“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
– B. McFerrin, 1988
Most of us know enough not to disagree openly with unassailable pillars of wisdom like those above. But somehow, we also have a hell of a time putting them into practice in real life. And yet if we could just get those simple things to click in our heads, we could improve almost every aspect of our lives – permanently.
I’m no exception – while I grew up generally happy, I was prone to worry and fear over some pretty irrational things. I worried when I didn’t get good enough marks on important tests in school. I fretted after the end of each of my silly high school romances. Even major traffic injustices were enough to get the odd windshield-cracking batch of profanity out of me. Luckily I ended up in the relatively low-stress career of software engineering, otherwise work might have gotten to me too.
I was also fortunate to have the stress-relieving factors of a nice bicycle commute to and from work each day, and a peaceful social life with no relationship drama at home. So overall, stress was not a big factor in life.
All this changed shortly after retirement in the the mid-2000s – right when I was supposed to be enjoying the good life. Some bad times occurred in my hobby house-building company (as described in Mr. Money Mustache’s Big Mistake). To make that long story short, I experienced mental stress more severe than at any point before in my life. Suddenly I couldn’t sleep or eat properly, I lost 25 pounds of weight within just a few weeks, and all sorts of bizarre things started going wrong with my body.
The silly part of it all was that looking back, I had very little to worry about. I came out of the situation just fine and happier than ever, and the financial implications were negligible, or perhaps even positive over the long run. And yet the younger version of me was so untrained at dealing with stress, he couldn’t even see it.
So let’s take a little look at Stress right now, in order to understand how just about anyone can get out of their world of worry, and back onto the party platter where they belong.
Once I realized that I was treading into Crazy Man territory, I turned to my usual source for help – The Library. I went to one of the catalog computers, typed “stress” into the search box, and hit enter.
My problem was solved instantly, because it turns out that stress is a big thing in our species, and it always has been. But if you haven’t studied up on it, you’re still a victim, rather than a student, of its effects. Here are just a few of the titles on stress that came up:
The stress less workbook : simple strategies to relieve pressure, manage commitments, and minimize conflicts / Jonathan S. Abramowitz.
Building blocks for controlling stress : learning to make stress a friend, not an enemy : 20 philosophies to help you understand and control the different ways stress attacks your life / Richard Flint.
Stress relief for life : practical solutions to help you relax and live better / Mike Ronsisvalle.
Overcoming anxiety for dummies / by Charles H. Elliott and Laura L. Smith.
Those happen to be a few from my own library, but the exact titles don’t matter – almost any book on the subject will do. The key is just to dig in and start reading a few of these things. Once you do, you’ll learn some interesting things about stress:
It starts in your mind, but it affects your whole body: Just by worrying about things, you can suppress your own immune system, clog up your arteries to create heart disease, and mess up just about every other system in your body. These effects are scientifically documented, which effectively makes Worrying the worst disease there is.
It’s totally useless in modern life: The human body’s reaction to stress evolved to help us survive in fight-or-flight situations. Your heart rate and breathing accelerate, hair stands on end, Adrenaline and Cortisol shoot into your blood stream. Pain perception decreases, higher reasoning is suppressed in favor of fast muscular action. You get edgy and emotional, and you are ready to kick some ass. These are all great things if a lion is chasing you down on the savanna, or even if a misguided redneck is grabbing hold of your collar in a bar. But they are not appropriate responses to your boss suggesting an overly optimistic deadline for your project, or a driver accelerating too slowly in front of you at the green light.
Yet many people experience it for a good portion of every day: Without understanding the stress response, most people just assume it is inevitable. “My boss is such a BITCH!! I can’t believe she just WALKED IN HERE, and DROPPED THOSE PAPERS ON MY DESK!! I HAVE TO GET HOME TO MY KIDS AND IT’S ALREADY SIX ‘O’ CLOCK!! AAAAUUUUUURRRRGGGHH!!!!!”.
Modern life does indeed present its injustices. Traffic jams do indeed suck, and your boss is indeed a bitch. But what we don’t realize is that we can control the way we respond to these things. Most importantly, we all have the ability to train ourselves not to feel the standard stress response.
Mental stress can be virtually eliminated with just a little Practice: Once you know that mental stress is both simple and ridiculous, you are well-armed to defeat it. The trick is just to catch yourself right as you start to get riled up, and then go through a series of calming reminders:
“Oh… nice try there, Stress. I know what you’re trying to do. But I’m not taking your shit today. My heart is slowing back down, my breathing is deep and relaxing. I’m not being chased by a tiger, there is no gun barrel against my temple, and absolutely none of my vital organs are hanging out. I’m in a great place right now with shelter, plenty of food, and a nice, prosperous, and safe life. In fact, I think I’ll take this opportunity to stand up and stretch a little bit, and even bust out a few smiles!”
That’s right – every time you feel the Incorrect Tap of the Finger of Stress on your back, use it as an excuse to stand up, stretch your fingers to the ceiling, and issue a defiant grin. This technique alone can save your life, despite the fact that I just made it up right now. And there are many more available in almost any book on the subject, including:
- Use a timer to schedule breaks from your work at least every 90 minutes. During the break, get up off your hindquarters, walk around and stretch, then before returning to work, close your eyes, put your palms together and remind yourself how good you’ve got it. Now resume, feeling better than ever.
- Practice the Low Information Diet: avoid TV news programs like the plague, and focus on reading only things which are relevant to your immediate life. No gossip magazines, no stories about trapped Chilean miners, the moment’s political polls, or tragic murders of people you don’t know.
- Make the last hour of every evening Gadget-Free*. The internet goes off, the phones go downstairs on the charger, and all that’s left is you experiencing a life like someone might have had 50 years ago. What will you do? Light some candles? Bust out your acoustic guitar? Or just read some paper books?
Similarly, from now on you will not allow stress to become a valid topic of conversation. “I’m really stressed at work”, or “This is stressing me out!” will become phrases used only for comic relief. You might acknowledge that you felt some incorrect stress at work or at home – but it will always be paired with the acknowledgement that the stress was something in your own head, not a valid and unavoidable part of the outside world.
As you get better at identifying the stress and shrugging it off safely, you will be amazed at how silly a problem it is. People are raving, shouting, and dying over this stuff every day, even while YOU can learn to be free of the whole mess.
The end result is a bunch more of all the things we associate with Mustachianism: extra health due to fewer stress hormones. Extra wealth due to being more effective at difficult tasks. And extra happiness due to not worrying about things that don’t deserve to be worried about. I’d love to go back and tell my past self all this stuff to save a bunch of trouble. But I’m content knowing that all of us can still benefit from it for the rest of our lives.
* this rule may destroy the excellent rush of traffic that this website gets late every night long after I’m asleep… but so be it. Also, if you’re a night owl and do your best work after midnight, all while leading a happy and stress-free life, feel free to ignore the rule completely.