Stress is ubiquitous. Every hour of the most ordinary day fairly bursts with tasks and pressures. But then there are occasions that broaden the very definition of stress. Like when you work so late you barely have time to get to your neighbor's baby shower, provided your GPS works, which it doesn't, because it wants to upgrade its whatchamacallit, and it's asking for a password you haven't used since the Clinton administration, so you just rush around randomly, on hold with tech support, wanting to rip off your own arms and beat someone with them, even though you couldn't beat anyone with anything if your arms were ripped off.
Well, the next time hyperstress hits, do not harm life or property. Instead, calm yourself by asking the following questions...
If your answer is yes, now would be an excellent time to panic. However, absent a velociraptor (or some other imminent physical threat), panic's advantages decline precipitously. Your biological stress responses are counterproductive in almost every civilized situation. So before getting completely hysterical, remind yourself that right here, right now: You're physically safe. Just breathe in, breathe out. That's all it takes to get by.
Just because fight-or-flight reactions won't help with your IRS audit doesn't mean you don't have a hormonal compulsion to escape. Hiding is an excellent self-calming strategy, one I use almost every day.
See, the divine plan of this universe has placed bathrooms all over the very same regions of the world where shrieking and clawing are frowned upon. In your next hyperstressed moment, stride briskly to the nearest bathroom stall, lock yourself in and give yourself five minutes to rock numbly. Then ask...
Your first repetition of this mantra should be spontaneous and heartfelt. I advise biting down on a roll of clean toilet paper, so people in neighboring stalls will hear only "FWAH IFH VIF HAFFADEEG FVHOO FEE?!" They'll conjecture you're experiencing the sort of distress Jamie Lee Curtis could fix with her magic yogurt, and they'll leave quickly. Then ask yourself...
After your primal scream, get analytical. What's really going on here? Hyperstress is usually created by a combination of circumstance and personal choice. Look for patterns. Do you habitually assume too much responsibility, fail to communicate, forget to rest? Tracking these decisions is like analyzing the black box after a plane crash: It won't erase the present situation, but it can improve the future. Which brings us to...
Diagnosis is half the cure. Once you've identified behaviors that increase stress—such as having children—you can stop them. Pinpoint stress-generating actions like procrastination, approval-seeking or overpromising. Remember the vertiginous feeling you get when you're about to err. Mentally rehearse making different choices—taking 10, consulting experts, stabbing yourself—the next time it happens.
On September 11, 2001, I had a doctor's appointment. I gave the nurse my name—my maiden name, which I hadn't used in decades. Under severe stress, we all revert to our inner child. Acknowledging this helps you give yourself the kindness you'd show a terrified kid. Whatever age you feel, offer comfort appropriate to that age level. Say things like "It's okay, honey," "You're doing great" or "Wow, you can walk!" You'll be amazed how calming kind self-parenting can be.
Hyperstress can trigger memories of trauma: abuse, illness, an accident. We may think we're back there, helpless and clueless, instead of in the here and now, with options. Now may be stressful, but it's not then. You have the freedom to get support, wisdom or skill. Just noticing that will help you relax.
I'm a pretty healthy eater, but on hyperstressed days, I skip the green smoothies and go for medicinal doses of pie. Pecan, coconut, lemon meringue—these pies are so unhealthy they make potato chips look like organic kale. But they do quiet the nerves. I realize that by giving you this advice, I'm ensuring I'll go straight to hell. But let's face it: Pie helps.
I know you usually dot every "i," cross every "t," knock the ball out of the park, yada yada. But on a hyperstress day, that ain't happening. Turn in the absolute minimum performance that enables you to survive—not thrive, just survive. Finish the one bit of work that absolutely, positively cannot wait. Wear enough clothing to keep from being arrested. Feed your children. If necessary, feed them pie (see "going to hell," above).
It comforts me greatly that we'll all be dead soon. (Seriously. Fifteen minutes ago I was young and dewy; now I could beat the Parthenon in a crumbling-ruin contest.) On your deathbed, it won't matter whether you missed that baby shower, downloaded that upgrade or finished all that frigging work. You'll remember the times you absorbed the grandeur, beauty and tenderness of life as a human: gazing into a loved one's eyes, laughing with friends, easing someone's pain. That includes your own pain, the pain of those hyperstressed days.
Nothing you'll do in your life is as important as that life itself. The opposite of living in stress is letting go of everything that's kept you from fully living. Imagine what you'd do if you knew there was nothing to fear, nothing worth losing yourself in stress. Then, do it. I'll take your pie.
Next: Are you a stress junkie?