We have all had that kind of day. You woke up late, you ran out of the house missing out on your favorite morning routine, the subway door slammed shut just before you could get on it, you spent the day making your best friend angry and over-apologizing to your lover or boss. You spent the last month working on a valuable project but you messed up the presentation because you were too agitated, too tired by how badly the day had gone; in other words, you had no positive energy left to bring to it.
We have all been told that our lives are hectic and stressful in the developed economies of the 21st-century world. We are brainwashed into thinking that this is natural. If you are not having the kind of bad day I described, you might think that you are probably not working hard enough. Stress has become naturalized in our culture. Even as we sell a million things to combat stress (from organic kombucha to yoga, from a weekend to Jamaica to sound machines), we accept that stress is inevitable.
But what is the actual link between stress and success? Are you more likely to achieve everything you’ve ever worked for and pined after if you’ve also developed acid reflux disease along the way? Are you more likely to be ensured of success if you’ve sacrificed some health, some happiness, and some friends in chasing after it?
Have you ever had such a day that completely wore you out, only to find yourself binge-shopping or binge-eating afterwards? Ever noticed that neither activity really calms you down? In fact, they are liable to bring on even more guilt and anxiety.
The irony in our culture is that we get so stressed out trying to de-stress. We are stressed out by the countless options for de-stressing. How can we move beyond this?
The truth is that we are often stressed out when our minds and our lives run on dysfunctional autopilot. We wake up and armed with the bad habits and bad decisions we are too tired to fix, our less-than-satisfying lives continue to snowball into disaster. It can be very difficult to get out of a pattern. (Read “10 Reasons You Are Adding Unnecessary Stress to Your Life.”)
In fact, the mind is the most powerful tool you have for relieving your stress. But like any tool, it takes upkeep. Stop thinking that success is the key to happiness; stop being convinced that there is only one way to be, one path to happiness, one way to react.
You actually have to be flexible about what a good life looks like. You have to take care to sleep better at night, you have to cultivate activities outside of work that brings you true and surprising joy, and you have to take time off for yourself. You would think that all these things go without saying but self-care takes a great effort in our fast-paced world. Alongside that, do try to make peace with both your success and your failures. Don’t spend your time on regrets, instead nurture the good things and the good people you currently have in your life.
What these tips ultimately have in common is that they urge you to come to terms with the fact that the mind isn’t just there, the mind is material that you shape (just like you shape anything else in your life). In fact, this is how the form of therapy called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy gained its traction. Stop trying to shape every single element in your life into perfection; rather, try to change the way you think about perfection. Have you ever thought that the key to having less stress in your life lies not in the various perfect pieces of that life, but in your perspective?
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