustice if that action leaves you better off and is, as they say, “legal, decent, honest and truthful”.
I’m talking about everyday stresses we can cut down on or recover from fairly easily. Pausing between stressful meetings and resting your awareness on your out breath for a while is one way to help the recovery.
Allowing yourself to take time over lunch instead of shovelling it into yourself is another. Listening to something on the radio that you enjoy instead of fuming at slow traffic helps, too.
Before you go into your home in the evening , pause and orient yourself to the fact that you are now home.
These are simple things, and you don’t really need me to enumerate them for you. What’s important is the principle of building in destressing intervals between one stress and another.
That’s worth doing. Unless you are addicted to stress, and that can happen, it’s unpleasant for you and sometimes for the people around you.
It’s not just unpleasant. Stress raises your blood pressure, an effect of the adrenaline and cortisol it pumps into your system. You can also end up with the gift of ulcers.
Constant stress can also mean a terrible diet because when we are stressed out we want sugary or fatty foods. Why? Because they reduce our stressful feelings.
So if you’re on a diet, or just trying to eat in a healthier way, constant stress really isn’t helpful. It will have you heading towards the sweet bowl and the cookie jar way too often. Cortisol may be the culprit here and unfortunately it takes its time to leave your system after a stressful event is over.
And that’s not to mention alcohol and other drugs.
The unfairness in all this is that excessive stress brings all these disadvantages without giving you a good time first.
The man I met at that event would probably regard all of this as “more of the same”, and I don’t blame him because advice from the likes of me about taking care of yourself is the last thing you want to hear when you’re stressed out.
But it’s still good advice that could save your life.
Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (firstname.lastname@example.org)