Stress is a Choice

I’m always impressed by Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin.

There are a lot of impressive things about Archie: his easy appeal to the opposite sex, his perfect rejoinders, his endless patience with Nero – but the thing that impresses me most about Archie is his ability to go to sleep the second his head hits the pillow. In one of the books (I thought it was A Family Affair, but I can’t find the passage there, so it must be one of the others and you are welcome to read them all to figure out which one), Archie shares that he decided when he was younger not to let things keep him awake when he wants to sleep. So he doesn’t.

Impressive. As someone who doesn’t sleep when she’s stressed, I wish I had that superpower.

I’ve been noticing a lot of articles about things you can do to reduce stress. I believe that stress is a choice and, if I am seeking to reduce it, I’ve already decided to be stressed.

That doesn’t mean that I can’t stop being stressed. The choice is mine.

Yes, there are many things that you can’t control that put pressure on you, mostly having to do with time, control, choice, and expectations. The question is how you respond to the things that put pressure on you, the decisions that you make when you are confronted with them.

  • Do you reach for caffeine, sugar, alcohol, tobacco, salt, television, social media and self-medicate?
  • Do you hibernate – stop exercising, stop sleeping, stop meditating (or praying)?
  • Do you isolate yourself – stop seeing friends, snap at your family, ignore your pet?
  • Do you plunge yourself into the situation, striving to regain control by working through lunch and working late, skipping the parts of your job that make you feel good to focus on the parts that are stressing you out because you know if you just push through, things will come back under control?

Each of these choices cause you to feel stress.

So what is the alternative? That’s simple: stay as steady as you can. Come in early, leave on time, and be present when you’re home. Take breaks and lunch, and spend them eating healthy foods and socializing with friends. Keep exercising. Follow all those tricks to keep sleeping (cold, dark room; no electronic screens for an hour before bed), including avoiding alcohol and sugar in the evening. Keep your caffeine intake to a minimum.

Simple, right?

I’m as guilty as the next person. At one point, team members would walk into my office, notice the line of diet Coke cans across the front of my desk, and walk away without asking whatever they had come to discuss. (I’ve since given up soda, again.)

The self-medication, the self-isolation, the lack of self-care – these cause stress and are not the results of stress. That’s right, the decisions that you make cause you to feel stressed.

It’s not easy to make the right decisions – it’s hard-wired into us. In Zoobiquity, I read that grasshoppers eat protein-rich grass most of the time but, when they sense a spider around, they seek out the extra sugar and carbs in goldenrod, in case they need to react to danger suddenly. It’s natural for us to store up calories in times of crisis by eating, drinking, and conserving energy by lazing about.

But just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it serves us. There are a lot of things that the primitive part of our brain would like to do that doesn’t serve us. Aren’t there frustrating people you want to deck? But you don’t, despite the impulse in your primitive brain, because your more-advanced brain reminds you that it won’t serve you in the long run.

What can you do when you have the urge to stress? One school of thought says that you sit with the demands that you are facing. You sit quietly, say to yourself, “Hmm, this is unpleasant – it feels like things are out of control” (or however you want to label it neutrally), just sit with that feeling and breathe. And know that you don’t need to do anything about that feeling.

It can be a hard thing to practice. And it becomes harder once you start making decisions to give in to the stress. It becomes harder when you’ve had three hits of caffeine because you didn’t sleep last night because you felt guilty for yelling at your husband because you felt jittery after eating all that chocolate at work because every time you thought the document was finished, an executive came back with changes you knew were ridiculous. Yes, it’s hard to sit with the demands but I’m sure you’ve done harder things, things that caused you to feel physical or emotional pain. I’m sure you’ll survive a few minutes of sitting.

When times get tough, I think about Archie Goodwin and his decision to go to sleep as soon as his head hits the pillow.

What are some decisions that you make when the pressure is on to keep the stress off?

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