“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened”
– Mark Twain
I love this quote because it so brilliantly describes the suffering we inflict upon ourselves through bad management of our thoughts.
Unfortunately, stress has become such a normal part of our daily lives that we learn to accept it instead of questioning it. Anywhere you go, you can find people being stressed, frustrated, and worried. Afraid of the future, for all its uncertainty. Stuck in the past, with all its misery.
We all know the devastating impact of stress on our emotions and happiness. But what we often tend to forget is that stress is also a major contributing factor to the six leading causes of death. Point being, stress is robbing your life.
If you want to live a happy, healthy, and long life, your ability to handle stress or eliminate it altogether is crucial. By the end of this article, you will know where stress comes from, the biggest myth that is keeping you stressed, and 3 tools that could have saved Mark Twain (and you) a lot of trouble.
Where Stress Comes From
Our species, the homo sapiens, has been around for about 200,000 years now. Over all this time, the mechanisms inside our body have been perfected to ensure survival. From the piercing cold of the Arctic regions to the blazing heat in the Sahara desert, humanity has adapted to basically any circumstances you could imagine.
The problem is, many of the very systems that ensured our survival in earlier times are now outdated. With the industrialization and the rapid progress of humanity, our lives have changed drastically – but our bodies have not, and so they are still designed to stroll through the African Savanna looking for food.
In those times, it was adaptive to have two complementary systems: The sympathetic (SNS) and Parasympathetic (PSNS) Nervous System, which make up the autonomic nervous system of our body.
Your PSNS is the so-called rest and digest system, and is responsible for calming you down. Now, imagine strolling through the savanna, looking for food. All of the sudden, a lion jumps right into your path. What do you do? The lion is coming closer and closer!
If you’re still thinking, you are probably already dead. That’s why the second system was designed, the sympathetic nervous system. Before you even have the time to consciously notice the lion, your SNS is activated and releases adrenaline and noradrenaline – two stress hormones that increase your heartbeat and muscle tension to get you ready for “fight or flight.” Hopefully, you chose to run.
What that has to do with you? Everything!
While the sympathetic nervous system used to be adaptive and helped us survive, nowadays it can lead to an unintended consequence: It is not only activated for real threats, but also imagined ones. And so deadlines, arguments, and annoying bosses cause us more stress than a group of lions ever could.
How To Eliminate Stress Once and For All
Over time, we all develop certain coping mechanisms to release stress, some more effectively than others. On the good side, there’s exercise, sleep, meditation, massages, and breathing techniques. On the not-so-good side, there’s alcohol, drugs, and food. The problem with most of these is, however, that they are merely fighting the symptoms, not fixing the cause. Instead of fixing the leak in the roof, we mop the rainwater off the floor.
But before I share with you three tools to fix the source of stress and fears, I want to address one common myth that may be stopping you from releasing them: The idea that stress is something that is happening to you.
We often tend to think that the outside world is forcing that stress onto us. Deadlines, problems, and mean bosses seem to be placed on earth only to annoy us.
But the outside world can only act as a trigger, and how we respond to it is up to us. It’s not so much what happens to us in life, as how we interpret it. Two people can be in the very same situation and respond completely different – based on who they are, not what the situation is.
This may be common sense when you are reading it, but unfortunately, common sense is all too often uncommon when it comes to actually applying it. It is hard to truly accept this and live accordingly, but taking responsibility is the first step towards changing something. So, what does this all mean?
Stress Is A Mindset.
The best definition of stress I have ever heard comes from Charlie Houpert from Charisma on Command:
“Stress is needing something to be or go a certain way while feeling like you cannot influence it and that it will go badly.”
Let’s take a closer look at this:
1. We Need Something To Be Or Go A Certain Way
Philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism are based in part on the ideas of non-attachment and letting go of all external things, while focusing the mind on the present. The reason this is so powerful is because it helps you let go of fears, worries, and doubts about tomorrow that cloud your judgement today.
Let’s take the probably most common fear of all time: Public speaking.
When you are about to give a speech somewhere, you probably have several goals: To educate, inspire, or entertain, to look good, and sound smart.
Now, if you are anything like most people, you will also have many fears: Sounding stupid, forgetting our words, or feeling awkward.
The problem is, if left unchecked, these fears can quickly lead us to blow things out of proportion: “I will surely die during this!” “Everyone will laugh at me.” “I will lose my job or embarrass my family!”
As you probably know, fears can quickly get the best of us and turn us into pessimistic, anxious, and overly afraid shadows of ourselves that in that moment would rather face a lion than a group of a dozen people.
The antidote? Fear Setting.
I learned this concept from Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Workweek, and it has allowed me to look into the future much more calmly and, even more importantly, finally gave me the courage to start my own Youtube channel in order to share self-improvement tips with the world.
The basic idea behind fear setting is that fears hold the most power over you when they are nebulous and undefined. By dragging them out into the open and acknowledging your deepest fears and worst-case scenarios, you also take away their power to stop you.
Once you write down your biggest fears, ask yourself 2 questions:
a. How likely is this to happen?
Before giving public presentations, many people fear being laughed at, sounding completely stupid, or dying on stage from a heart attack. I’ve never seen any one of these things actually happen, so chances are probably rather small.
b. How bad would it really be?
Chances are that no matter what happens, you will walk out alive. Even if you got laughed at and embarrassed yourself, no one will care anymore when it’s time to get food. Life will go on, either way.
That thought, to me, is liberating because it allows you to let go of future worries and instead lets you focus on being the best you.
2. We Feel Like We Cannot Influence The Event
This goes back to what psychologists call locus of control, the degree to which you feel like you’re in charge of your life. When you have an external locus of control, you feel like life is happening to you, and that you are merely a spectator standing at the sidelines of your own life. The opposite to that is having an internal locus of control, which is the feeling that you are in charge of your life and can change things if you don’t like them.
Needless to say, an internal locus is a lot more fun.
So, let’s take another example: Many people I have talked to wish they could run a marathon, but think they are not talented enough.
Once again, there’s two questions you can ask yourself:
a. Has anyone ever had it worse than me and done it?
The answer is always YES! In a world with 7 billion people, it’s very hard to be worse off than everyone else. Going back to the marathon, there’s always people that seem to be less “qualified” to run that far: People with prosthetic legs, without eyesight, or older than your grandma.
Once you accept that people with a lot less “talent” have overcome the mountain you want to climb, there’s only one logical conclusion: All your excuses are garbage!
Of course, you knew this all along the way, but having to confront it on a piece of paper right in front of you is a different thing.
b. What can I control?
An internal locus of control comes from, well, feeling like we can control things. We will never be able to influence everything in our lives, but that should not stop us from controlling the things we can: Training, nutrition, sleep, massages, training partners, or coaches are in your control and will help you finish that marathon.
Now, that doesn’t mean that you will always win when you control these things. You might get sick, injured, or things just don’t go quite as planned. But by controlling the controllables, you give yourself the best shot at success.
3. We Think It Will Go Badly
When you think you are doomed for mediocrity and failure, how much effort will you put into your work? If you are anything like a normal human being, probably none. After all, why spend so much time and energy on something that will fail anyways?
I find it fascinating (and frightening) how limiting beliefs can stop us from acting, simply because we don’t believe in ourselves. As Confucius so famously said,
“He who says he can, and he who says he can’t, are both usually right.”
What do Michael Jordan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Michael Phelps, and Oprah Winfrey, and Conor McGregor have in common?
1. They are the best of the best in the world.
2. They all credit visualization for getting them there.
Seems like they are onto something!
While imagining your failure crushes your motivation, visualizing your goals skyrockets it by bringing the glorious future right into the present moment in order to see and feel it before it actually happened.
Let’s go back to our examples:
When you are preparing for your presentation, don’t just practice your words, but also in your mind. Visualize yourself giving an amazing presentation full of energy and enthusiasm, inspiring the audience, and changing people’s lives. Feel the joy and pride that comes from being your best self, and imagine yourself succeeding in every way.
When you want to run a marathon but are crippled by fear of failure, visualize what it would feel like to succeed. Imagine fighting the pain in your legs and the burning in your lungs at the 20 mile mark, only to come out victorious and finish the race. Tears of joy running down your face and feelings of pride and excitement. Do you feel different about running it now?
Obviously, visualization is no one-hit wonder. You don’t just visualize your success once and then never feel the same again. After all, you’ve been practicing negative visualization (that is, imagining your failure) for so long that it will take some time and practice to overcome your old mental habits and create new, empowering ones.
Over time though, as you keep visualizing your success even (and especially) when you are afraid and think you will fail, you will begin to develop a sense of certainty in yourself and your goals. When you have succeeded a thousand times in your head, it is easy to do the same in reality.
Stress, fears, and worries are a product of the mind. By learning to control your thoughts, you also take control of your feelings.
When you are crippled by fear, use fear setting to define the worst-case scenario and learn to accept it.
When you are stuck because of a lack of control, think about what you can influence, not what you can’t.
When you are frozen by limiting beliefs, visualize your success. See it, hear it, feel it inside your mind, and repeat it often enough to replace the automatic negative thoughts with new positive mental images.
Stress is a mindset. It’s your choice to stop using it.
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