The thing about stress is that no amount of money can make it go away. In fact, money can actually increase your stress level.
Your stress might spike over noble concerns that include climate change, terrorism and political turmoil.
Or, even more likely, your stress level spikes when you hear the ping or feel the buzz of an incoming text and can’t check it.
Most of us feel uncomfortable if we can’t check our smart devices on a regular basis. Want to know why? We’re anxious that we’ll miss the opportunity of a lifetime, or maybe just miss an update on something that we won’t even remember next week at this same time.
When our body responds to each of these little anxiety-filled moments, it produces the stress hormone cortisol. That’s not a bad thing until it happens hour after hour, day after day.
Stress is the response of the body to a demand for change. Stress is unavoidable and, in moderate doses, it’s very healthy. It gets our butts in gear and helps us perform better. Athletes and musicians understand that stress helps them perform at optimal levels.
But not everyone copes with stress in the same way. Some people perform well under pressure and continue to excel at their job. Others collapse into a puddle.
Many of us look for external fixes when we respond to stress. We turn to productivity tools and apps that promise to streamline our anxiety and help us manage pressure. Or worse, we turn to self-help gurus to offer a quick and easy solution on the pages of the next best-seller. These are temporary fixes at best, and ineffective at worst.
There’s a popular way of thinking out there that assures us we can change who we are, and when we do, we can achieve our goals. To overcome obstacles likes stress, we need to change ourselves. The need to change ourselves becomes an addiction.
Headlines like “the hidden secret to…” are clickbait that feed the addiction.
There is no secret formula because, guess what? You can’t change yourself, pilgrim. All you can do is change your response to your situation.
“When you react, you let others control you. When you respond, you are in control” ~ Bohdi Sanders
The bad news is that you can’t control anything but your thoughts. The good news is that with your thoughts, you can control everything else.
This means the best way to overcome stress can be found in your own mind:
1. Choose your response to stress
There are two kinds of stress. In the first kind, we go into a fight-or-flight response if we’re in a situation that threatens us. This is a fear-driven response and is appropriate in situations where we fear for our safety. Our fear-driven response has kept us safe since the caveman days when it warned us of the dangers of the saber-toothed tiger. While we can still be faced with legitimate fear, not everything that is new, hard, or difficult is a threat to our life.
In the second kind, we become motivated to rise to the occasion when we see a stressful situation as a challenge.
Psychologist Kelly McGonigal argues that our perspective on stress could be the single most important factor in how we experience it. The difference between the fear-driven response and the challenge response is that the positive response makes us focused and allows us to perform under pressure.
When we look at our stressful situation as a challenge, it motivates us, increases our confidence and allows us to learn from the experience. This mindset releases adrenaline as well as cortisol and oxytocin, all chemicals that increase courage and strengthen relationships.
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
How to make it work for you: You do have a choice in how you respond to stress. Both types of responses effect you in different ways: one has a long-lasting positive effect on the mind and body while the other can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, and burnout. You have absolute control over the way your mind interprets your situation. It may take you a while to believe in your own mental toughness!
Start with a small stressful situation and look for ways to interpret it as a challenge. Make a list if it helps, but keep at it until you find five ways the stressful situation can produce positive results.
(Find out how mentally tough you are with this free Mental Toughness Assessment)
2. Assume personal control
The only way our body gets information is through the way we perceive our world. Our brain sends a message to our body when we sense danger: our heartbeat increases, palms start to sweat, and breathing becomes shallow.
We can regulate our stress response by simply changing our reaction to it. This requires a mindset that is resilient and doesn’t fall into the pit of self-pity and victim mentality. There are plenty of real victims out there, so don’t even think of comparing your sorry problems to theirs.
Sure, you face a tough decision and maybe life isn’t fair, but here’s the thing: Things happen. Life is hard. Pain is inevitable. Growth is optional. The ball is in your court, and it’s up to you to choose your next step.
Wimps believe that something else needs to change before they can move forward. As a result, they’ll always be overwhelmed and stressed out.
If you are mentally tough, however, you recognize the first step in any situation is to figure out what is, and what is not, in your control. Once you do, it’s easier to take personal control over those areas where you can have a direct impact.
You always have total control over what you say and do, but not over the response of others. In most cases, you will find that when you change your behavior, it sets the stage for others to change their behavior. Just because your colleagues are assholes, it doesn’t mean you need to be as well.
Can the right mindset empower you? Yes, but only if you’re emotionally aware of what you’re feeling and why. Be strong enough to look the beast in the eye and pinpoint what overwhelms you and in which circumstances.
When you understand why you feel upset or immobilized by an emotion, it provides you with valuable information about what needs to change so you are back in control.
Maybe you need to develop more self-confidence, but do yourself a favor and narrow down when/how/why those moments of lack of confidence show up in your life. It might not be comfortable but guess what? Lots of really important things in life are not comfortable, but they’re worth the struggle.
Your attitude about yourself is important. If you see yourself as a loser wimp, so will everyone else. Psychological research has demonstrated that perceived control of a situation is a big predictor of success and an essential component of resilience. When people perceive themselves in control, they are more productive especially in times of threat and uncertainty.
“It is being honest about my pain that makes me invincible” ~ Nayyirah Waheed
How to make it work for you: You have the remote control in your own hands. Your feelings of inferiority and unworthiness are emotions that you can control—once you become aware of them. The problem is not that you got knocked down at some point in life; the problem is that you decided you deserved to get knocked down.
3. Sweat for the right stuff
Research shows us that nobody is fully happy all the time, but at the same time none of us are fully unhappy all the time, either. Regardless of our external circumstances, things could be better, but things could also be worse. Go figure…
If left unattended, our brain tells itself, “If only I had a little more …” and that’s the way many of us live our live -- always in pursuit of a perfect 10.
And this is the problem: we leave our brain unattended for long stretches of time because we secretly like to run ourselves ragged in pursuit of a perfect 10. The product is frequent squirts of stress as we pursue our fantasies of a perfect life.
If only ….
Pursuing happiness is a false value produced by social media influencers and slick advertisements. Pop culture operates on an extremely shallow level and has this one goal in mind: to make you feel good in the short term. Happiness is a fleeting emotion that dissipates as soon as the new, next best thing comes along.
If you must suffer, suffer well. Get off your butt and focus on the values important to you. You know, the ones important enough for which you will suffer and continue to pursue even if the going is tough. Especially if the going is tough.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” ~ Helen Keller
How to make it work for you: Values underlie everything you do. If your values are crappy, then the stress that pops up will be enough to overwhelm you. You’ll shuffle along until you find another crappy value to pursue. And on it goes.
If your values are ones that produce meaning in your life, then the stress is nothing but a challenge from which you will learn. Some might call this courage; others might call it a life worth living well.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the US government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.